No. 16 BYU anxious to achieve its “best ball” against Notre Dame
Five games into the season, BYU football is still trying to figure itself out.
Are the Cougars the squad that continues to start slow, stiff and uninspired, or are they the team that rallies and adjusts in the second half to assume control? Can BYU’s defense stop the run, and can its offense run consistently? Shouldn’t a veteran team such as the Cougars be much more disciplined?
BYU may be 4-1, but Kalani Sitake’s countenance would suggest quite the opposite. The seventh-year head coach has been noticeably frustrated in practices and while addressing the media, seemingly haunted by the fact that the Cougars have yet to align all three phases of the game together at the same time. Aside from stalwart quarterback Jaren Hall, practically every other component of the team has shown signs of disaster at some point.
“I’d like to see us play better,” Sitake said most recently on Monday, but has probably also stated at least a couple dozen other times throughout the season. “I’d like to see us play at our best.”
The opening energy BYU displayed against USF and Baylor has been nowhere to be found since. Home matchups against Wyoming and Utah State — with the Cougars being heavily favored on both occasions — resulted in alarmingly slow starts to make each win feel more awkward than encouraging. Despite plenty of roster familiarity, players rarely mesh together as a cohesive unit, and with 21 penalties over the past two contests, it seems as if flags are seeing the field just as much as BYU’s starters.
Something’s got to give, and the team knows it. Several intense, players-only meetings over the past week have attempted to solve the various issues plaguing the Cougars. If that doesn’t work, maybe the new blackout uniforms will.
“It’s been unacceptable to do what we’ve been doing,” linebacker Payton Wilgar said. “There’s no room for coming out soft and slow.”
Following a crapshoot September, Sitake’s squad will test its luck in Las Vegas this Saturday, facing Notre Dame at Allegiant Stadium for the Irish’s annual Shamrock Series game.
“This is why we all came to BYU, to play in games like this,” Wilgar said. We get to play an elite football program in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, so I don’t think it gets much bigger than this and we are all very excited to see what we can do.”
It’s been a disappointing year for Notre Dame so far, now 2-2 under a new coaching staff and having thrusted its backup quarterback into the starting role. Ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll, the Irish dropped their first two contests — including an embarrassing home loss to unranked Marshall — and now find themselves desperate to salvage the campaign. New Year’s Six and playoff hopes have all but vanished in South Bend, making Saturday against BYU a must-win scenario just to remain relevant.
That’s not to say the Irish aren’t dangerous— it is Notre Dame, after all. Sure, they’re no Alabama or Georgia this year, but the Irish still have plenty of NFL-caliber talent, most notably in tight end Michael Mayer.
Sitake noted that much like BYU, Notre Dame “hasn’t played its best football yet” but has shown “flashes” of greatness at times, which may help the Cougars more than the Irish. “This game comes at the right time for us.. I want the best versions of ourselves, and sometimes going against a great team with amazing talent gets the guys excited to do that.”
Having one of the weaker receiving groups in the nation, the Irish have been forced to make a living on the ground, rushing for 160 yards per game and offering the BYU defense a chance to make a statement combatting its most common criticism.
“We need to stop the run if we want to have success,” linebacker Max Tooley said. “We have everything we need to be able to do that.”
Hall should feast on Notre Dame’s mediocre secondary, but the Cougar offense could use a loud outing from either Chris Brooks or Miles Davis to solidify BYU’s schizophrenic run game and determine who should be the featured back going forward.
“Each of our running backs is getting better, and as they’re getting better we’re sorting things out in the run game,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “If somebody else plays well, what you hope for is that the other guys step up too.”
A win Saturday could be enough to break the Cougars out of their funk. A loss could tear the team right apart, all while the Irish just need to save their season.
You couldn’t ask for a more intriguing Bible bash in Sin City.
“We haven’t played our best ball yet, and that’s kinda scary,” defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally said. “It’s gonna be hard to stop us.”
The Cougars and Irish kick off at 5:30 p.m. MDT Saturday in Las Vegas. The game will be broadcast on NBC.