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BYU football: Can No. 16 Cougars stand up to well-rested and surging Notre Dame in Las Vegas?

Fighting Irish had a bye last weekend and are an early field goal favorite over 4-1 BYU for Saturday’s showdown at Allegiant Stadium

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BYU fans take photos outside the Allegiant Stadium prior to the Vegas Kickoff Classic between BYU and Arizona in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A few weeks ago, after BYU downed defending Big 12 champion Baylor 26-20 in double overtime and Notre Dame lost 26-21 to Marshall at home, Saturday’s long-awaited showdown in Las Vegas between the Cougars and Fighting Irish looked like a winnable game for the Cougars.

Well, fortunes have changed, a reversal not unfamiliar in the gambling mecca 375 miles south of Provo.

Kickoff at Allegiant Stadium is at 5:30 p.m. MDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by NBC. Notre Dame (2-2), which had a bye this weekend after pummeling North Carolina 45-32 on Sept. 24, is the squad with momentum on its side, but not a national ranking.

“We need to play better. If we play our style of football, and play smart, good things will happen for us. So that’s going to be the (priority preparing for Notre Dame), focusing on trying to play tough, smart football.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

The Fighting Irish opened as a slight favorite over the Cougars.

BYU, which improved to 4-1 with a lackluster 38-26 win over Utah State on Thursday, moved up to No. 16 in both major polls on Sunday. But there’s not as much optimism surrounding the Cougars these days to snap their three-game losing streak to Notre Dame in the new stadium a couple blocks off the famed Las Vegas Strip.

BYU hasn’t played the part of a top-25 team since eking out that win over the Bears, especially when it comes to stopping the run and imposing its will on opponents with the run. The Cougars, whose lone loss was a 41-20 setback at now-No. 12 Oregon, have had to rely far too much on standout quarterback Jaren Hall, who has been phenomenal in moving up NFL draft boards.

Hall is 18th in the country in passing yards (1,438) and 15th in completion percentage (70.2%). BYU is a respectable 40th in the country in total defense (338.2 ypg.) However, BYU is 91st in rushing defense (162.6 ypg.), as teams have used ball control to keep Hall and company off the field.

“We need to play better,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said after the USU game. “If we play our style of football, and play smart, good things will happen for us. So that’s going to be the (priority preparing for Notre Dame), focusing on trying to play tough, smart football.”

The Cougars’ weaknesses and issues they need to fix have been discussed heavily in this space and elsewhere the past few weeks. The most glaring ones, from this corner, are discipline problems — which Sitake has continued to say are fixable — and the lack of physicality in the trenches, which may not be as easy to get turned around.

Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State have all been able to run the ball effectively on BYU, particularly in the first halves of those last three games. Teams are winning first down, often gashing the Cougars for big yards to set up short yardage situations on second down.

Opposing offensive lines are getting good pushes, putting the Cougars on their heels.

Don’t look now, but the Irish just rushed for 287 yards against North Carolina; Sophomore Audric Estime ran for a career-high 134 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Backup quarterback Drew Pyne isn’t the running threat that Tyler Buchner was before the starter sustained a season-ending shoulder surgery in the Marshall game, but Estime, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs have picked up the slack.

Sitake said after USU rushed for 204 yards on the Cougars — 97 came in the first quarter, on 24 attempts — that the Aggies caught them by surprise a bit with their offensive schemes, which were like what Coastal Carolina used in 2020 to play keep-away. With two weeks to prepare, Notre Dame almost certainly will have some different wrinkles ready as well.

“We won the game, so I don’t want to sit here and say we made all these mistakes. Utah State played really well. I thought they played a great game,” Sitake said. “They did some good things, especially after not having their quarterback (Logan Bonner). They adjusted really well. … So give them a lot of credit. At the same time, I want to fix the low-hanging fruit problem — the mistakes and discipline. So if we can get that done I feel better about our team.”

Notre Dame hasn’t been anything special in the rushing department, but showed a lot of power in the North Carolina game after opening the season with losses to Ohio State and Marshall. The Irish are 67th in rushing offense (160.0) through four games, averaging 4.03 yards per carry.

“I am super excited to play them,” BYU receiver Gunner Romney told BYU Sports Nation. “They are a really household name in college football, one of the biggest names in college football. They have tons of talent. It is going to be a fun one going down to Vegas.”

Romney, who made his 2022 debut with four catches for 51 yards against USU, said it is a “redemption” game for him because he was injured early in the game when BYU beat Arizona in the 2021 season-opener at Allegiant.

“I think the energy is going to be great in there,” he said.

BYU linebacker Max Tooley, 18th in the country in interceptions per game, said Notre Dame is “always tough” and always one of the best teams in the country, “regardless of what people may say, in certain years.”

Tooley said the Cougars are “nowhere near where we should be” and will have to pick it up this week to regain their mojo.

“The offense has carried us. The defense has held their own,” Tooley said. “… Obviously, we want to be further along in our overall team (play). … We will have a break (having played Thursday). I think that will help a lot, just getting our feet back under us as we prepare for Notre Dame.”

Cougars on the air

BYU (4-1) vs. Notre Dame (2-2)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT

Allegiant Stadium

Las Vegas, Nevada


Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM