What kind of challenge awaits Notre Dame this weekend? Irish Illustrated caught up with beat writer Jared Lloyd of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah to find out more about the Cougars.
Irish Illustrated: Seven games into the season, is this team about what you expected? What's the biggest takeaway from the Oregon State game?
Jared Lloyd: As far as the season goes, the fear that Riley Nelson and the quarterback position would be unsettled has happened. They haven't had consistency there, and as you guys know at Notre Dame, shuffling quarterbacks hurts offensive efficiency when you have different guys in there. Back-up Taysom Hill and Nelson have some similarities, but their experience levels are different. It's tough for an offense to really get into rhythm when your starter is out with a back injury. There's been shuffling on the offensive line too and I think that's hurt them.
The defense in general has played very, very well. Saturday they weren't at that level, but the defense gave the team a chance to be in the game, even though they got picked apart a little bit. If anything, the defense has been slightly better than expected. We knew they were going to be good, but maybe not at this consistently high of a level.
Offensively, this team is below expectations. They've lost two or three guys for the season, lost a running back, haven't gotten consistent tight end play. And a lot goes back to the quarterback. You need people to know what to expect. BYU hasn't had that on offense.
II: What lessons do you think BYU learned last weekend against Oregon State, a Top 10 team that they were in a tight game with into the fourth quarter?
JL: I came into that game thinking Oregon State was a little overrated, based on who they'd beaten and how close those games were. The BYU game (Oregon State won 42-24) was their biggest win in scoring margin. They beat Washington State, Wisconsin and the win at Arizona was nice. So it's a good team, but I still would have ranked them about five spots lower if I was voting.
Oregon State is a talented team, particularly at wide receiver. They have two of the best athletes there that I've seen in a while. The receivers showed the ability to make tough catches, make people miss, adjust to the ball in the air. That group really challenged the BYU secondary.
What I took away from that game is BYU has to get pressure. Oregon State did a lot of max-protect things and while the BYU secondary is good, they're not going to be able to cover people for six, seven, eight seconds. Oregon State's receivers are too good for that. So BYU's defense has to get back to getting in the backfield. That's something BYU has to do to be successful.
The offense showed some signs of life last week. They had a chance to tie the game 28-28, but a high throw doesn't get caught and Oregon State holds on. Who knows what would have happened then. BYU is still a good team, a solid team. But where they struggle is playing from behind. They have rallied when they've been down, but they don't seem able to come all the way back. The only time they've come back to win a game was against Utah State. They were down 3-0 and won 6-3. This is a team much more comfortable playing in front, it lets them control the clock and control the game.
II: How healthy is Nelson going into this weekend with the back injury?
JL: The injury is in the past, at least that's what he said. You take that for what it's worth, because you never know if it could tighten up during the week. But if there are issues there, we haven't heard about it. He did get hit quite a bit during the Oregon State game, got sacked four times. BYU definitely didn't keep his jersey spotless. Overall, it didn't seem to affect him. I supposed nobody is 100 percent right now, but I'd say Nelson is in the 85-to-90 percent range.
II: You mentioned the injuries on the offensive line. What's the medical report there in terms of who's out and how BYU has replaced them?
JL: Houston Reynolds was a guy with experience at guard and center, he started one games this year and was lost for the season after having injury issues. Famika Anae is another guy who had injuries stack up and he's done for the year. Neither were full-time starters, but they both started games this year.
Another issue is at center, they moved Braden Hansen there and he's done a pretty good job. He replaced Blair Tushaus, who was undersized for the position and some of the opponents were taking advantage of that. The center of BYU's line was kind of getting abused a little bit.
Overall, the tackle position has been fairly well set.
II: What makes the run defense so good? BYU hasn't played a lot of good running teams, but what makes this group so effective?
JL: The biggest thing is the ability for the defensive linemen to tie up blockers. BYU has lost a couple defensive linemen to injury, but the emergence of Ezekiel Ansah has really helped the pass rush. Overall, the defensive line's job is to tie guys up, not allow them to get to the second level, so linebackers Brandon Ogletree, Kyle Van Noy, Spencer Hadley and Uona Kaveinga can fly around and make tackles. Those guys are very good at reading the play, plugging the hole and then gang tackling. That's stopped guys from lunging forward, getting those extra yards after contact. Oregon State broke a couple big runs and rushed for 118 yards, which is about double the average this year.
II: How significant is this game for BYU? A lot of people were talking this group up as a 10-win team, which is obviously impossible with the loss this weekend.
JL: Right, another loss and 10 wins is out of the question. There's pride on the line because BYU has been a consistently winning team over and over. All three losses are games where BYU has been close in the fourth quarter. Make a few more plays and this could be a 7-0 team going to Notre Dame.
The build up for this game would be spectacular if both teams were unbeaten, in the top 15, what a fun environment that would be. But it didn't happen for BYU, they didn't make the plays. So what guys are talking about is building on the season, showing that BYU is better than its record. They have to prove that against a top five team, in South Bend. They know that's something that would get people's attention. BYU hasn't made the plays, but it believes that it can.
II: Who are a couple guys who have really impressed you this year outside of receiver Cody Hoffman?
JL: Most people would point to Ezekiel Ansah. He's a senior from Ghana who didn't know how to play football until a couple years ago. He used to be a track athlete. He's so big and so quick, but he had to be taught the game. He's picked it up relatively quickly. He's a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end who was fast enough to chase down Utah State's quarterback from behind, around the corner. One thing he doesn't do well is handle double team blocks, he's learning to deal with that. But one-on-one, he's got quickness. He's probably been the biggest surprise of the year.
At running back, Jamaal Williams has been the biggest offensive surprise. He's a 17-year old freshman with good burst. But he's still learning that he can't out-maneuver everyone like in high school. Sometimes he needs to lower his pads, get what he can get. He's a passing threat as well in space. Against Oregon State there were a couple plays where if the blocking down the field was just a little better that he could have gone for touchdowns. He has speed in the backfield that BYU hasn't had in a while.
II: For BYU to win this game, what needs to happen?
JL: The offense needs to figure out how to get Notre Dame moving in the wrong direction defensively. The Notre Dame defense is very good and there's a reason that group has such good stats while playing really good opponents. BYU has to work misdirection, motions, create some holes for the passing game, pick up yardage on draws and traps. I think they're going to have a tough time without that stuff.
Defensively, they've got to get to the quarterback. They have the players to do it. I don't know if Notre Dame will use the same blueprint as Oregon State with the max protect passing game, but Notre Dame has some good receivers too. If BYU doesn't get to the quarterback, they're going to have a tough time stopping Notre Dame's offense. I'm curious what BYU takes away from last week, knowing what worked against them.
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