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Notre Dame enjoys BYU’s habitual slow start en route to 28-20 win

BYU’s best chance to defeat Notre Dame began to unravel on the first play of the game, a Jaren Hall interception

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) stops Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) on a failed fourth-and-1 attempt, effectively ending the Cougars’ attempts at a comeback in the fourth quarter at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Notre Dame owned two big numbers in the Shamrock Series 28-20 win over BYU, and both were exacerbated by a slow start for the Cougars for the fourth time in a row this season.

Slow start?

This time, BYU’s offense was almost invisible the first half, swarmed over by Notre Dame’s defense and then drowned in their own puddle of jitters.

The big numbers?

Third down conversions and total number of plays run from the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame converted 11 of 16 third downs and kept BYU’s offense on the sidelines, a recipe in all of BYU’s losses the past two seasons. 

BYU converted just 3 of 9 third downs.

Notre Dame ran 73 plays to BYU’s 46.

“That isn’t going to get it done,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. 

Notre Dame hogged the ball for 41 minutes while BYU had the ball for just 19.

“We couldn’t get enough momentum to get in the end zone,” Sitake said. “Credit Notre Dame because they did. We didn’t play consistent football, and that is my responsibility to fix it.”

In my estimation before kickoff, BYU had a huge advantage in quarterback Jaren Hall. His accuracy, calm, poise, chemistry with his receivers and ability to read defenses should have been the catalyst to ignite BYU to points and make Notre Dame chase the Cougar points.

That never took off. Hall passed the ball just 17 times and completed just nine of them. To lose to Notre Dame by just eight points with Hall completing just nine balls?

Notre Dame came in 95th in pass efficiency defense, yet faced just 17 BYU passes to defend. Think about it.

Oh, BYU did gallantly make it a game, racing back from a 25-6 deficit to come within striking distance for a win late, but it was too much to do too late.

That died twice. The first on a dropped sideline pass halfway through the fourth quarter with the Cougars driving desperately to sneak back and take the lead, trailing 25-20.

Puka Nacua had it in his hands to extend the late drive, and with BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick screaming at officials on the sideline for a holding call when Nacua broke back for the ball, the pigskin squirted out of both his arms and hands to the ground.

BYU’s comeback died right there.

The second time came with enough minutes in the game to score and tie it up with a 2-point conversion. Facing a fourth and 1 to keep that drive alive, Notre Dame stuffed an inside run play by Lopini Katoa.

Game over.

“This was a game that we looked forward to all week,” said Hall. “It was one other opportunity to battle back from last week and when we didn’t have our best showing so you know, the opportunity was there for us. We just let it slip through our fingers and just didn’t make enough plays. So it’s very frustrating.

“It breaks your heart. We love to win. That’s why I play this game, but sometimes in losing you come up short, so we got to battle back and it’ll be a testament of what we’re made of as a team.”

Kody Epps caught four of Hall’s nine completions for 100 yards and two touchdowns. No other BYU receiver had more than one catch. 

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, the most productive player to ever play that position in storied South Bend, caught 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Fighting Irish.

He made sophomore QB Drew Pyne’s work easy — him and a three-heading running back attack that wore down BYU’s defense.

“Their tight end is a great player,” said Sitake. “They did some things defensively against our offense that worked in their favor. Scoring 20 is not going to do it for us, so we’ve got to fix it, get better (and) have a great attitude about it.”

Hall’s first throw on the first play of the game was intercepted by Notre Dame. That set the tone of the game and essentially rattled the usually unflappable Hall. He really never recovered until the second half. 

Hall attempted just four pass plays until a futile fury to end the first half, then he only had seven tries as BYU managed just 21 total plays.

It was a similar start to the game witnessed against Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State. Because of the difference in plays and third downs, Notre Dame simply wore down BYU’s defense and waited out BYU’s offense.

“These stupid mistakes, especially with personnel, can’t happen,” said Sitake of getting caught with not having enough players on the field and not having the right players on the field at times.

It forced him to take some timeouts.

“That’s coaching,” he said. “That is on our coaching staff to fix. This is Game 6 and that shouldn’t happen and we need to fix it.”

Sitake said if his team had more consistent play in all three phases, it would have had a better chance to win on Saturday. 

“It is my job to get us ready,” he said.

Up next for 4-2 BYU is Arkansas in Provo, fresh off a loss to Mississippi State and Mike Leach.

It will take a lot of love and learn come Monday to take on that assignment.