South Bend, IN – The now fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish put their unblemished record on the line this weekend, as the play host to the BYU Cougars.
Brian Kelly's Irish have beaten the odds so far, and all of their opponents to date, surviving a gauntlet of foes, including marquee wins over a trio of top-25 teams in Michigan State (20-3), Michigan (13-6) and most recently, Stanford (20-13 OT). With the win over the Cardinal, the Irish were awarded the fifth spot in the first edition of the BCS rankings that came out last Sunday.
Bronco Mendenhall is an impressive 70-27 at his alma mater, but the Cougars have struggled to remain above .500, sitting at 4-3 overall this season. BYU is facing its second straight top-10 foe, after falling to Oregon State last weekend in Provo, 42-24.
This is just the seventh all-time meeting between these two programs. Notre Dame holds a 4-2 series edge and won the last matchup, 49-23 in 2005.
BYU possesses a balanced offense that is churning out just under 400 yards per game, with solid rushing (173.6 ypg) and adequate passing (223.0 ypg).
The real problem for the team is lack of consistency under center, as neither Riley Nelson nor Taysom Hill have distinguished themselves. Nelson is coming off a game in which he threw for 305 yards on a career-high 28 completions against Oregon State, but three interceptions were certainly problematic. On the year, Nelson has completed just 57.6 percent of his throws, for 1,059 yards, with six touchdowns against eight interceptions. Hill provides more of a threat with his legs, ranking second on the team with 336 yards and four TDs. The freshman adds about 70 yards passing per game.
No matter who is under center, Cody Hoffman has been the primary target, leading BYU in receptions (41) and receiving yards (534). Jamaal Williams, a 17-year old freshman, is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and leads the team with 345 rushing yards and five scores.
BYU's defense was torched last week for 450 yards by the Beavers, a bit of an anomaly, as the Cougars have been strong on that side of the football this year, ranking seventh nationally in scoring defense (13.6 ppg), third in rush defense (67.9 ypg) and fifth in total defense (260.9 ypg).
Despite last week's performance, Mendenhall is looking forward to this week's defensive matchup.
"I'm excited about it. I think Notre Dame is very good on defense. I'm anxious to have our defense perform as they did the first six weeks, not as they performed last week. That's my main focus right now, to get them to perform like I know they're capable of."
Linebacker Brandon Ogletree paces the team with 57 total tackles. Fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been a force upfield, disrupting opposing offenses with team-highs in both TFLs (11.5) and sacks (7.5).
BYU's staunch run defense will be put to the test by Notre Dame this week, as the Irish are beginning to get their ground game going. The team is averaging a solid 181.2 yards per game rushing the football, with a trio of productive tailbacks in Theo Riddick (308 yards, three TDs), George Atkinson III (9.1 ypc, three TDs) and Cierre Wood (5.9 ypc, two TDs).
Perhaps a weakness on the offensive side of the ball is the inconsistent play of starting quarterback Everett Golson, who has completed 58.5 percent of his passes, for 968 yards, with four TDs and three INTs. Golson's decision making could force Kelly to make a change to veteran Tommy Rees, who saved the day against Stanford, after Golson suffered a mild concussion. Rees has actually played well in spot duty this year and the Irish may not miss a beat with him under center. While no one has stood out as a go-to-guy downfield, All- American tight end Tyler Eifert (15 receptions, 246 yards, two TDs) remains a dangerous target.
Golson is responsible for all seven of Notre Dame's turnovers this season, including three in the win over Stanford, something Kelly is concerned with.
"Very concerned. It's something that we cannot continue to have. He's got to take better care of the football, and he's got to do it in practice, and he's got to be smarter. I think if you look at the first turnover, we're talking about mishandling a direct snap, something that we do every day, totally unacceptable. The other turnover was holding onto the ball. It was the sack fumble against the three man rush. Again, maybe we could have put him in better situation there. And then the third one, it's easy for him to just step out of bounds and avoid contact. So all of them are coachable, all of them are correctable, and we'll continue to work on it with him so we can eliminate these mistakes."
It is a defense that has not yielded an offensive touchdown since Sept. 8 that has fueled Notre Dame's run this season. The Irish continue to dominate on that side of the football, ranking second nationally in scoring defense (8.7 ppg), 14th in pass defense (173.5 ypg) and 11th in total defense (287.0 ypg). In addition, the team has collected 15 turnovers.
Middle linebacker Manti Te'o has placed himself among the favorites for the Butkus Award this season. The two-time All-American leads the team in tackles (59), with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The defensive front is big, with a trio of 300-pounders, headlined by sophomore end Stephon Tuitt, (23 tackles, 6.5 sacks). Senior safety Zeke Motta (37 tackles) and junior cornerback Bennett Jackson (27 tackles, four interceptions) lead the way in the secondary.