LAS VEGAS — When Notre Dame revealed its white-and-gold uniforms back in July for Saturday’s Shamrock Series against BYU, “All-American tight end fell down” was the first mention of Michael Mayer, courtesy of former Irish offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. doing his best Zach Galifianakis impersonation. Officially wearing that uniform this weekend, Mayer did anything but fall down in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory against the No. 16 Cougars.
He did, however, firmly establish his All-American candidacy while breaking some Irish records.
At first, Notre Dame (3-2) leaned on Mayer to convert third downs, moving the chains on five separate third downs by the end of the game. Then, the Irish sought him out in the end zone, junior quarterback Drew Pyne twice connecting with his favorite target for scores.
For precision’s sake, it should be acknowledged Mayer fell to the grass on both of his touchdown catches, but obviously at that point, he had inflicted the necessary damage on BYU (4-2).
“We knew BYU was going to be a tough team,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “I told them at halftime (leading 18-6), this team wasn’t going to quit. I challenged our guys, we have to match their intensity.”
Mayer broke his own school record for catches in a game by a tight end, 11 exceeding a mark of nine he had previously reached twice. He set the program record for catches by a tight end in a career. And he provided the consistency needed even when the Cougars defensive front stopped Notre Dame in its tracks.
Yet he did not have the best catch of the game. That came from sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas on his first career touchdown catch, climbing up and above a BYU defender to pull in the 30-yard score.
“JT has worked really hard,” Pyne said after throwing for 262 yards and three scores on 22-of-28 passing. “He has all summer, he did in the spring. He deserves that. Just like [sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles] did last week with the post, Jayden Thomas went up there and made a play. I underthrew it and he went up there and made an unbelievable play. I’m so proud of him. We’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s going to be a big role for us in the future.”
Thomas finished with three catches on three targets for 74 yards, while Styles caught all three passes thrown to him for 39 yards. Most of Pyne’s incompletions, in fact, went toward Mayer, completing 11 passes on 15 targets for 118 yards.
Despite that efficiency, a second-half surge from the Cougars put the game very much in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had stymied BYU throughout the first half, to the tune of 67 total yards and 3.2 yards per play. But the Cougars’ first drive after halftime gained 75 yards, punctuated by a 53-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kody Epps, his second of the evening. Their next drive scored, as well. Those two drives, along with the corresponding Irish failures, were the only sustained moments of success for BYU, analytically speaking.
Veteran BYU quarterback Jaren Hall struggled in the first half, showing signs of a shoulder worry, before opening the second half by leading those two touchdown drives. Hall said the shoulder bothered him earlier in the week but insisted it was fine on Saturday. Even with that shoulder nonetheless seemingly affecting his throws early, Hall made only two mistakes, both very costly.
On his very first pass attempt, the very first play from scrimmage, he underthrew his target by at least five yards, allowing Irish fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracy the time and space to settle under the pass like an outfielder under a lazy fly ball. Notre Dame turned that gift into a field goal.
“First play of the game, throw an interception, that’s on the quarterback,” Hall said after finishing with just 120 yards on 9-of-17 passing. “That’s on me. … All of that stuff is on me, the quarterback, with the ball in my hands.”
Toward the end of the first half, Hall was sacked in the end zone by Irish senior linebacker Jack Kiser, failing to get rid of the ball when his first read was not open on a play-action pass in dangerous territory. Along with missing a point after attempt following Epps’ first touchdown, those points very much decided the game. Flip those six points appropriately and the Cougars would have been trailing by one late in the fourth quarter when they were in field-goal range. They could have taken the lead then rather than be stuffed by fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Admeilola and senior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah on a fourth-and-one.
Instead, Mayer’s heroics were enough, his 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns even more impressive than his July film turn.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Freeman found words to describe Mayer, the superlatives that are not rote when they apply to a player this dominant, and then he unveiled a scary thought for Notre Dame’s seven remaining opponents.
“[Tight ends coach Gerad] Parker and [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees have done a great job of still developing Mike,” Freeman said. “He’s not a finished product. That’s tough to say for the guy that holds probably every record at Notre Dame for tight ends. He wants to be pushed. That’s the thing about Michael Mayer. He’s one of those great ones that don’t want to be told what he does well. Tell me how to improve. That’s what makes him special.”
Mayer does not yet hold every record, but he should soon. Last season he set every tight-end-specific receiving record with 71 catches for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. His career totals, including Saturday, of 146 catches for 1,641 yards and 14 touchdowns are a record (set Saturday), 199 yards short of Tyler Eifert‘s mark and one touchdown short of Ken MacAfee’s, respectively.
His 11 catches in Allegiant Stadium set a new program mark, and his two touchdowns can unofficially be considered a new program mark. There may be only one tight-ends record at Notre Dame outside of Mayer’s grasp, and that is Kyle Rudolph’s single-game yards mark of 164, set when he galloped 95 yards for a game-winning touchdown against Michigan in 2010.
Mayer did not know he was on the verge of breaking Eifert’s receptions mark, but when it was announced to the stadium with the video board showing him, Eifert acknowledged the crowd in a unique moment not usually seen during a game.
“I went back, sat on the bench, saw me up on the screen, and I heard they kind of announced it,” Mayer said. “Very grateful. I’ve been around a ton of good football coaches, a ton of good football players that have gotten me to this point, starting in fifth grade, really. I’m just very grateful. Tremendous people here at the University of Notre Dame have gotten me to this point, and I’m grateful.”
It does not seem bold to think there is a good chance Mayer breaks that career yards mark on Oct. 22 against UNLV at Notre Dame Stadium, at which point another home crowd can give him that recognition. For that matter, two more touchdown catches will create another such opportunity.
STAT OF THE GAME
As BYU made things interesting in the second half, jeopardizing the lede of this story that would only ever be applicable tonight, it still never took control of the game.
If a possession is graded as quality for either scoring or getting a first down within the 40-yard line (at which point, it is more likely you will score than not), then eight of Notre Dame’s 10 possessions were quality, while only three of the Cougars’ 10 possessions were.
Look at it this way, the Irish controlled 75.0 percent of the possessions in this game.
Editor’s Note: This statistic was originally incorrectly calculated. The 75 percent now published is the accurate figure. The mistake came from overlooking that Notre Dame’s sole turnover came within BYU’s 40-yard line, making that a quality possession for these purposes. The Irish were likely to score when they made that mistake, and the metric here is, is a team likely to score?
11:25 — Notre Dame field goal. Blake Grupe 26 yards. Notre Dame 3, BYU 0. (8 plays, 36 yards, 3:26)
4:32 — BYU touchdown. Kody Epps 2-yard pass from Jaren Hall. Justen Smith PAT missed. BYU 6, Notre Dame 3. (7 plays, 26 yards, 3:49)
14:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 24-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 10, BYU 6. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:13)
6:50 — Notre Dame safety. Jack Kiser sacks Jaren Hall. Notre Dame 12, BYU 6.
1:03 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jayden Thomas 30-yard pass from Pyne. 2-point conversion no good. Notre Dame 18, BYU 6. (10 plays, 79 yards, 5:42)
8:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 19-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 6. (11 plays, 75 yards, 6:55)
5:27 — BYU touchdown. Epps 53-yard pass from Hall. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 13. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:38)
14:18 — BYU touchdown. Chris Brooks 28-yard rush. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 20. (10 plays, 87 yards, 4:41)
6:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 20 yards. Notre Dame 28, BYU 20. (8 plays, 62 yards, 4:47)