No. 16 BYU blows its golden opportunity on a national stage again in loss to Notre Dame
Cougars play miserably and without direction in the first half, then stage a spirited rally that comes up short
A slow start, an uninspiring first half and some miscues, mental breakdowns and iffy coaching decisions couldn’t keep the No. 16 BYU Cougars from delivering wins over Wyoming and Utah State the past two weeks.
That kind of play and coaching doesn’t beat the mighty Notre Dame Fighting Irish, however. Especially not on a warm Saturday night in Las Vegas, when a few bounces went their way and the Cougars reverted back to the habits that cost them against Oregon three weeks ago.
After sleepwalking through the first half and falling behind by 12 points Saturday, BYU put together a solid second half in front of 62,742 fans at Allegiant Stadium and a national television audience (NBC), but that wasn’t enough against a quality opponent.
“We even took a timeout so we had time to think about it. Disheartening that we weren’t able to get that. And credit to Notre Dame for making the play. But that was frustrating, not getting that play done.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on the fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense and dropped the Cougars to 4-2 with a 28-20 victory in its annual Shamrock Series game.
Notre Dame has now defeated BYU four straight times and leads the series, 7-2.
“Proud of the way the guys played, but we have to get better and get ready for the next one,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “Credit to Notre Dame. They played a great game.
“Such a cool experience tonight; the energy in the stadium from both sides (was great). A lot of noise. The environment was special. We happened to be on the wrong side of it.”
This time, it was the Cougars begging for forgiveness from their fans — thousands of whom paid exorbitant ticket prices to mingle with the Irish faithful — for a series of mistakes that kept them from pulling off a mild upset as four-point underdogs.
“I think (the loss) was due to us starting off slow,” said BYU linebacker Max Tooley. “I don’t have all the answers, but I just know it has got to change.
“We need to come out in the first half and make a statement early, kill them early, and we just haven’t been able to do that.”
Still, after trailing 18-6 at halftime and looking inept on both sides of the ball, the Cougars somehow found something in the second half and made a game of it.
“Just thankful to all the fans who made the trip and brought a lot of energy,” Sitake said. “I apologize it didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we appreciate and love them.”
The game came down to a 4th and 1 play from the Notre Dame 27-yard line for the Cougars, who were trailing 28-20 but seemingly had all the momentum.
But rather than give bruising tailback Chris Brooks (14 carries, 90 yards) the ball or put it in the hands of best player Jaren Hall, BYU gave it to scat back Lopini Katoa, and he was stuffed at the line of scrimmage with 3:37 seconds remaining.
The Cougars had a chance to stop the Irish and give the ball back to their offense — which had just 67 yards in the first half but finished with 280 — but rolled snake eyes when they absolutely, positively needed a stop.
Logan Diggs’ 33-yard run on 2nd and 17 pretty much iced it for the Irish.
“In the second half, we came back and made it a fight, but when it comes down to it we just didn’t do enough, and we gotta learn and be better next week,” Tooley said
Asked what the “thought process” was on the 4th and 1 call, Sitake snapped that it was “to get the first down.”
Then he acknowledged that “coaches have to critique themselves” and figure out what the best play would be in case the situation arises again.
“We even took a timeout so we had time to think about it,” Sitake said. “Disheartening that we weren’t able to get that, and credit to Notre Dame for making the play.
“But that was frustrating, not getting that play done.”
Hall said the Cougars stuck to the same play they had called before they took the timeout. To be fair, Katoa had made a play earlier in the game, picking up a 3rd and 18 situation with a 20-yard scamper, so it wasn’t like he wasn’t capable.
It is just that Brooks was running as hard and well as he has all season — and Kody Epps was having a career game.
So the Irish finished the one-score game in victory formation, having proved the pregame words of running back Audric Estime to be accurate: Bottom line was Notre Dame’s players were a bit better than BYU’s — especially since it appeared that Hall was not his normal self.
Hall opened the game by vastly under-throwing Gunner Romney, a wobbler that the Irish intercepted and eventually turned into a field goal. Hall finished 9 of 17 for 120 yards and two touchdowns, with a passer rating of 139.3.
But even though Hall insisted he was OK — “contrary to popular belief” — throughout the game, after admitting to be feeling the effects of a shoulder injury suffered in the 38-26 win over Utah State earlier in the week, he didn’t play like he has the first five games.
Still, the Cougars had a chance, even after Notre Dame drove 75 yards to open the second half and scored on a Michael Mayer — remember that name, he will be playing in the NFL next year — touchdown reception to go ahead 25-6.
BYU looked cooked.
But Hall found his passing touch, delivering a 53-yard touchdown pass to Epps, and the slumbering offense finally got going. The Cougars’ defense, pushed around most of the night and laughably unable to stop Mayer, got a three-and-out and Katoa’s drive-saving run spurred BYU on.
Brooks’ 28-yard touchdown run cut the deficit to 25-20, and the Cougars began lamenting a first-half missed PAT and a safety.
“We can’t be too stubborn. We got to learn from this and be better. I challenged the players to learn from this,” Sitake said.
“We are going to go through some adversity obviously because we are not playing the type of football that we want. … If we do that, then I really like our chances.”
The idea that it was going to be a long afternoon/night manifested itself on the first play, as TaRiq Bracy got an easy interception. That was BYU’s first turnover since the opener at South Florida, when Hall was picked off in the end zone.
Credit BYU’s defense for holding the Irish to a field goal, but the tone had been set — and Hall’s arm looked as if weeklong fears that he wasn’t 100% were accurate.
After an exchange of punts, BYU got a 42-yard punt return by Hobbs Nyberg, easily the Cougars’ best play of the first half. Set up at the Irish 26, BYU survived a Hinckley Ropati fumble on his first-ever carry as a Cougar, and marched in for a touchdown.
Sitake gambled on 4th and goal from the 2, and Hall found Epps for the score on a well-designed play that had Epps wide open after he feigned a block.
Justen Smith, filling in for the struggling Jake Oldroyd, missed the PAT — which came after a delay of game penalty on the Cougars.
That was the only penalty committed by either team in the first half, but it loomed large. Two other times in the first half the Cougars had to take a timeout because they didn’t have the right number of players on the field.
“Yeah, that is all coaching. That is on me and our coaching staff. So the fact that we didn’t have it organized and we had problems (isn’t good),” Sitake said.
“It is Game 6, and we are struggling to put 11 guys out there in the game. A couple times we had 10. We gotta figure it out, and that is all on coaches.”
Mayer became Notre Dame’s all-time receptions leader for a tight end with his first touchdown catch. He finished with 11 catches for 118 yards.
Notre Dame drove to the BYU 4 on its next possession, only to have Keenan Pili stop Estime on a fourth-and-1 attempt.
The Cougars took over with a bit of momentum, but it was short-lived. Hall was sacked for a safety by Jack Kiser, partly because he couldn’t find an open receiver downfield.
The Irish promptly drove 79 yards for another TD, however, with Jayden Thomas ripping the ball away from BYU’s Jakob Robinson for the score from 30 yards out. The two-point conversion attempt failed and Notre Dame took an 18-6 lead into halftime, which seemed insurmountable with the way BYU’s offense was playing.
Notre Dame racked up 259 yards and was 6 of 9 on third down in the first half, while the Cougars were 0 of 4 on third down and had just 67 yards. Hall was 3 of 8 for 11 yards and the TD, for a passer rating of 65.3.
Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne was 13 of 17 for 163 yards and two TDs in the first half, with a passer rating of 195.8. He finished with 262 yards and three TDs, and a passer rating of 185.4.