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Head-to-Head: BYU vs. Notre Dame

Observer Football Beat Writers | Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cougars sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill is eighth in the nation in individual offense with 333 yards per game, but much of that production comes from his role in the run game. As a passer, Hill is completing just 52 percent of his attempts, and has 12 interceptions to go along with his 16 touchdowns. Hill’s favorite target is senior wideout Cody Hoffman, whose 33 career touchdown catches are the most of any receiver in the country. At 6-foot-4, Hoffman is a big-play threat on the outside, and is averaging 17.5 yards per reception this season. After Hoffman, however, BYU’s targets fall off – no other Cougar receiver averages over 45 yards a game.
If the Irish can contain Hoffman, their secondary has a chance to shut down BYU through the air, and possibly force some game-changing interceptions. Notre Dame can also disrupt the passing game with its pass rush, powered by marquee defensive lineman senior Louis Nix and junior Stephon Tuitt. The Cougars have allowed 30 sacks this year, and Hill’s proclivity to scramble can backfire when the defense drags him down for big losses.

After struggling with mobile quarterbacks early in the season, Notre Dame will have to stop another dual threat in Hill. The dynamic senior is BYU’s leading rusher, and has over 1,100 yards rushing on the season, excluding sacks. Hill has the speed to get through a hole in the Irish defense, and the strength to run through arm tackles, as he exhibited by rushing for 259 yards against then-No. 15 Texas. Joining Hill in the backfield is sophomore running back Jamaal Williams, who is another option averaging over 100 yards a game for the Cougars.
BYU’s rushing attack, when combined with its frenetic pace on offense, will require big days from Notre Dame’s front seven, with linemen filling holes and graduate student linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese wrapping up on tackles before the Cougars can reach the open field.

Cougars offensive coordinator Robert Anae has kicked his offense into overdrive this year, employing one of the nation’s fastest tempos. BYU has averaged 86.8 plays per game this season, or one play every 19 seconds. That pace has allowed them to wear down the likes of Texas and Boise State, and should test the stamina and depth of the Irish defense.
Notre Dame has had two weeks to rest up for a track meet with the Cougars, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has taken that time to prepare to stop the BYU offense in its tracks. Trying to keep up with the Cougars can be a risky proposition though, as BYU is 72-8 under head coach Bronco Mendenhall when scoring 24 points or more.
     EDGE: BYU

Senior kicker Justin Sorensen has made 16 of 19 field goals on the season, but his longest make was just 41 yards. On a cold, snowy Saturday in South Bend, that may force the Cougars to drive into the red zone to be confident in a field goal attempt.
Sorensen also handles kickoff duties for the Cougars, and has struggled with distance away from high-altitude Provo, as just seven of his 34 touchbacks have come on the road. That should open up plenty of return opportunities for Irish junior George Atkinson, who has yet to bring a kickoff back to the house this season.

Senior quarterback Tommy Rees has experienced the full spectrum of attention a Notre Dame quarterback can receive, and come Saturday he’ll have one more chance to lead the Irish to a home victory. Rees was erratic in the loss to Pittsburgh, and  will need to right the ship to keep up with BYU’s potent offense. He’ll be helped in that mission by senior receiver TJ Jones, who has separated himself as Notre Dame’s best receiver this year. Jones leads the Irish with eight touchdowns, and is just 109 yards shy from a 1,000-yard season. Junior wideout DaVaris Daniels and tight end Troy Niklas can stretch the field for the Irish, as a offensive line that has gelled after early injuries have largely kept Rees off the ground.
The Cougars will counter the passing attack with senior outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has notched 26 career sacks – good for second in the country. Van Noy creates havoc in opposing backfields, and leads the Cougars with four sacks, as well as 15 tackles for loss. BYU’s corners may be more readily attacked, as junior Robertson Daniel is in his first season on the team, while sixth-year senior Mike Hague ­- who played running back for the Cougars as a freshman in 2006 – is a new starter in the secondary as well.

BYU’s offensive tempo has driven opposing defenses crazy, but it has also put a strain on their own defense, which is forced to defend more plays with shorter rest between series. That should play into Notre Dame’s favor, as the Irish carry four legitimate running backs that can grind opposing team’s down late in games. Notre Dame ran the ball just six times in the second half against Pittsburgh though, and freshman phenom Tarean Folston was practically invisible after rushing for 140 yards a week prior. BYU is led defensively by senior linebacker Uani ‘Unga, who is fifth in the country with 10.6 tackles per game.
The Cougars has allowed opponents 155 yards rushing per game, but the Irish will have to commit to running the football in order to take advantage of the matchup in that phase of the game.

Irish coach Brian Kelly’s squad has been bounced around in 2013, with the latest blow landing in Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Now, Kelly has the chance to bounce back and build momentum before a showdown with Stanford – but it comes against a high-quality opponent in the Cougars. Senior Day can bring a wide array of emotions for players, and it will be up to Kelly and his staff to channel the experience into winning football.
Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall has his team allowing just 4.7 yards per play and 21 points per game, but will need a great showing from his defense to stop a balanced attack from Notre Dame.

Kyle Brindza has developed into one of the nation’s top punters this season, and is coming off his best punting game of the season against Pittsburgh, when he averaged over 46 yards per boot and held the Panthers to minus-six return yards.
BYU senior captain and punt returner JD Falslev may have challenged that mark this week, but the explosive former walk-on ­- who was averaging over 10 yards a return – is out with a broken hand suffered during a team trip to a water park. Cody Hoffman and Skyler Ridley are solid replacements for the Cougars, but so far have been less inclined to chance a return.
Brindza’s leg should also limit the Cougars’ Adam Hine on kickoffs, as the Irish junior has generated touchbacks on 31 of his 56 kicks this season. That power extends to the kicking game, where Brindza has range well over 50 yards, but is just 10-for-16 on field goals this season.