And in that corner… The BYU Cougars

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There is no preordained headline for Notre Dame’s battle this Saturday against BYU. It won’t be in a historic location or against a natural rivalry. ESPN won’t be staked out in front of the library. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical Saturday for the Irish.

With BYU heading to South Bend, two independent teams with a ton of football tradition collide. For the Cougars, a win will get their season back on track after uncharacteristic mistakes have led to three losses. For the Irish, it’ll mean getting win number seven before heading to Norman, Oklahoma for the next biggest game of the year.

To get everybody up to speed on the Cougars, Jeff Call of the Deseret News was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Jeff has been covering Cougar sports since 1993, so needless to say he’s seen his fair share of football teams roll through Provo.

I asked, Jeff answered. Let’s all learn a little bit.

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1. From afar, it feels like an up-and-down season for BYU. I’d probably make the argument that the Cougars have to feel like they should be 5-1. Is that the feeling inside the program?

With 29 seniors on the roster, BYU entered the season with very high expectations. Losing by a combined four points at Utah and Boise State in back-to-back weeks was a disappointment. Riley Nelson suffered a back injury in the win against Weber State, rendering him ineffective against the Utes and Broncos. The Cougars felt they had a great shot to knock off No. 10 Oregon State last week, and they were tied with the Beavers heading into the fourth quarter before some mistakes cost them the game. BYU is still a confident team, knowing it is just a few plays away from being 5-1, and the Cougars are looking at this week’s game at Notre Dame as another great opportunity to prove how good they are.

2. Obviously, the strength of this team is the defense. They’ve put up some impressive numbers and kept BYU in just about every football game. They don’t look like the biggest unit, so how are they playing as well as they are?

We knew going into the season that BYU would be strong defensively. The Cougars had a lot of veteran players returning. But they have been better than advertised. They did give up 332 passing yards last week against Oregon State, but other than that, they’ve been very impressive this season. These guys have great chemistry, they love playing together, and they pride themselves in being in the right spot and executing. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy is a big play-maker, while Brandon Ogletree is the emotional leader. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga and Spencer Hadley have been solid this year. On the defensive line, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a native of Ghana who only started playing football a couple of years ago, has also made an impact and is drawing considerable attention from NFL scouts.

3. Taysom Hill seemed like an intriguing dual-threat player until he went down with an injury. That puts the offense back in Riley Nelson’s hands, who looks to have really regressed this season. Can it all be blamed on a back injury? What’s the current state of the quarterbacking position?

Riley Nelson’s back injury has really hampered him this season, obviously. But what we’re seeing from him this year is what we’ve always seen from him. He’s a risk-taker. Sometimes that results in big plays, sometimes that results in turnovers. There are times when he will scramble around and force a throw into triple coverage rather than throw it away. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is adamant that Nelson continues as the starter because he loves his grit and leadership. With Hill out for the season with a knee injury, James Lark, a senior, is Nelson’s backup. Because Nelson is injury-prone, it wouldn’t surprise anyone around here if Lark ends up seeing significant playing time at some point this season.

4. Give me one player on offense and one player on defense that Notre Dame fans should be worried about.

Offense: Wide receiver Cody Hoffman. He has caught at least one pass in 26 consecutive games and is BYU’s leading receiver (41 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns). Hoffman is Nelson’s favorite target and he can be dangerous.

Defense: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Despite being double-teamed often this season, Van Noy has 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, five pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

5. As someone that follows BYU football, can you give me your perspective on what football independence means for BYU? Do you feel like Notre Dame has been an ally in that process?

BYU officials love independence so far because it provides the school, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a tremendous amount of exposure thanks to the broadcast partnership with ESPN. There are BYU fans throughout the country and throughout the world, and ESPN has given those fans the opportunity to follow the Cougars. Independence also gives BYU flexibility in scheduling, and the series with Notre Dame is something that everyone associated with BYU is excited about. The fact that Notre Dame was willing to schedule BYU shows that Notre Dame has been an ally. However, nobody seems to know how Notre Dame’s decision to partner with the ACC will affect the six-game series. While BYU knows it is not Notre Dame, I think the Cougars are watching Notre Dame very carefully as it navigates independence waters.

6. The Irish opened up as two-touchdown favorites. What’s the recipe for a BYU upset victory?

With the way BYU’s defense has been playing for most of the season, I think the key for an upset rests in the hands of the offense. The Cougars can’t afford to turn the ball over. In their three losses, they have had 10 turnovers — including a pair of pick-sixes and a fumble return for a touchdown. Nelson needs to avoid mistakes like that if BYU has any hope of an upset. The Cougars will need to generate some semblance of a run game, and that could be tough against Notre Dame’s defense, and BYU’s starting running back is a 17-year-old true freshman, Jamaal Williams. The Cougars have had trouble at times getting into the end zone this season, and I know Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown in weeks. But if BYU can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, it has a shot.

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Read Jeff’s work at the Deseret News here. You can also follow him on Twitter @ajeffreycall.