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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Veteran BYU will be anything but a trap game in Las Vegas for the Irish

VIrginia v Brigham Young

PROVO, UT - OCTOBER 30: Jaren Hall #3 of the BYU Cougars throws a pass against the Virginia Cavaliers during their game October 30, 2021 at the LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

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When No. 5 Notre Dame heads to Las Vegas to play No. 25 BYU on Oct. 8, some Irish fans will make the mistake of referring to the Shamrock Series contest as a “trap game.”

They will be wrong.

A “trap game” should include a feisty underdog, but a decided underdog, nonetheless. The Cougars will be underdogs to Notre Dame — by about a touchdown, most likely — but not decided underdogs. They are simply too good to be dismissed so readily.

BYU went 5-0 against the Pac 12 last season on its way to a 10-3 showing, bringing its two-year record to 21-4. Losing to Boise State and Baylor were both understandable defeats, and injuries had caught up to the Cougars by the time they fell to UAB in the Independence Bowl.

That all came in what was expected to be a rebuilding year after Zach Wilson led BYU to such lofty heights in 2020. Some of last season’s success came via close-game luck, the Cougars going 4-1 in one-score games and thus adding one win to their expected tally based on total scores.

A valid stat and one to keep in mind year-to-year, that does not properly take into account how injuries beat up BYU’s offense late in the season. Most notably, quarterback Jaren Hall (pictured at top) was too injured — a foot/ankle injury in the regular-season finale — to play in the bowl game after missing two early-season games to a rib injury. Hall played through the rib injury against Boise State, but one could wonder if he was at less than his best.

Running back Tyler Allgeier may as well be the start and end of this list, and as good as Allgeier was — 276 rushes for 1,601 yards and a country-leading 23 touchdowns — replacing him with Cal transfer Christopher Brooks makes that task a bit easier. Brooks at least briefly considered transferring to Notre Dame before he opted for the lead role in Provo.

BYU returns 18 of its 22 starters, not to mention both its starting kicker and punter. Of the 17 defenders that took at least 250 snaps last year, 16 return.

BYU ranks No. 1 below at 85 percent returning production.

If that 85 percent returning mark does not emphasize enough how much continuity the Cougars enjoy, then realize BYU is one of only 22 teams to return its head coach, both coordinators and its starting quarterback.

When Hall started a game in 2019, he became the first Black quarterback to start a game in BYU history. That warrants mention both to show the prominence he has taken in Cougars history and to illustrate how long he has been at BYU, even if Wilson earned the headlines in 2020. Hall is a fifth-year passer, and his experience showed last season as he threw 20 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions while completing 63.9 percent of his passes.

Hall averaged 8.73 yards per pass attempt, underscoring both his efficiency and explosiveness. And that was all while beat up, not to mention his leading receiver, Gunner Romney, also was battling some knee issues.

The offensive line returns 90 career starts this season and adds Oregon transfer right tackle Kingsley Suamataia. At 6-foot-6, the former highly-touted recruit left the Ducks to be closer to home, not because of any issues finding playing time.

With Brooks and Suamataia, BYU is well-positioned to continue to lean on its offense, which has been the driving force behind head coach Kalani Sitake raising this program to the Big 12.

The Cougars converted 45.9 percent of their third downs last season, good for No.15 in the country, behind that running game. Of course, if Brooks and Suamataia do not pan out, then that efficiency will fall off, but they were both positioned for playing time at their previous stops. The new era of transfers with immediate eligibility changes some of the assumptions usually applied to them.

Brooks wanted to play on a winning team; Suamataia wanted to be closer to his home of Orem, Utah, less than 10 miles from Provo.

That is how Sitake gets to inherit a running back that averaged 5.2 yards per rush last season in the Pac 12 with seven total touchdowns and the No. 23 overall recruit in the class of 2021, respectively. They should help BYU maintain that offensive potency without much issue.

The defense cost BYU last season. The loss to Boise State was simply an ugly football game; Hall’s ribs stood out to any invested viewer. But the other two defeats — at Baylor and in the bowl game against UAB — saw the Cougars give up 946 combined yards with 526 coming on the ground. The Bears and Blazers combined to average 5.98 yards per rush, and if accounting for the three sacks managed by BYU, that average slips over 6.0.

The Cougars gave up conversions on 43.6 percent of third downs, ranking No. 106 in the country (of 130 teams), making it clear the rush defense was lackluster in the most pivotal moments.

For Notre Dame’s concerns, that will be the weakness to exploit in Las Vegas. But BYU may be able to load up the box most of the season. Not only does it return 16 of those 17 contributing defenders, but it also added a cornerback from Vanderbilt and Micah Harper, who was a rotational piece at cornerback in 2020 before an injury cost him the 2021 season. With a better secondary, the Cougars should have more bodies to spare to stop the run.

The most veteran team in the country has a win totals Over/Under of 8.5 simply because BYU has worked hard to beef up its independent schedule with Power Five teams the last few years. Taking on Baylor and Oregon in September will not necessarily help the Cougars’ record. Nor will facing the Irish in early October a week before hosting Arkansas.

All four of those teams may end the season ranked. To reach the Over on its win total, BYU will need to beat at least one of them, while also winning at Boise State and at Stanford in November. Few teams would cruise through that slate.

In that respect, life may get easier for BYU when it moves to the Big 12 next season. Looking at five of those opponents just listed — ignoring Stanford for these purposes — they have an average preseason SP+ rank of No. 22. The top-five future Big 12 teams, including Cincinnati and Houston but excluding Oklahoma and Texas, have an average preseason SP+ rank of No. 26.

Life may not be as good in 2023 for BYU, simply because this experienced roster will matriculate in due time, but its trajectory suggests it will handle the Big 12 just fine.

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