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Highlights: Notre Dame 28, BYU 20 — Big running plays seal third straight Irish win

Tight end Michael Mayer hauled in two touchdowns to help lead Notre Dame to a 28-20 victory over No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas, as they improved to 11-0 in the Shamrock Series.

LAS VEGAS — Notre Dame’s offense may have enjoyed a new playmaking receiver in its 28-20 win against BYU on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium, but four players from two positions still did almost all the work for the Irish.

With 61 touches or targets, on 71 Notre Dame plays, for 361 of the 500 Irish yards, the running backs combined with junior tight end Michael Mayer’s dominant day to set the tone for the third straight Notre Dame win. Add in their shares at North Carolina two weeks ago, and 77.3 percent of non-kneel down Irish plays have gone to Audric Estimé, Logan Diggs, Chris Tyree or Mayer and they have produced 74.3 percent of Notre Dame’s yards in its last two wins.

“Today is a result of having a critical eye in terms of evaluating everything we do,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday night. “That’s what I think sometimes we get misconstrued, that it’s all about the game. I know the result matters, that’s how we’re judged, but to get the result you want, you have to prepare the right way.

“That means having a critical eye, that means having uncomfortable conversations every day during the week and really challenging each other to find ways to improve, and that’s what I love most about what [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees and that offensive staff has done. Really challenge each other to practice at a higher level and ultimately perform at a higher level.”

This trend evaded notice in Notre Dame’s first win, beating Cal 24-17 on Sept. 17. All attention went to Freeman getting his first victory as a head coach. But it very much did begin then, this quartet coming from two positions — more accurately, three positions, considering two running backs are often on the field; the three backs took a total of 84 snaps this weekend, per Pro Football Focus, on 73 total plays, including two kneel downs — producing the bulk of the Irish offense, if not to as explosive of a degree. (67.2 percent of the yards with 79.8 percent of the plays going to them.)

But before then, these four were held in check, taking 45.2 percent of the offensive plays for 50.4 percent of the yardage in Notre Dame’s first two games.

Obviously, something changed between the Marshall loss and the victory a week later. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner was ruled out for the season. But that is not all. The offensive line began to gel, with fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson finding more comfort on the injured foot that sidelined him at Ohio State. And Rees leaned into those running backs, something they have made easy.

“I can’t speak enough about the unselfishness of that room,” Freeman said, referring to it as a “three-headed monster.”

“All three of those guys want to be the starter, all three of those guys want to have every rep, but to be unselfish, to put the greater good of the team in front of yourself, that’s the example we need for our team.”

And while discussing these players, let’s give Freeman the space to uniquely criticize Estimé for his hurdle of a Cougar defender late Saturday, on a play already with a playground feel as junior quarterback Drew Pyne shoveled the ball to Estimé amid traffic and under pressure.

“That’s one, we probably thought he’d take a sack,” Freeman said Monday of Pyne’s choice.

But then, Estimé took over for a 13-yard gain, with 19 yards coming after the catch.

“[Estimé is] a bulldozer,” Freeman said. “When that bulldozer starts jumping, I don’t know. Bulldozers aren’t supposed to be off the ground. Bulldozers are supposed to stay on the ground. To see him do that, it just shows his athleticism.”

All due respect to sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas’ leaping touchdown catch in the second quarter, the most unexpected play of the game may have come from Estimé early in the fourth quarter. With Notre Dame clinging to a 25-20 lead, it felt like another BYU possession without an Irish score would end up with a Cougars victory.

On a first-and-10, Estimé met three defenders at the line of scrimmage. He then gained 46 of his 97 rushing yards.

Notre Dame turned that into only a field goal, but making it an eight-point lead meant BYU would need to get into the end zone twice on its final possession to simply send the game to overtime. Estimé’s jaunt all-but sealed the game.

Diggs’ did on the next Irish possession. A 2nd-and-15 run play was meant to drain the clock, nothing more. Instead, Diggs gained 33 of his 93 rushing yards.

Three plays later, Notre Dame kneeled out the clock.

The first snap turned into an Irish interception. The second half started with a BYU surge that has become a Cougars habit of the last month. That back-and-forth made this into a ballgame in the fourth quarter, particularly after Pyne once again looked for Mayer but a tipped pass turned into a turnover.

“I don’t think the offense at any point, over the headset or just being on the field, lost confidence or the ability to execute,” Freeman said Monday, noting that interception came when Notre Dame was driving, the pick coming inside BYU’s 20-yard line. “... Defensively, I know there were some frustrations in terms of the two touchdowns in the third quarter, but I challenged them, and they challenged each other. We can’t continue to let this happen. We went and get a three-and-out, which was huge for ending their momentum.”

The Cougars gained three yards after Pyne’s sole mistake of the day. The subsequent punt put Notre Dame at its own 36-yard line, a field Estimé then flipped. That defensive three-and-out allowed the Irish to overcome a turnover and soon take the equivalent of a two-score lead.

Maybe this is not a statistic, but an acknowledgment of analytics, even if not knowing their exact values.

Freeman chose to try for two points after Notre Dame took an 18-6 lead in the second quarter, Pyne’s pass attempt falling incomplete. There was logic to it, even without getting into math. Freeman expected BYU to tighten up the score at some point. Once it did so, the Irish would be pressured into a two-point conversion, so attempting it early would simply add some certainty to the game with more time left.

“I felt like we were having a rhythm, we were going, we felt confident in the two-point play. We didn’t execute,” Freeman said. “Those are one of those things, you look back and say, if we had kicked the extra point, it would have been a nine-point game, but if they had scored, we would have to go for two at some point if it was a closer game.

“You have to make a decision and trust your instincts. Don’t look back.”

But look back just one possession and Freeman would have all the support he needs for his analytical approach on that two-point conversion.

Facing a fourth-and-one on the four-yard line, Freeman opted to forgo a field-goal attempt. Notre Dame went for it and did not get it. But part of the math in that moment is what BYU would face when it takes over, and the ideal version of that played out when senior linebacker Jack Kiser sacked Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall in the end zone for a safety.

That is an extreme, but it is why teams factor in more than the immediate moment when making these decisions. If deep in the opponent’s territory, turning over the ball on downs does not gift the opponent a strong chance of scoring itself. Sometimes, it ends up betting your chances of scoring.

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