Last week’s goal-line stand against Stanford moved Notre Dame to 6-0 and one step closer to getting the Irish back to a BCS bowl. With six contests remaining, Notre Dame has four games it should be heavy favorites in, while tough road matchups await the Irish against USC and Oklahoma.
With a tough road trip to Oklahoma next week, Notre Dame has to be careful not to overlook this week’s opponent: BYU. The Cougars are 4-3 but have lost to Oregon State and Boise State - a combined 10-1 record – along with rival Utah.
These two teams are the nation’s top Independent squads but have played only six games. Notre Dame holds a 4-2 edge on BYU, with the last matchup coming in 2005. The Cougars claimed victories in 1994 and 2004, but their four losses to the Irish have come by 19 points or more.
Storylines to Watch in Notre Dame vs. BYU
Winning the turnover battle
Turnovers were a big problem for Notre Dame’s offense last season, but the Irish rank 10th nationally in turnover margin and have lost only four fumbles. The Cougars have been quite generous with turnovers this year, tossing 10 interceptions and losing four fumbles through the first seven games. Quarterback Riley Nelson has been slowed by a back injury the last few contests and has tossed six picks over his last two games. If BYU continues to give the ball away, it will have no shot to leave South Bend with a victory. The weather certainly was a factor last week, but Notre Dame lost three fumbles against Stanford, which has to be a focus for Brian Kelly and his staff this week. Although the Irish are a big favorite, losing the turnover battle is a good way to allow an underdog to hang around until the fourth quarter.
Will BYU be able to run the ball on Notre Dame’s defense?
Establishing the ground attack against Notre Dame has been nearly impossible for opposing offenses this season. The Irish rank 25th nationally in rush defense, allowing only 113.5 yards per game. Also, only three opponents have managed more than 100 yards in a game, and Notre Dame has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. BYU ranks 52nd nationally in rushing offense, and starting running back Michael Alisa is out indefinitely due to a broken arm suffered against Utah State. With Alisa and backup dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill out, the Cougars have struggled to find a spark on the ground. True freshman Jamaal Williams has big-play potential but was held in check by Oregon State’s defense last week (36 yards). Establishing balance will be critical to BYU's upset hopes, but considering Notre Dame’s rush defense is a strength, that’s easier said than done.
Everett Golson or Tommy Rees?
Notre Dame’s quarterback carousel continued to spin last week, as Everett Golson was forced to leave the game due to a concussion. However, the redshirt freshman was cleared to practice on Wednesday and if he doesn’t suffer any setbacks, should be the starting quarterback on Saturday afternoon. Golson hasn’t posted eye-popping numbers, but he hasn’t made any huge mistakes to cost his team a chance to win and is completing 58.5 percent of his throws. Tommy Rees has been effective as a change of pace option and shined in relief duty against Stanford, completing all four of his passes for 43 yards and one touchdown. Regardless of who starts or finishes this week, it’s crucial for Notre Dame to build some confidence in Golson, especially with a trip to Oklahoma next week. BYU’s defense ranks 24th nationally against the pass but was torched by Oregon State’s backup quarterback for 332 yards last week. The Irish will have plenty of opportunities to make plays through the air, but it’s up to Golson or Rees to deliver.
Can Riley Nelson attack the Notre Dame secondary?
A back injury slowed Nelson in late September and had an underwhelming performance in his return to the lineup. Against Oregon State, Nelson threw for 305 yards but tossed three picks and completed only 28 of 51 passes. The Cougars have some weapons in the receiving corps, led by receiver Cody Hoffman and tight end Kaneakua Friel. However, Nelson won’t have an opportunity to deliver the ball downfield to his receivers if the offensive line continues to struggle. BYU’s offensive line is allowing 2.6 sacks per game, which is a bad sign against Notre Dame’s defensive front. Even though the Irish have some inexperienced players stepping into key roles at cornerback, the secondary is allowing only 173.5 yards per game. If Nelson has time to throw, Hoffman and Friel will have opportunities to make plays downfield. However, Notre Dame’s defense will certainly have other plans, as it looks to copy Oregon State's gameplan last week and force Nelson into a few mistakes to give its offense a short field and easy points.
As each week passes, the stakes get a little higher for Notre Dame. The Irish are squarely in the national title mix and next Saturday’s game against Oklahoma will be a huge measuring stick and opportunity. However, the Irish have to focus on BYU this Saturday, a team that is dangerous despite its 4-3 record.
The Cougars should be able to hang around early, especially with a defense that ranks fifth nationally in yards allowed and seventh in scoring defense. However, expect a strong performance from Notre Dame’s defense, while the offense will find its rhythm in the second half. Considering next week's opponent (Oklahoma) will be the Irish's toughest challenge of the season, this is an important game for the offense to get on track and most importantly, build some confidence for quarterback Everett Golson.
Final Prediction: Notre Dame 31, BYU 13
by Steven Lassan
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