The Irish return to action after their bye week in a Shamrock Series showdown against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas. The Irish looked impressive in their road victory over UNC, but they will need to be on top of their game this weekend against a very talented Cougars team. Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for the Irish this weekend.
1. Find the end zone in the first quarter
The Irish have only scored three points in the first quarter throughout their first four games of the season, and that came in week one against Ohio State. Fortunately for the Irish, their defense has been stellar in the first quarter as well, allowing the Irish to remain within striking range, but some first-quarter offense would be useful.
Against a BYU offense that is averaging nearly 35 points per game this season, the Irish will have to come ready to play out of the gates. BYU quarterback Jaren Hall has been spectacular this season, completing 70.2% of his passes for 1,438 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even if the Irish defense plays well in this one, the Cougars are going to put up some points. For that reason, falling behind early against an experienced, disciplined BYU team will be difficult to overcome later in the game.
In past years, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has been very successful at scripting successful first quarter drives, but that has been non-existent this year. The Irish must go after the Cougars from the start in this one and take some early shots down field. An early Irish touchdown is exactly what the Irish will need to shake off any lingering rust from the bye week. If the Irish start the game with a couple of three-and-outs, frustration might settle in among the Irish offense and disrupt the offensive chemistry of the team going forward.
2. Win the turnover battle (or at least don’t lose it)
The Irish have been horrendous at generating turnovers this season. In fact, their only turnover of the year came in the Irish’s last game against UNC when graduate student defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola recovered a fumble by UNC quarterback Drake Maye. BYU, on the other hand, boasts a plus four turnover battle and they have scored two defensive touchdowns this season.
The Cougars have only turned the ball over once so far this season, so the Irish will have their work cut out for them if they are going to win the battle. That one turnover, an interception by Jaren Hall, came in the first game of the season against South Florida. Since then, Hall has attempted an impressive 144 passes without throwing an interception. While forcing a mistake from Hall seems unlikely, the Irish should strive to not lose the turnover battle. Although the Irish offense looked significantly better last week, the Irish simply are not an explosive enough team to give up defensive touchdowns to BYU and allow their potent offense to get good field position.
3. Continue to run the football
A notable downfall of the Irish offense this season has been the run game. Aside from the UNC game where the Irish averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry, the Irish averaged a disappointing 2.5, 3.5 and 3.6 yards per carry in their first three games. In the impressive performance against UNC, the Irish effectively used a three-back system with sophomore Audric Estime, junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Logan Diggs rushing for 134, 80 and 50 yards, respectively. Diggs was also utilized effectively in the passing game, recording 65 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown.
The Irish should continue to use a three-back system going forward. All three of the running backs are some of the best athletes on the team and all three players have proved their value over the course of their playing careers. With a second-string quarterback under center, the Irish need to prioritize the run game going forward. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne improved significantly against UNC when the Irish started to open up the run game.
The Cougars do not possess a stellar run defense either, ranking 93rd in FBS in that category. Just last week, they gave up over 200 rushing yards to a 1-4 Utah State team. A few weeks before that, they gave up 212 rushing yards to Oregon. The Irish offensive line has been somewhat of a disappointment this season, but last week’s performance against UNC was encouraging. They should be able to push around a BYU defensive line that has generated just 24 tackles for loss this season, which is 94th among FBS teams. If the Irish prioritize establishing a run game early, their success on the ground should open more passing lanes and big plays for an Irish offense that desperately needs more explosive plays.