SOUTH BEND, Ind. — “Must win” is an obnoxious phrase in sports. Aside from an elimination game, a “must win” game is typically being discussed hyperbolically. In college football, it is so widely applicable, it hardly has any meaning. Once a team of Notre Dame’s usual standing loses a game, every game after that becomes a “must win,” the second loss eliminating any hopes of a Playoff berth. Are “must wins” that special of moments anymore? Once the Irish lost to Marshall on Sept. 10, could any game this season be considered a “must win”?
For once, yes, as illustrated by Notre Dame (3-3) clashing with UNLV (4-3) this afternoon. Lose this game as a four-score favorite and all logic of any kind will be out the window for the last five games of the Irish season.
While the Rebels started the season 4-1, they have fallen by a combined score of 82-14 in their last two games, playing most of those blowouts without starting quarterback Doug Brumfield, expected to be sidelined again today due to the lingering effects of a concussion suffered in the first of those routs.
With Brumfield, perhaps UNLV could put a scare into an Irish team still struggling to find its way in general under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman, particularly at home where Notre Dame has lost outright twice this season as a three-score favorite. Without Brumfield, now leaning on last year’s Mountain West Freshman of the Year in quarterback Cam Friel, the Rebels have been unable to find any offensive rhythm.
No matter what UNLV puts forth on the field, a loss today would cast a level of uncertainty around the Irish that may be unprecedented. Not that a gambling spread should measure the magnitude of a loss, but it does provide a metric of how unexpected a defeat may be. Notre Dame has not lost as a four-possession favorite since … well, the database of choice around here, OddsShark.com, does not go back that far, noting 36 times since the 1995 season in which the Irish were favored by at least 21 points. They won them all, including 20 times as a favorite of 25 points or more and 31 times (at that -21 number) this century.
The Marshall loss in mid-September featured the Herd as a 20-point underdog, to be clear. Stanford was a 16.5-point underdog.
While a “guarantee game” as far as a payment to UNLV may go, this afternoon is a must win for Notre Dame.
TIME: 2:30 ET on what will presumably be the last delightful fall Saturday in South Bend, with afternoon temperatures in the mid-70s and weather.com describing the day as “Sunny” and “Mostly Sunny.” Some winds may swirl — perhaps something to note if the Irish hold the Rebels to field-goal attempts — but otherwise, anyone in attendance should delight in the day.
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This is college football in 2022, when every SEC team appears on ESPN+ at least once this season, when Oklahoma has finally caved to typical streaming apps rather than its traditional exorbitantly-priced pay-per-view model, when an NFL game each week is available only on Amazon Prime. Major League Baseball committed to AppleTV this season. The NBA has multiple franchises that wish they had a viable streaming outlet given the incompetent greed of the Sinclair Broadcast Group/Diamond Sports Group/Bally Sports.
If wanting to support Irish junior running back Chris Tyree, go ahead and join the Chris Tyree Membership Program, which delivers its members six months of Peacock Premium, in addition to some Tyree-specific perks, part of the NBC Sports Athlete Direct NIL initiative.
Li'l Sebastian knows the only way to catch @NDFootball on Saturday is on @Peacock.
I mean, after all, this horse has an honorary degree from Notre Dame, son.
➡️ https://t.co/UHOEnivmkA#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/FNJEeoEPg7
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) October 21, 2022
PREVIEW: Notre Dame has not found itself in a position where a win against UNLV is hardly assumed because the Irish defense failed. Notre Dame is giving up only 20.8 points per game, once deducting the points scored by Marshall on an interception returned for a touchdown. Giving up 16 to Stanford should have been enough of a defensive effort.
But the Irish defense is starting to wear thin, and if this afternoon remains close longer than expected, fatigue may begin to set in. Looking at Notre Dame’s preseason defensive two-deep, it finished last week’s loss without its top-two defensive tackles (Jayson Ademilola and Jacob Lacey), veteran linebacker Bo Bauer, its top-two nickel backs (Tariq Bracy and Jaden Mickey), a rotational safety (Ramon Henderson) and with its top nose tackle (Howard Cross) on an injured ankle.
This is football, injuries are to be expected, but the emphatic nature of losing three players along the interior (with Lacey as an outgoing transfer) and both the top nickel backs compounded the concerns.
Freeman described fifth-year Ademilola as “day-to-day” this week with a rib contusion.
“He has tried to practice a little bit,” Freeman said Thursday. “He hasn’t practiced the entirety of a practice yet like he would normally do on game week, but he’s doing more and more every day. … It’s not a bone it’s not a strain, it’s more just the healing of a muscle in his rib. The ability for him to continue to take deep breaths, that’s my biggest concern.”
Mickey is also questionable with an abductor strain, while Bracy continues to work his way back from a hamstring difficulty, and Henderson takes it gingerly on a balky ankle.
Two things are true amid these injuries: The Irish still defended well enough against Stanford, though not forcing any turnovers, to win the game; and if there is any tangible reason for Notre Dame to worry today, it is if another injury or two joins this list.
Week 8 FEI Game Projections: https://t.co/mjl3c5O3bs
Only five teams with 90%+ win likelihood:
San Jose State
— Brian Fremeau (@bcfremeau) October 19, 2022
PREDICTION: As of Friday night, the Irish are favored by 26.5 points with a combined points total Over/Under of 47.5, suggesting something akin to a 37-10 Notre Dame victory.
There are two struggles to that logic: The Irish have not shown enough consistency to put faith in them scoring 37 points against anybody; and UNLV may not cross midfield twice, let alone put points on the scoreboard twice.
This is where Notre Dame’s defense factors in on both sides of the ball. As long as the Irish do not create short fields with turnovers, forcing only two through six games, and hardly back up the opposing offense with repeated tackles for loss, averaging just 5.5 each week, they will force Notre Dame’s stumbling offense to cover most of the field to score.
Junior quarterback Drew Pyne has played well enough to have confidence at points, but repeatedly forcing him to cover 70 yards to score is asking a bit much.
But as long as the Irish defense also holds UNLV in check, then those Notre Dame drives will take time, they will chew clock, they will lower the final score as much as general inefficiency does.
Notre Dame 31, UNLV 3
(Spread: 2-4; Over/Under: 2-4; Straight-up: 3-3)
We are excited to be teaming up with our great friends at @CFH_Difference and @UnderArmour as part of our Cleats for a Cause initiative💚
Want to see the cleats up close?
🎟: https://t.co/p8jB2hNf0L #GoIrish x #C4C pic.twitter.com/OvaULir6nw
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) October 18, 2022
AN ON-FIELD NOTE
Pause your Peacock broadcast at some point and take special note of the cleats the Irish wear. Deemed “Cleats For A Cause,” every player will wear specially-designed cleats representing one of four local charities: the South Bend Center for the Homeless, the Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County, the YMCA of Greater Michiana, and Cultivate Food Rescue.
RELATED READING: Notre Dame football partners with local charities in ‘Cleats For A Cause’
Each cleat was handpainted and will be auctioned after the game, at which point all the proceeds will go to the four charities.
INSIDE THE IRISH
— Impatient Notre Dame fans need to remember, there are only 12 of these Saturdays to enjoy
— ‘It’s A Disaster’: How and why to watch Notre Dame on Peacock
— Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s ‘fixes’ of a fast start and some defensive havoc against UNLV on Saturday
— And In That Corner … Can the injured UNLV Rebels give Notre Dame another challenge?
— How to watch Notre Dame vs UNLV on Saturday exclusively on Peacock
How we pullin’ up to South Bend 😈😤#BEaREBEL pic.twitter.com/nuuD3ugam9
— UNLV Football (@unlvfootball) October 20, 2022
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two point nine five percent https://t.co/4rlT4hTdJF
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 18, 2022