Underdogs in Vegas? No. 16 BYU relishing that role against the Fighting Irish
‘We don’t mind being the underdog,’ BYU coach Kalani Sitake says as the Cougars turn their attention to 2-2 Fighting Irish in showdown at Allegiant Stadium
BYU brings a 4-1 record, a No. 16 national ranking and a win over then-No. 9 Baylor to the big showdown in Las Vegas.
Notre Dame brings a 2-2 mark, a puzzling home loss to unranked Marshall, a backup quarterback and all that aura and mystique of yesteryear to the gambling capital of the world.
Naturally, the Fighting Irish are favored to win by a little more than a field goal on Saturday afternoon (5:30 p.m. MDT) at Allegiant Stadium. Obviously, Notre Dame’s reputation as a college football power supersedes the fact that the Cougars have gone 26-5 the past three seasons, a record that includes seven wins over Power Five programs the past two years.
“To get an opponent like Notre Dame, and to be able to play on a national level like in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, it is big for our program. And so it is important that we show up, and show out, and go play BYU football for all four quarters.” — BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar
Is BYU feeling disrespected?
Not really, head coach Kalani Sitake and several Cougars said Monday as they returned to practice and turned their attention to the long-awaited Week 6 clash with perhaps the most well-known program in the country.
“Looking forward to a great matchup with them,” Sitake said. “We know that they are dangerous. We don’t mind being the underdog.”
Notre Dame is coming off a bye week and rolling after bouncing back from a season-opening 21-10 loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State and the 26-21 loss to Marshall with wins over California (24-17) and North Carolina (45-32). BYU has won two in a row, but in less impressive fashion.
“We definitely need to be on our A-game for Notre Dame. They are a great football team. There is no room for coming out soft and whatnot,” said BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar. “… To get an opponent like Notre Dame, and to be able to play on a national level like in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, it is big for our program. And so it is important that we show up, and show out, and go play BYU football for all four quarters.”
Certainly, first-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman has plenty of respect for BYU.
“You don’t gotta watch a lot of the film to realize the challenge we have. This is a talented football team that is 4-1. They play extremely hard. They are a veteran football team and not just with age, but experience with playing in a game,” Freeman said. “We got our work cut out for us. Our guys will be motivated and ready to roll.”
And well-rested. Freeman said Notre Dame practiced Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week and began installing its game plan for BYU. Drew Pyne has replaced the injured Tyler Buchner at QB and is 2-0 as a starter. Notre Dame has a probable NFL first-round draft pick in tight end Michael Mayer.
“I like the underdog mentality all the time,” Sitake said. “So no matter what the situation is, we know we are going against a great team. Notre Dame hasn’t played their best football yet. And you can see the talent, you can see the flashes of great players, and great scheme and great coaching.
“But we haven’t played our best, either,” Sitake continued. “We are trying to go from that position from good to great. I am looking forward to getting that done this week. I feel like we are really close. I think the things that can get us to being a great team right now can be the next step forward, and that is stuff that we can easily address today.”
The Cougars’ injury list was longer than 10 names entering the Utah State game, but a few guys should be back, “nobody has been counted out for Saturday,” and nobody has been lost for the season, Sitake said Monday.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program Monday that receiver Chase Roberts should be back, while receiver Puka Nacua “is doing everything right to get back,” but has had “bad luck.” Tight end/fullback Masen Wake should also return, after having missed the USU game with concussion-like symptoms.
“No one is going to take Notre Dame lightly. That’s a historically great program. Our players are excited to play. Yeah, they are favored, everybody knows that,” Roderick said. “They have a really good team. You watch them play on defense, and they don’t have very many weaknesses, if any. They are big and physical and have great skill in the secondary.”
Safeties and special teams coach Ed Lamb said the defense is mostly healthy, with senior safety Malik Moore (wrist injury) having missed Thursday’s game. Lamb said having underdog status might actually help the Cougars.
“I always feel good about BYU when we are humble, when we are confident, but when we also feel like we have an opportunity,” Lamb said on “Coordinators’ Corner.” “This type of matchup is one where I think you are going to get a really hard-fought game, because I think both sides see a victory as a chance to define their season up to this point.”
If it comes down to a field goal game, the Cougars could be in trouble. BYU senior kicker Jake Oldroyd has made just one of his last six field goal attempts. Sitake and Lamb said the competition will go on this week before the Cougars head to Las Vegas on Friday.
“Best way I can describe it is Jake is a talented kicker who is in a slump,” Lamb said. “And so when he is, I am. So we’ve got to find a way together to bring him back (to 2020 and 2021 form). I think that is our best and highest potential as a team. Justen Smith is our backup kicker and he deserves a chance to compete for that starting spot right now.”
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-1) vs. Notre Dame (2-2)
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
Las Vegas, Nevada
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM