Late rally fizzles as No. 16 BYU falls 28-20 to Notre Dame

LAS VEGAS — Second half adjustments couldn’t save the Cougars this time around, as No. 16 BYU fell just short Saturday in a 28-20 loss to Notre Dame in Las Vegas.

“We’re not playing the type of football that we want,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’ve got to figure this out.”

There would be no “luck of the Irish” for BYU in the Shamrock Series showdown. On paper, all signs should have pointed toward disaster for the men in black, especially after Jaren Hall was immediately picked off on the game’s first play.

It didn’t stop there.

The Cougars mustered a mere 67 total yards in the first half and fell into a 25-6 hole.

Hall completed just nine passes on the evening.

BYU gave up a safety and never logged a sack.

Notre Dame more than doubled BYU’s time of possession.

Only one Cougar receiver caught multiple passes.

The Irish offense churned for nearly 500 yards.

BYU was a miserable 3-9 on third down.

The list goes on and on. When you add the fact that Hall was clearly impaired by a nagging shoulder injury, you would think Notre Dame ran away with a convincing victory.

Yet, somehow, BYU still held a chance to avoid defeat late in the fourth quarter, marching downfield while trailing by eight in front of a sold out Allegiant Stadium crowd. Victory remained a long shot, sure, but the momentum swing of a game-tying score and conversion would be hard to deny, especially if the affair stretched into overtime.

With just under four minutes to play, the Cougars stood at the Irish 27-yard line. It was fourth down, with a single yard separating BYU from renewed life on its drive to undertake one of the more dramatic comebacks in recent program history.

In this, the most critical play of the season thus far, BYU dialed up.. a simple dive to Lopini Katoa, who was met by a swarm of Irish defenders and rejected from any forward progress.

The Cougars had a future NFL quarterback under center, a 90-yard rusher in the backfield, two bruising fullbacks in the stables and a creative offensive mind in Aaron Roderick running the show, yet they handed off to their least prolific short yardage option in Katoa.

“(It was) disheartening that we weren’t able to get that, and credit to Notre Dame for making the play,” Sitake said. “But that was frustrating, not getting that play done.

“We just couldn’t generate enough momentum to get into the end zone. We dug ourselves too big of a hole and didn’t play consistently enough.”

Hall stumbled for the first time in his near-flawless 2022 campaign, finishing 9-17 in passing with just 120 yards and the lowest rating of his career. Receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua — finally both available together for the first time all season — ended up as non-factors, totaling two total touches and 18 yards as a pair.

“I like the way we fought,” Hall said. “In the second half we came back, we made it a fight. But when it comes down to it, we just didn’t do enough and we’ve got to learn and play better next week.”

Picking up the slack on offense, Kody Epps played the game of his life, racking up 100 yards and two touchdowns on four catches as the only BYU receiver with multiple receptions. The Cougars also ran the ball effectively, with Chris Brooks and Katoa leading the charge for 160 team yards at 5.5 yards per carry.

Even with a breakout from Epps and BYU finally having success on the ground, the Cougars could only run 46 plays, having the ball for less than 20 minutes at Allegiant and breaking a 51-game streak of more than 300 total yards. “That’s not gonna do it,” Sitake said.

Irish tight end Michael Mayer — almost undoubtedly the best player BYU will face all season — abused the Cougar defense for 11 catches, 118 yards and two touchdowns. While Mayer was targeted 15 times on his own, Hall threw just 17 times. Quarterback Drew Pyne was an efficient 22-28 in passing with three touchdowns, while Notre Dame’s ground game gobbled up 160 yards as well.

“Notre Dame had too much efficiency in their passing game, and the run game still hurt us,” Sitake said. “(Mayer) is a great player. We’ve got to get better and get ready for the next one.”

BYU’s defense held its own in the second half to force a punt, field goal and Max Tooley interception to keep the offense in the fight, but the Cougars’ crippling first half struggles continued in surrendering four scores on Notre Dame’s first six drives, making any sort of rally a gargantuan task.

“We need to come out in the first half and make a statement early, but we just haven’t been able to do that,” Tooley said.

Even when the Cougars stuffed the Irish at the goal line, Hall immediately went down in the end zone for a safety on the ensuing offensive possession, handing two points and the ball back to Notre Dame for Pyne to lead another scoring drive. It was just one of those nights.

“It has everything to do with us on offense,” Hall said. “When you start the first play of the game with the interception, that’s on the quarterback, that’s on me. Then we go score, have some good momentum and then take a sack in the red zone. All that stuff is on me as a quarterback with the ball in my hands.. You can’t score points that way and it’s really hard to win games.”

It’s been an awkward first half of the season, with the Cougars now 4-2 and lacking any sort of identity. BYU looks to pick up the pieces and move forward Saturday at home against a formidable SEC opponent in Arkansas.

“The sense of urgency needs to take place.. these stupid mistakes can’t keep happening,” Sitake said. “We’re at midseason, we should be in better form with organization.”

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