Notre Dame entered its third game as a massive favorite this year at Notre Dame Stadium, including its second straight. The previous two times the Irish were a 15+ point favorite, they lost to Marshall and to Stanford in a pair of devastating defeats that took this team from a potential College Football Playoff contender to a middling 3-3 FBS team.
However, this time, as a 27-point favorite against the UNLV Rebels, the Irish dealt with little drama. Although never on full cruise control, the Irish jumped out to a 23-7 lead in the first quarter and never let the game get closer, ultimately winning 44-21. It served as a solid bounce back from last week’s 16-14 loss to Stanford.
“We know it was a tough week for all of us. Anybody that’s a part of this Notre Dame family or Notre Dame Nation and this football team, it was a tough week,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys responded.”
The ground game starred in this one, as Notre Dame pounded the rock 47 times for 223 yards. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs led the way with career-highs in carries (28) and yards (130). In the somewhat unjust nature of the game, however, Diggs didn’t notch any of the three Irish rushing touchdowns. Those came from sophomore Audric Estime, junior Chris Tyree and, in an unexpected development, sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans.
“I heard Coach Rees and Coach McCullough kind of say, ‘Hey, put Logan in the game right now. Let’s go with Logan,’” Freeman said of the decision to lean on Diggs on Saturday. “Logan’s done a great job. He’s continued to get better.”
Junior quarterback Drew Pyne put together an inconsistent performance, but it was enough against a shoddy UNLV defense. Pyne finished 14 of 28 for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His main target, again, was junior tight end Michael Mayer. Mayer put together another monster effort with six catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. Graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy had the other touchdown among his four catches and 38 yards.
Defensively, the Irish caused a decent amount of havoc with four sacks and nine tackles for loss. That was led by senior vyper Isaiah Foskey’s three sacks. Senior linebackers JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau combined for 3.5 tackles for loss. They held UNLV, playing with a pair of backup quarterbacks, to just 299 yards total on the day. Foskey also notched a pair of punt blocks in a dynamic performance.
“I feel like everything was just put together this game. I was getting to the quarterback and special teams, I was getting a lot of punt blocks,” Foskey said. “I just feel like everything just came together for me, and it was something I was looking forward to.”
Irish outclass Rebels early
The talent discrepancy made itself pretty evident early on in this contest. Notre Dame punched the Rebels in the nose on the first drive with a six-play, 75-yard drive. Pyne hit Mayer for 23 yards in the early going and then sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas for 37 yards on a 3rd and 10. After that, sophomore running back Audric Estime waltzed into the end zone from 12 yards out for the early 7-0 lead.
After the Irish forced a quick punt, and the Rebels were penalized on the kick, Pyne and Co. started at the UNLV 43. They got just one first down but moved the ball enough to get graduate transfer kicker Blake Grupe into field goal range. Grupe was pure from 43 yards out.
UNLV got most of its first down offense via one play, as a 74-yard rush to start their next drive set up a touchdown. However, it was all the offense for UNLV, who had just 61 yards outside of the one rush in the first half.
“They hadn’t [shown] the run scheme where they pulled the center, because I watched it on the replay and they pulled the center. The middle linebacker didn’t get over the top of the block,” Freeman said of the big play. “Good execution on their part. They were able to kind of scheme us a little bit on that run… They tried it again later in the game and we were able to get it drawn up and fixed.”
Notre Dame special teams stepped up in a big way to provide the Irish with a few big opportunities. Foskey blocked consecutive UNLV punts that the Irish turned into ten points. After the first, Pyne found Mayer for a 20-yard touchdown. The score tied Mayer for the most career touchdown receptions by an Irish tight end. Then, after another blocked punt, this one by Foskey and sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie, the Irish could only gain five yards from the UNLV 14. However, their proximity to the end zone gave the Irish a chip-shot field goal attempt. Grupe converted the 27-yarder to take the 20-7 lead. Later in the lengthy first quarter, junior transfer safety Brandon Joseph ripped off a 20-yard punt return to put the Irish at the UNLV 31. Again, Notre Dame faltered, but Grupe rescued three points for a 23-7 lead.
“Listen, it wasn’t perfect. We know that,” Freeman noted. “That’s the reality of football. It’s never perfect.”
Irish offense slows down
From there, the game settled into a lethargic malaise. The Irish were never in true danger, but they also never ran away with the contest. Their 16-point lead occasionally grew to 23 points, as reflected by the final margin, but never more than that. Notre Dame got two big-time plays from Mayer to kickstart one drive, but they ultimately couldn’t capitalize. Mayer notched a 27-yard reception with a big run after the catch. And then, on the very next play, he made a diving and one-handed grab through blatant pass interference for a 34-yard gain.
“I don’t think I saw the ball to be honest,” Mayer noted. Regarding where it ranks among his all-time catches, Mayer said, “I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m pretty pumped to see it. Sometimes I just don’t really remember things. I’ll get an answer for you later on, but it’s up there for sure. There’s no doubt.”
However, the Irish ultimately squandered the drive, failing on a 4th and 3 attempt inside the UNLV 10.
The Irish started one more first-half drive in plus territory, beginning at the UNLV 46. They ran the ball on five of six plays on the drive to march in for the touchdown. Two of those rushes came from tight end Mitchell Evans on short-yardage situations. His second career rush found paydirt from a yard out, and the Irish claimed a 30-7 halftime advantage.
“Yeah, we repped it a bunch during the week. We ran it on 3rd and one… and he got it, and we pulled it out of the woodwork to run it again on the 1-yard line,” Mayer said. “I wasn’t expecting that one, but I was like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’”
UNLV finds a third-quarter gear shift
To start the second half, the Irish had a prime chance to absolutely bury the Rebels. Facing a 4th and 6 from the Notre Dame 49, UNLV made the bold decision to go for the fourth-down conversion. It failed miserably, as Foskey drilled UNLV quarterback Cameron Friel for a nine-yard loss. That gave Notre Dame the ball at the Rebels’ 42. But after a 15-yard completion, the Irish stalled. Mayer’s reliable hands dropped a second-down screen pass, and Pyne drastically underthrew sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles on a corner route on third down. Grupe’s 42-yard effort had plenty of distance but clanged the left upright.
Instead of a 37-7 lead, the Irish still led by 23, and UNLV soon cut into the advantage. Rebels running back Courtney Reese, responsible for the earlier 74-yard run, blasted his way through the middle for 47 more to start this drive. Notre Dame rebounded to force fourth down inside their own 10-yard line, but on a play in which the Irish drilled the UNLV quarterback no less than four times behind the line of scrimmage, they couldn’t finish off the tackle. Ultimately, the Rebels managed the two yards necessary for the first down. From there, they punched in their second touchdown.
Diggs, ground game buries Rebels
After trading punts, the Irish turned to the run game to put away the feisty visitors from Las Vegas. On a 13-play drive, Notre Dame ran the ball 12 times, highlighted by nine carries from Diggs. Of the 62 yards gained in the drive, 61 came via the ground game, and eventually, Tyree found the end zone from eight yards out.
UNLV scored again, making them just the third offense to exceed 20 points against the Irish defense (Ohio State, UNC). The score came with some drama, as the Irish almost lost Bertrand to a targeting penalty which would have kept him out of next week’s contest at Syracuse. The call was overturned, and the Irish forced a 4th and goal, but they couldn’t hold the Rebels. Ultimately, UNLV only entered the Irish red zone three times, but they came away with seven points on all three occasions.
However, Notre Dame came back to the ground game on seven of their final nine plays. After recovering an onside kick, Diggs ran seven times for 33 yards on the final drive. The other yards came on two Braden Lenzy receptions, the second of which was a jet sweep toss that went the final four yards for a score.
Ultimately, Notre Dame didn’t walk away with a monster victory, but after last week, a 23-point victory felt massive. “This place [Notre Dame Stadium] is special. We haven’t had the greatest of showings in our home games,” Freeman said. “We needed to make sure our players understood the importance of performing well at home. It has to be an advantage for us.”
Notre Dame moves onto a road game next week against Syracuse. The Orange lost their first game of the year Saturday, 27-21 to unbeaten Clemson. The Irish will look for their second ranked win of the season against the surprising Syracuse squad, and the game will kick off at either noon or 3:30 EST.
Contact Aidan Thomas at email@example.com.