BYU (7-3) was able to take care of business on Saturday in a 59-13 rout of the Idaho State Bengals. It was a great opportunity for the seniors to be able to play and win in front of the home crowd one last time in their collegiate careers. But things are about to get a little tougher this weekend as the Cougars will be traveling to South Bend in an attempt to knock off the Fighting Irish (7-3). Notre Dame enters this game coming off of a bye week.
The Cougar's trip to South Bend last year ended with Notre Dame claiming a 17-14 victory in the midst of a run to the National Championship. And if you remember, Notre Dame's senior running back, Theo Riddick, had his way with the Cougar defense, running for a career high 143 yards.
While both teams return to the match-up with many of the same cast members, there are also key differences.
Both teams have new starting quarterbacks this season (although BYU faced quarterback Tommy Rees last year, he was playing as a back-up). Rees' numbers this year have been okay, completing 54% of his passes for 2,504 yards. His touchdown to interception ratio is 24/10. Rees does not pose a dual threat with -61 rushing yards this year.
Rees' favorite target this season has been senior wide receiver TJ Jones. Jones leads the team in receptions (54), receiving yards (891), touchdown receptions (8), and average yards per reception (16.5). Rees is coming off of perhaps his best game of the season against Pittsburgh (149 yards and touchdown). DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas have been extremely impressive this year as well, as the receiving corps may be the greatest strength of the Notre Dame offense.
You can see highlights of TJ Jones in action right here, courtesy of YouTube:
Notre Dame runs an extremely balanced offensive attack with a rush-to-pass ratio of almost 50/50. Notre Dame struggled at establishing a rushing attack early in the season, but a couple of backs have established themselves as the go-to-guys on the ground. Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III carry the majority of the load. McDaniel has more carries on the season (107), while Atkinson has logged more yards (512). They will attempt to establish a strong presence on the ground against the Cougars, much like Wisconsin did with White and Gordon.
The Notre Dame offensive line is full of talent. They rank in the top 10 in the country when it comes to sacks allowed, though they have struggled at times when it comes to run blocking. They are a talented and physical unit, and it should be interesting to see how they compete against BYU's front seven.
Last year Notre Dame boasted one of the nations top defenses, but this year they haven't been able to maintain nearly the same level. Their defense has taken a significant step back in almost every category when compared to the end of last season. They rank 63rd in the country when it comes to stopping the run, allowing 159 rushing yards per game and 4 yards per rush. Considering that BYU runs at least 159 yards every game (even when they lose) and has at least 6 contributing running backs, it will be interesting to see if they can slow BYU's run down to keep us to a mere 159.
Through the air they are giving up 209 yards per game and an average of over 10 yards per completion. Be sure to keep an eye on the Irish secondary which is led by Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, the senior/sophomore cornerback duo. To date they have combined for 69 tackles and an interception.
To see a full breakdown of the details behind Notre Dame's defensive struggles this season, check out this article by our friends over at One Foot Down. OFD Films: What is wrong with Notre Dame's defense?
What are they expected to accomplish this season?
After losing a handful of key players last off-season, no one expected the Irish to return to this year's National Championship. They were ranked 14th in the AP preseason poll, but managed to lose their way out of the top 25 following their loss to Pittsburgh. Sitting at 7-3, they finish the season with two difficult games. After hosting the Cougars this weekend, they must travel to Stanford the following week to take on the Cardinals in their final regular season game. They could just as likely finish this year 7-5 as they could 9-3. They are currently projected by ESPN to play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
It should be a competitive match-up this weekend. The odds-makers in Vegas agree, as the current line on the game favors Notre Dame by about 1 point.
The Cougars have been extremely impressive this season since their loss to Utah, going 6-1 during that stretch with their only loss being on the road to a rock solid Wisconsin team. While BYU has no wins over anyone currently in the top 25, Notre Dame has several impressive wins this season over three top 25 teams (Michigan State, Arizona State, USC).
While its tough to give the nod to either team in this match-up, this game is a great opportunity for both teams to add another W to the win column over a respectable opponent.