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Highlights: Notre Dame 44, UNLV 21 — Led by Michael Mayer and Irish defensive havoc

Notre Dame took care of business against UNLV on the strength of 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground as well as timely special teams play.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Michael Mayer isn’t sure. He didn’t see the pass he caught early in the second quarter to propel Notre Dame well into scoring territory. It was a perfectly-placed pass from junior quarterback Drew Pyne, thrown exactly where only Mayer could catch it, but he didn’t see it. UNLV linebacker Fred Thompkins had excellent coverage.

Mayer still caught the 34-yard pass, of course, because he is Michael Mayer. That kind of editorializing would usually not be included at this point in the week, but after Mayer caught six passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in the first half of the Irish 44-21 win against the Rebels on Saturday, positive reviews of Mayer may as well be facts.

“I don’t think I saw the ball, to be honest,” he said after tying Ken MacAfee’s record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end at Notre Dame with 15. “I kind of stuck out my hand and hoped for the best.”

The best was realized, despite a pass interference flag on Thompkins.

“That’s a route me and [Pyne] practiced a lot, we’ve repped a lot in practice,” Mayer said. “Those type of throws, it’s just one of those things where it’s kind of just, alright, it’s me against the linebacker.

“Drew knows there’s a pretty good chance, if he throws that thing up, that I’m going to catch it. He believed in me and he threw it up there, and I found a way to catch it.”

Mayer was then asked if it was the best catch of his career. For someone who now has 157 catches in his collegiate career, also a Notre Dame record, with at least one snag in each of his 31 collegiate games, the best catch of his career is a lofty bar to clear. Mayer was the last person qualified to answer the question; not only did he not see the pass as he pulled it in, he also had not yet seen a replay of it.

“Sometimes I just don’t really remember things,” he said. “There’s some catches and stuff — so I’ve got to watch it.”

The only flaw to the one-handed, falling grab is that the Irish did not turn it into points. From the 14-yard line, they proceeded to stall out on a fourth-and-three from the seven.

That failure ran counter to an odd intention from Irish head coach Marcus Freeman this weekend. He has been more aggressive than not in go-or-kick moments in his first season as a head coach, usually deferring to the analytics that encourage forgoing kicks far more often than not. Not this week, four times turning to kicker Blake Grupe for a field-goal attempt inside the plus-30. Freeman said that approach was intentional, at least for the week.

“Going into this game, I wanted to, if it was close — the last couple of games I’ve been pretty aggressive on fourth-and-short. This game, I wanted to — we’re going to need Grupe to get some confidence,” Freeman said. “We’re going to kick the ball. I had told [offensive coordinator Tommy Reese], if it’s fourth-and-two, I’m going to kick it right now, really try to get some points on the board, get some momentum for our team.

“That’s what I told them, ‘Hey, great job taking care of the ball. If we get three points here, it’s good momentum for our team.’”

Grupe quite literally kicked his first field goal on a fourth-and-two, giving Notre Dame a 10-0 lead after its second possession. That attempt, more than the next three, presumably ran against any analytical numbers the Irish would usually ponder.

Freeman intentionally and preemptively opting against those numbers suggests he assumed this win from the outset perhaps more than just about anybody else, not that he would ever admit to that.

“I thought UNLV was a really good team,” he said. “I told [Rebels head coach Marcus] Arroyo before and after the game, he’s got a good football team. They don’t quit. I think it was 23-7 at the end of the first quarter — don’t expect that team to lay down. They battled back.”

Again, editorializing would not usually be included at this point in the week, so here is a fact: Following the analytical approach works only when applying it at all times. Leaning against it when facing an overmatched and injured UNLV may work out, but it is counter-intuitive, to say the least.

For a second time this season, the Irish employed a tight-end scheme first seen elsewhere. After flipping the ball to Mayer on a jet sweep at North Carolina in late September, they brought sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans behind center a la the Kansas City Chiefs with tight end Noah Gray on Oct. 2.

That direct reference is not coincidence. Football coaches steal from each other more than some Texas A&M boosters undoubtedly feel Jimbo Fisher has stolen from their program.

Gray’s touchdown sneak was in a Sunday Night Football game. You better believe coaches watch the solitary primetime games just as you do.

“It’s a weekly thing,” Mayer said. “It can be any of the offensive coaches coming in and saying, ‘I watched this on Sunday Night Football or Monday Night Football, that type of thing. We should try this.’”

Evans’ plunges resulted in a first down and then a touchdown, clearly working twice on two attempts. Mayer would not admit if he envied Evans’ moment behind center, instead focusing on the relief of seeing Evans succeed in his second game back after a broken foot sidelined him to start the season.

“That was a cool moment for him,” Mayer said. “He had a little injury, he just got back, very cool moment for him scoring in a game his second game back.”

It may not have been a big-play-filled thrashing. It may not have been the most entertaining game. Fans may have left the Stadium outright bored. But Notre Dame dominated UNLV. A postgame win expectancy of 98.8 percent may even feel low.

The outline for these highlights thought these paragraphs would criticize the Irish performance on third down, but they went 9-of-17, good enough to be left alone, but the real change this week came from defensive havoc.

Four sacks, with three coming from senior end Isaiah Foskey, part of nine tackles for loss and a Clarence Lewis-forced fumble, not to mention two blocked punts all set UNLV off schedule, and none of them are particularly dramatic moments. A fan in the stands hardly realizes a punt is blocked until it has been recovered, yet few plays in football change the game faster.

“We got a lot of momentum, gave the ball back the offense in plus territory, which is great for the whole team,” Foskey said of his two special teams moments. “Special teams is always something that Notre Dame hypes on, always works on. [Special teams coordinator Brian Mason] put me in the right position to make a play.”

Those plays led to 10 of the first 20 Irish points. The next Rebels punt was understandably harried after Foskey’s pressures, leading to a 20-yard punt return from Brandon Joseph, setting up Notre Dame with good field position for another Grupe field goal, 13 of the first 23 Irish points thus somewhat coming from special teams’ impacts.

More than anything else — more than consistency at the quarterback position, more than receivers making plays downfield, more than Notre Dame fans’ impatience — that defensive and special teams havoc has been lacking for the Irish this season.

“That’s the winning formula,” Freeman said. “If you want a chance to win, you’ve got to win the battle of field position, and today we were able to do that.”

Through the first six games of the season: Three forced turnovers.On Saturday: Technically only one, though the blocked punts served the same field-flipping purpose.

Through the first six games of the season: 16 sacks for a loss of 101 yards.On Saturday: Four sacks for a loss of 33 yards.

Through the first six games of the season: 32 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, costing opponents 139 yards, averages of 5.3 tackles and 23.2 yards lost per game.On Saturday: 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage costing UNLV 44 yards.

“What coach Freeman started off this whole week with was urgency right now,” Foskey said. “That’s what motivated us to start off the game fast. When you make big plays, it’s easy to be motivated. You want to make that next big play on offense and on defense.”

While Notre Dame forced a turnover and blocked two punts, it also gave away the ball twice. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne had a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage and subsequently intercepted, a bit of an unavoidable reality in the passing game, and sophomore running back Audric Estimé lost a fumble for the third time in four games.

He finished with 17 yards and a touchdown on just three carries, classmate Logan Diggs taking over the bulk of the workload after the fumble, finishing with 130 yards on 28 rushes.

“All I can do is continue to be my brother’s keeper,” Diggs said. “I tell him, ‘Man, I feel that for you.’ And I told him, I’ve been in that situation, the ball is the most important thing on the offense, and you can’t let that go.

“Last week I was kind of on the side of, it’s going to be alright, just keep on doing your job, keep being better. But today I was a real teammate and told him, for real, ‘If you want to play, you’ve got to hold onto the ball.’”

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