Cougars, Irish about face since last time

Last October 20, the nation's second-best defense (Notre Dame) and the nation's fifth-ranked defense (Brigham Young) alternately took the field at Notre Dame Stadium. The result was a predictably poor day for the teams' respective offenses: 632 total yards with three turnovers and 10 punts intermixed. Just 31 points scored in a 17-14 Irish victory.

Fast forward 13 months and the visitors from that brisk fall afternoon rank among the nation's top offensive teams, a robust 503 yards per contest keyed by a rushing attack that churns out 265 per game, good for #12 nationally.

But BYU's defense, assumed stout at the season's outset, has joined Notre Dame's in a relative fall from grace. Neither ranks among the nation's top 20 at mitigating points or its top 30 in limiting yards.

And unlike last year's game in which the then fifth-ranked Irish were prohibitive favorites, the teams enter Saturday on relatively equal ground. Both 7-3, but with the Cougars staked as a rare one-point favorite inside the the House that Rockne Built.

Notre Dame fans are well-aware of issues on the 2013 Irish home front, but why the change from dominant defense to an offense that pays the bills in Provo?

"The quarterback," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of BYU sophomore Taysom Hill. "His ability to extend plays, his accuracy, more than anything else, his ability to throw the football has really changed their offensive structure. They struggled to throw the ball last year. And more than anything, his big play ability. He's fast. He's a guy that can take a run and turn it into a big play."

BYU averaged just 4.9 yards per pass attempt vs. the Irish defense last season though their two second quarter touchdowns, both via the pass, were the first scored vs. Bob Diaco's unit after four perfect outings.

"At the end of the day, it think it really just centers around him," said Kelly of the dual-threat Hill. "He's a sophomore, he's much more comfortable in this offense, this read-option, spread offense. And what they do, and an advantage that they have that's not only tempo, is that they can run their offense out of multiple formations. They force a lot of adjustments and they've done a really good job."

Kelly noted tempo among the keys to the Cougars attack, and when clicking it's frenetic: 93, 99, 95, 74, 82, 69, 115, 91, 81, and 69 -- numbers that mark the total snaps taken by the BYU offense over their first 10 games. The low totals of 69 came vs. Georgia Tech and Idaho State, respectively, both easy Cougars victories.

(To put the Cougars approach in perspective, BYU rushed the ball 72 times for 550 yards vs. Texas in Week Two. Notre Dame has had one contest, a win over Arizona State, in which it exceeded 72 total snaps this season.)

"90 plays is about tempo but it's still about efficiency," said Kelly of the Cougars target total for snaps in a contest. "When they're averaging 90, they've been extremely efficient offensively. When they've dipped below that number, defenses have had something to do with it, and then the (opponents') offenses have controlled the football."

Kelly added, "They run 90 plays if your offense is three-and-out…we'll need to hold onto the football and have some controlled drives with an eye to keeping their offense off the field."

Three teams to date have been successful defending BYU's read-option, spread attack. Virginia, Utah, and most recently, Wisconsin. Each beat the Cougars, though the Cavaliers -- one of the nation's worst teams -- did so in the season opener. Utah won in Week Three.

"I would discount the Virginia game," said Kelly. "A first-year offensive coordinator (Robert Anae). They were still trying to sort themselves out. I think Utah and Wisconsin are very, very good defensive football teams. Both of them have proven to be. If you look at Utah's win against Stanford and certainly the ability for Wisconsin to play with anybody, these are very good defenses.

"We're capable. We're going to have to play really good defense…and that means assignments are going to be huge. We can't have the quarterback unattended to; the dive unattended to. We're going to get some run-pass conflicts that we're going to have to be on-body with. They really force you to be on task every play. Wisconsin did a great job; Utah did a great job. If we can do that, we can keep the points down as well."

Wisconsin's defense ranks sixth nationally; Utah's 54th. The Irish (#33) have had precious few games this fall in which the defense has played well for 60 minutes vs. a quality foe. Two that come to mind were victories over teams currently in the top 25 in Michigan State (13 points allowed, 254 yards) and USC (10, 330).

The fact that Pittsburgh and its 105th-ranked offense managed 28 best illustrates Kelly's angst.

Familiar Face

Thirty-three Irish seniors will be saluted Saturday afternoon prior to the contest. The collection includes seniors in class, those that enrolled in 2010, and graduates leftover from the 2009 freshmen group, the Charlie Weis regime.

The 2010 seniors will likewise welcome one of their former classmates to the fray, current BYU safety and August transfer from Notre Dame, Chris Badger.

"He was recruited under a different system, quite frankly," said Kelly when asked why Badger never found the field in South Bend. "Chris is a great kid, a good athlete. He was recruited in a different defensive system. They were looking for more of a middle of the field safety that can run the alley in the middle of the field. We're a two-deep safety team that likes to play off the hash a lot more."

Badger initially committed to Weis in June 2009 and stuck with his commitment to the Irish. He took a two-year religious mission to Ecuador during the 2010-11 seasons and practiced as a member of the Irish scout team last season. He was granted an NCAA waiver for the 2013 and allowed to play for the Cougars in September despite transferring from Notre Dame in August.

"There was probably a better fit from that standpoint," said Kelly of BYU's defense. "That's how they like to play, they're not a huge Cover 2 team. (Starting safety, Daniel) Sorensen is a guy that's going to be a free hat running the alley. We see that as a similar fit to what Chris's skill set is and we had a conversation about that."

Asked if the Irish would need to change any signals with Badger available to decipher them on the opposite sideline, Kelly offered, "There's not going to be a ton of things. The signaling system is fairly complicated. You would have to dissect those, then get them (to the coaches) then back out to the offense. And as you know, it's not where you start (align) it's where you finish, defensively. The short answer would be, we've taken measures and we're not concerned about it."

Badger has played in seven games and has six tackles including sharing a half-tackle for loss this fall, his first official action since his high school senior season of 2009 in Provo. Five of his six stops including the TFL occurred last week vs. Idaho State, a 59-13 BYU win.

He's listed as a freshman on the Cougars roster and is thus eligible to compete through 2016.

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