Greetings from — well, not Las Vegas.
Yes, the delay in this weekly dispatch is due to traveling back home from Sin City after a wild weekend highlighted by Marcus Freeman’s signature win at Notre Dame to date. After going back and forth on attending for a while, I finally decided to roll the dice on Vegas and go. Unlike most of my blackjack bets, though, this one paid off.
Notre Dame socked BYU in the face like a heavyweight champ boxing down the Strip for much of the game, over doubling the Cougars’ time of possession. At one point they had over 300 yards to BYU’s 40. They even threw in a safety, the most humiliating thing that can happen in sports, for good measure. Yet, in true Notre Dame fashion, it was a game well into the fourth quarter. Two inexplicable defensive breakdowns, foreshadowed by a handful of mental mistakes against North Carolina, kept the Cougars in it late, before an interception and a lengthy drive almost sent the Irish into crisis mode. But then, the defensive line stepped up and got a stop on fourth and short, and the running game did the rest.
For a unit that has only surrendered about 21 points per game, this defense is oddly frustrating to watch. There’s the obvious lack of turnovers (though I will say, a neighboring BYU fan accomplished perhaps the greatest feat of jinxing of the year by jumping up and down about the Cougars receiving the ball… only for their quarterback to throw a pick right to Tariq Bracy on the first snap of the game), but the problems go deeper. The pass rush rarely gets home, though sometimes it harangues a quarterback enough to force an incompletion. Tackling now comes in fits and starts, falling a long way since the first half of the Ohio State game. The Irish routinely give up long runs at the worst possible time. It’s maddening how dominant the defense can look for huge stretches before making a mistake or failing to execute that erases a quarter or more of good work.
That frustration was counterbalanced nicely with Michael Mayer’s best game in a gold helmet to date, which is really saying quite a lot. Truly, this recap could just be five words — “Michael Mayer is a stud” — and that would about sum it up. On a night when a lot of things went right for Notre Dame, the safest bet in Vegas Saturday night was Mayer’s hands. Mayer was immaculate Saturday, with only a single drop of a slightly overthrown ball sticking out as a miscue. And, much to the befuddlement of the row of BYU fans behind me, he kept getting catches even as it became clear he was about 1000% of Notre Dame’s passing game (at least until Jayden Thomas activated his clutch mode — more of that please!). He’s just that unrecoverable, just that good. Having the best tight end in the game on your team might be even better than playing with house money.
BYU, meanwhile, played the part of the hapless gambler who forgot his watch in his room and before he knew what hit him, found himself down big with no time to win back his losses. It took the Cougars until the fourth quarter to really move the ball, their only points coming on a short field after a punt return and a truly horrendous coverage bust. By that time, Notre Dame was able to ice the game with what had been working all game — running the football.
The running game is really starting to click, the lines are starting to look like they are stacked with the “dudes” that we know they are, and wait is Drew Pyne a kinda good quarterback now? This is still not a great team — the defense really needs to figure out how to play a complete game, and sooner or later the lack of receiver production is gonna bite the Irish — but it’s playing like a good one, and well enough to cover some of its warts. Does that make the Marshall loss any better? No, but it says something about Notre Dame as a program and Marcus Freeman as a coach that they’ve now won three straight in wildly different ways.
What is that something, you ask? I don’t know — we’ve got 7 games left to find out.
Seriously, though. What a venue for Marcus Freeman’s first Shamrock Series game.
A lot of Notre Dame fans go back and forth on the value of the Shamrock Series, lodging very legitimate complaints about giving up a home game or adding unnecessary travel. Personally, I kinda love it! Certainly this is at least partly because of my experience with these games — I’ve had the privilege of going to three (and would’ve added another if not for Covid). The New York game against Syracuse my sophomore year is one of my favorite memories of college, and Wisconsin last year was an excellent atmosphere that morphed into a laugher like lightening. Watching your team play in a venue where they don’t normally is cool. Bonding with fans from both sides on a street in a big city is fun. It’s like a bowl game, but also a home game. It combines the best of both worlds
And for a school with a famously dispersed fanbase, these kinds of “on tour” games help the program stay connected and visible. How many people that live in the Southwest ever get to watch a Notre Dame game — at least, one that isn’t in the Coliseum? It certainly can’t hurt recruiting, especially with our national football, and players relish the chance to play in NFL stadiums. Variations on uniforms are fun, if occasionally eye-rolling. It’s like eating at a nice restaurant — it shouldn’t be a staple of your diet, but once in a while it’s a nice treat.
Certainly, I think the school could be a little more strategic at times with how it does these. The 2014 game against Purdue in Indianapolis stands out as one of the most questionable scheduling decisions I can remember, and going to Chicago twice for this series doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with campus just down the road. (Especially given that one of those was against Wisconsin, a game that both fanbases have been clamoring for years and would love to host on their campuses.) If part of the goal is to go where we normally don’t travel, why stick so close to home? Timing also matters; too often and the games are less meaningful. We’ve seemingly settled on a cadence of one of these every couple of years (recalling that last year’s aforementioned Wisconsin game was technically supposed to be a Wisconsin home game despite the Shamrock Series branding), which seems about right. These are best as “event” games, and college football should be played on campuses as often as possible.
There’s also a delicate dance to finding the right opponent — you want someone interesting that will draw a crowd and justify the hoopla, but not a “marquee” opponent per se (I live in mortal fear of Notre Dame’s upcoming Texas A&M series getting moved to Detroit or somewhere for no reason at all). Army in the first outing in NYC was a good example, especially given the history between the schools. For a bad example, see above re: Wisconsin.
BYU in Las Vegas is a great example of the Shamrock Series done right. Everything about this weekend just worked, in a way that I couldn’t have called when this game was announced. The uniforms and overall branding of this game paid tribute to Vegas in a nice way that didn’t link too much to gambling and vice, (though if anyone has a lead on where I can snag one of those sick ND-branded casino chips please DM me), and ND’s presence in the city was easily felt. And, with all due respect to BYU, it’s the kind of good-but-not-great tier of opponent that works well in this series. It was an exciting game in an electric atmosphere in a nearly brand new stadium, and it gave fans like me the chance to travel to a city they wouldn’t normally while making it easier for others to travel to see Notre Dame live at all. It was all the things you would want out of a big neutral site game.
There were so many little moments during the weekend that made the experience special. Though not my first time, flying out of Chicago for a Notre Dame game remains one of fandom’s great joys, losing count of the number of “Go Irish”s and the items of ND apparel on your flight. Midnight Drummer’s Circle along the Strip. Taking a tram between hotels and being crammed in with about a dozen BYU fans before being “rescued” by a group of Irish supporters. And, perhaps my favorite, as a sea of blue and green streamed into the Mandalay Bay casino, a totally spontaneous, deafening “Let’s Go Irish” chant that absolutely everyone in the place could hear. The camaraderie I felt among Irish fans in Las Vegas almost made me feel like I never graduated. Notre Dame likes to say its campus is in South Bend, but its classroom is the world — this weekend, the world felt a little bit more like campus.
But for as much fun as the weekend was for me, I wasn’t the ultimate audience, I think. These games exist for people like the couple I sat next to at Allegiant, retired Utahans who aren’t able to travel to South Bend all that easily but are lifelong Irish fans who deserve a chance to see a game live. They exist for families from Phoenix and LA who don’t want to (or can’t) get on a flight to Chicago and another two hour drive to South Bend, but for whom a day or weekend trip to Vegas is doable. And they exist for Notre Dame alumni who want a little slice of their alma mater on turf a little closer to home — their two homes merging in one extremely fun weekend.
I’ll wrap up with a little tease as to what’s next in the shop — hoping to get up a more detailed reflection on my time in Sin City this week, taking some inspiration from John and Hank Green’s “Thoughts from Places” format on Vlogbrothers. Vegas is certainly a unique place, and one I’m still sorting out my feelings on (aside from the game. That was unquestionably great.) Looking forward to sorting them out via blog soon.
In the meantime, happy Stanford week! Come prepped with your favorite tree-chopping axe and rain poncho, since the last time we had a rain-free ND-Stanford game in South Bend was… 2008?
Probably a safer bet than anything you’ll find in a casino.
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