Vanquish the Foe: Coming off a season where Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season and played in the National Championship, what is the overall feel around the Notre Dame program and what they have accomplished this season?
One Foot Down: It's definitely been a frustrating season, especially when looking at it through the lens of what we were able to accomplish last year. Most people expected somewhere around 9-3 before the season started (which is still possible), but given the injuries that we've suffered and the crazy circumstances that we've seen, 7-3 isn't too bad.
There's certain factions of the ND fanbase that won't accept anything less than 10 wins, especially after last season, but they tend to turn a blind eye to our QB situation and our injury situation. They have some extra ammunition, however, since we have shown flashes of a very good team in beating Arizona State, USC, and Michigan State. The inconsistency from those teams compared to the ones who lost to Michigan, Oklahoma, and Pitt don't give anyone a lot of confidence what we will see week-to-week this season.
VTF: This years Notre Dame roster is missing some of the stars, like Manti Teo and Tyler Eifert, that really hurt BYU in last years matchup. Who should BYU fans expect to fill those vacated roles in this week's game?
OFD: Manti Te'o is patently irreplaceable - something our fans have learned the hard way this season. He was the engine to our defense's success last year, who optimized all of the talent around him. We are no longer playing with an eraser in the middle of the field to clean up after his teammates, and our defense has slipped because of it.
It is fitting that the first year without Manti Te'o, our last HUGE linebacker recruit, is the first year for true freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, a 5 star recruit from Fort Wayne, IN. He has absolutely lived up to the billing. He shows up everywhere, especially the backfield, and he's the best linebacker on our team in coverage situations (probably better than any of our safeties to be honest).
Eifert was a huge loss, but, as is the new normal at Notre Dame, he has been followed up by another great tight end in Troy Niklas. Where Eifert was more of a new-age tight end/receiver hybrid, Troy Niklas is just gigantic. His nickname is Hercules, and he's a great blocker and has blossomed into a fantastic receiver. Add in the fact that our #2 TE Ben Koyack has greatly improved over the course of the season, and the TE slot is still a big weapon for the Irish.
VTF: The Irish were on a bye this past week after losing to Pitt two weeks ago. Do you think the bye week has given Notre Dame to re-focus and fix some problems or would they have been better served to get back on the playing had a positive effect on the team or do you feel it would have been better for them to get back out and play?
OFD: I think the bye week came at a great time. With the amount of injuries we were fighting coming through Air Force & Navy, and just the long season blues seeming to settle in, it was a perfect time to take a little break (the team didn't practice last week, only strength & conditioning). I think the staff needed it, the players needed it, and the fans needed it. Hopefully they're all ready to go on Senior Day and help those guys go out with a W.
VTF: What are the weaknesses on this years Notre Dame squad that BYU could exploit? And what are Notre Dame's team strengths that could really give the Cougars trouble?
OFD: Tommy Rees is the usual suspect here - he's not especially accurate, and he's shown he is still prone to bad mental mistakes (watch both of his INT against Pitt, they were extremely poor). He is usually a great asset to our team, and we as ND fans have taken to just hoping he avoids "Tommy, no!" moments.
On defense, our safety play has been subpar, especially in the tackling department. The bend but don't break defense that we have been playing has seen the safeties dropping VERY deep into coverage (against Pitt, it wasn't out of the question for the free safety to be 30+ yards deep). This was opening up the area between the linebackers and the safeties, as well as allowing dump off passes to be effective. There's a sentiment that ND's defense is playing far too vanilla - trying to cover everything, but end up covering nothing at the same time.
The strengths of this team are still run defense and our receiving corps, as they were at the beginning of the season. We are EXTREMELY deep at receiver, led by Senior captain TJ Jones, and Rees will have no problem finding plenty of targets out there on Saturday. I expect the Irish to test BYU's secondary deep early and often, to try and let our receivers out-athlete the corners and safeties of the Cougars.
The run defense is really all about the defensive line and Jaylon Smith. Smith is impressive shutting down edge runs, and the defensive line (Sheldon Day, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt) will eat an inordinate number of blocks. I'm interested to see how the defense handles a true read option attack (especially Smith as a freshman), but I know we have the talent to stop the straight-ahead stuff.
VTF: How do Notre Dame fans feel about the series with BYU? Is it something you feel could be beneficial for both school's in the future? Or with the Irish set to begin their scheduling agreement with the ACC next season is it a series that Notre Dame will look to end?
OFD: Just from a scheduling perspective, I think the ACC agreement will make scheduling a semi-regular BYU game a difficulty moving forward, and I don't think the administration values it as high as some of the other games on our schedule (Stanford, USC, Navy).
That being said, I think the fact that both schools are independent and have full control over their schedules (especially open dates) will mean ND and BYU will cross paths pretty regularly.
One thing is for sure. I don't want the headache of trying to put together ND's schedule for the next few years. It's going to be tough to figure it all out.
VTF: What's your prediction for this week's game?
OFD: The biggest match-up for me on Saturday is BYU's run game against our defense. We haven't faced a true spread option attack yet this season, and we certainly haven't faced an offense with the tempo that the Cougars play with. Since the Irish defense (especially the line and linebackers) are experiencing some depth issues due to injury, I'm worried that the tempo is going to start to pay dividends late in the game.
I do think that Notre Dame's offense has an advantage over BYU's defense, however. I think along the line, the Irish will have good success running the ball, even against BYU's 5 man fronts which they like to run. That success should allow Rees to have some good matchups on the outside that I think the receivers will be able to win.
Add in the fact that it is Senior Day, and I think a lot of these guys will be pumped up, even though it's a late November game. I am worried that Rees will be TOO pumped up and make a dumb mistake early, but let's hope that isn't the case.
My prediction is an efficient, but unspectacular offensive performance from Notre Dame, which hits a few big plays through the air. BYUs offense will have several scores, but it will also have several extremely quick three-and-outs. I expect Taysom Hill to make one or two bad throws that will be possible interceptions. As the game wears on, I think BYUs offense will have more and more success. I also think that the field will cause at least one special teams mistake (it's really bad, tell your boys to pack the extra long cleats).
I think these teams are extremely evenly matched, but Notre Dame's offense will be just a touch more consistent than BYU's on Senior Day. Notre Dame 34 - BYU 27.