Having come in behind after some bad bets early in the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish needed a big win to turn their luck around. And on a beautiful Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Irish stared across the table from the BYU Cougars, went all in, and won the hand, 28-20 (a score I predicted exactly, for the second time this season. RECOGNIZE.)
I had the great pleasure of attending this game in person, so I will first provide some thoughts here about the gameday experience. While I share many of the reservations of my co-writers here about the Shamrock Series, this was absolutely a worthwhile iteration. Allegiant Stadium is a great venue, the white-and-gold uniforms looked absolutely gorgeous and the game atmosphere was tremendous as a relatively balanced crowd regularly erupted in favor of both teams. The location elevated this matchup in a way other entries haven’t. A childhood friend of mine who works for the Raiders and was also attending told me he was blown away by the show Notre Dame managed to put on. All this is to say: Jack, if you are going to Shamrock Series, this is how you Shamrock Series.
I could probably make a whole separate column of anecdotes from the rest of my Vegas experience, but that’s not what you’re here for so let’s get into the game analysis.
Michael Mayer, Man in Full
This was a once-in-a-lifetime night for Notre Dame’s star tight end. Not only did he rack up eleven receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns, he broke multiple Notre Dame records during the game and was simply unstoppable for the BYU defense. You probably already know a lot of this, so I’d also like to shine a light here on Michael Mayer, the man and teammate:
On the records he broke:
From Marcus Freeman on the way he plays:
When Mayer’s record-breaking touchdown was highlighted, the junior tight end was shown on the Jumbotron. His reaction? A brief, stoic acknowledgment and fist pump before returning to his conversation on the bench with Audric Estime. Hard worker. Leader. The ultimate team player. And oh yeah, an on-field freakbeast. We have seen some incredible tight ends play for Notre Dame over the years, but Mayer is the best one yet and it’s not particularly close. Enjoy him while you can, folks.
Notre Dame’s Playmakers Begin to Emerge
Mayer was a known playmaker prior to this game, and one of the big question marks for the Irish was who else would emerge alongside him. On Saturday night, the Irish offered a plethora of answers. It was a good night again for the running backs, as Audric Estime and Logan Diggs each provided plenty of big-play moments. Jayden Thomas also emerged as a difference-maker on the outside with a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch around the back of a BYU defender and a big catch-and-run in the second half. If the Irish can continue developing weapons all around the field, fans have plenty of reason for optimism about this offense.
I would be remiss not to mention the big plays the Irish made on defense in this game. Backfield havoc from the pass rush created both Tariq Bracy’s game-opening interception and a sack-safety from Jack Kiser, the latter of which was a major momentum-shift after the Irish had been stopped on fourth down near the goal line immediately prior to it. After the Cougars had gotten back in the game, the Irish defense stood tall once more, with Jayson Ademilola making a massive 4th-down TFL. That last one is one I want to highlight because I don’t think it’s play the Irish defense would have made three or four weeks ago. This team has found an intensity and focus we weren’t seeing earlier in the season, and it’s allowing them to play at a far higher level.
For all the good things the Irish did on Saturday night, this game didn’t have to be close, and the Irish missed a great many opportunities to turn it into a rout. The aforementioned goal-line stand by BYU was a product of some very uninspired red-zone playcalling, with the Irish burning a timeout only to run a pair of halfback dives. The lack of misdirection in Notre Dame’s red-zone playcalling also led them to settle for field goals after getting an interception on the first play of the game and after a brilliant Estime run put them in prime position to get ahead two possessions in the fourth quarter. On a nitpicky note, there is also the matter of Chris Tyree letting a screen pass through his hands with nothing but green grass in front of him in the first half, after which the Irish punted.
On defense, breakdowns in the late third and early fourth quarters marred otherwise sterling efforts. Yet another failed safety blitz allowed for a big play immediately after the Irish had seized a three-possession lead. A third-and-17 secured by a sack and TFL was undone by a twenty-yard BYU gain on a run play everyone in the stadium knew was coming. And don’t forget Clarence Lewis’ drop of an easy pick-six that would have not only changed the complexion of this game, but created a much-needed positive moment for the struggling junior corner.
All of these were moments where the Irish either missed an opportunity to extend the lead or allowed BYU back into the game when they were on the ropes, a worrying trend that can be observed all the way back to Marcus Freeman’s debut in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish have shown in the last few games that they can play at the level of a good team; they will have to make these plays in order to be a great one. But let’s focus on the positives here: the Irish passed a big test, one I don’t think any of us would have called them to pass three weeks ago. A home date with the Stanford Cardinal awaits, and I can’t wait to see what this rejuvenated Irish team does to them.