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And In That Corner ... Can the injured UNLV Rebels give Notre Dame another challenge?

Pro Football Focus breaks down the top-5 best prospects for Notre Dame ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft.

A few weeks ago, Notre Dame fans would have seen little competitive intrigue in the Irish (3-3) hosting UNLV (4-3). While the perennial Mountain West cellar dwellers started off the season unexpectedly strong, their truer selves have shown through the last few weeks. Notre Dame should have little issue against UNLV (2:30 ET; Peacock), but last week’s Irish dud against Stanford underscored how little can be presumed in a season of tumult like this one.

To get a better idea of what threat the Rebels may pose, let’s chat with Steve Cofield of ESPN Las Vegas and the UNLV All Access Podcast

Oh, but first, a reminder you will hear all week: UNLV vs. Notre Dame is available exclusively via Peacock, NBC’s streaming app.

DF: Notre Dame has looked rather rough at home this season, but it is not like UNLV has inspired much excitement the last couple weeks. I’ll get to the quarterback wonderings in a moment, but broad strokes, what changed from the Rebels’ 4-1 start and its last two blowout losses? When it was about to face New Mexico (three games ago), I tried to find the last time UNLV had been favored in three straight games against FBS opponents, and my databases did not go back far enough. The season started out with such Rebels promise …

SC: The jump up in competition has been a big part of it. San Jose Staté and Air Force are much better than the four teams the Rebels defeated. And this skid has coincided with the injury to quarterback Doug Brumfield. Brumfield was a Top 15 PFF-rated passer going into the SJSU game. For some reason, the backups seem to be a tick behind from a speed and urgency standpoint.

Certainly, some of the drop-off has been quarterback Doug Brumfield’s concussion at San Jose State. What are his chances of playing at Notre Dame this week, after missing the Air Force game entirely?

I think Brumfield is very questionable for the game against the Irish. He’s still in concussion protocol, and he’s also dealing with an ankle injury. He didn’t dress for practice on both Tuesday and Wednesday.

As a method of asking about both possible quarterback scenarios, could you compare and contrast Brumfield with sophomore quarterback Cameron Friel?

Brumfield’s urgency is way ahead of Friel’s. In his limited playing time this season, Friel has looked hesistant to hit his first couple of reads. He’s also been late on throws. Brumfield was getting the ball out on time. Doug is also much more mobile. Without Brumfield, the Rebels have also lost most of their rollout game.

Losing Brumfield does not explain all the struggles against the Spartans and the Falcons. I mean, Air Force scored 42 points while UNLV ran 35 plays. Every few years, we wonder if Vanderbilt can gain more yards than Georgia will score, but this points vs. plays ugliness might be a new one. What about that lopsided showing should Notre Dame strive to replicate?

Friel had trouble adjusting protection against the Air Force blitz and San José State pressure. Notre Dame should try and force him off his spot. The Irish should also test the middle of the field by going after the strong safeties. UNLV’s top-two strong safeties could be out this week. Tyson Player has been out all season, and now Jordyn Morgan is questionable. That spot will be filled with JUCO transfer Trent Holloway and Limestone-transfer Kris Wiliams.

Before this season, even a week ago, I would have looked at this as a glorified practice for the Irish. The talent disparity is that undeniable. If looking at the team talent composite from 247 Sports, 109 spots separate these two. But given what we saw from Notre Dame last week, I am not sure even this should be assumed. (Then again, Stanford had 22 four-star recruits on its roster, per that composite, compared to one from UNLV.) Aside from the obvious of turnover luck and something flukey, what would the Rebels need to work without flaw to spring this upset?

The Rebels could pull the upset if they completely shut down Audric Estimé. The defense was pretty good against the run in the opening five games. Defensive tackle Eliel Ehimare was a Top 15 PFF interior defender through five weeks. Run support from linebacker Austin Ajiake and cornerback Jerrae Williams furthered that cause, but injuries have also hit that defensive line. Two starters are likely out for this game in Naki Fahina and Tavis Malakius.

On offense, their playmakers are receivers Ricky White and Kyle Williams. Get them the ball in space so they can make some plays. The backup running back is Courtney Reese. At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, he can still pop a big run or two. Some of that happens? Then there’s a chance UNLV could put 21-plus on the board.

Before I ask you for a prediction, and this is not the best-phrased question I have ever asked: Would you tell me a bit about Marcus Arroyo as a head coach? He is in his third season, but the first one was 2020, obviously difficult, and he lost the first 14 games of his tenure. My impetus to asking is Notre Dame fans have an increasing curiosity about the viability of first-time head coaches …

Year 1 was a wash. Arroyo was trying to change work habits and culture in the program. They also got decimated by the pandemic. Each week, it seemed like they were walking the fine line of having enough players to field a team for the game.

Year 2, the culture got better. They competed hard in nine of the 12 games. But they went 0-6 in one-score games.

This year has been much better. They’ve closed out games when they had the lead. In four of the first five games, they made the better second-half adjustments.

They also won big in the transfer portal and JUCO ranks — by adding running back Aidan Robbins (from Louisville), defensive back Jordyn Morgan (Iowa State), receiver Ricky White (Michigan State), receiver Jeff Weimer (City College of San Francisco), defensive end Ryan Keeler (Rutgers) and offensive lineman Darius Johnson (Garden City Community College in Kansas). They just need to get healthy ASAP, and their improved depth has to step up big time over the next few weeks.

Now then, that prediction. The Irish are 25-point favorites. What are you expecting to see Saturday afternoon on Peacock?

My pick: Notre Dame 38-16.

tweet to @d_farmer