South Bend, Ind. • There are certain games, maybe two or three, that go a long way in defining a season for a college football team, particularly an independent such as BYU that doesn't have a conference championship for which to play.
Saturday's showdown at famed Notre Dame Stadium against the Irish is such a game. If the Cougars (7-3) pull out a victory after coming oh-so-close here last year against an undefeated team that would go on to play for the national championship, the 2013 season inches closer to being classified as a great one.
A loss would mean coach Bronco Mendenhall won't attain a 10-win season for the second straight year, after he won 10 or more games in five of his first six seasons in Provo.
"It would really hurt to lose this one, at this point," receiver and team captain Skyler Ridley said.
Simply put, there will be a lot at stake for the Cougars in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, although sunshine is expected to be in short supply. Weather forecasts call for a 50 percent chance of snow, lots of wind and bitter-cold temperatures.
"Probably just exposure," Mendenhall said Monday when asked what was at stake for the program. "It is just another chance for a quality win on a big stage, and so it is not life or death. It is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it is a great opportunity and we intend to do the very best we can. I am looking forward to it."
The Irish (7-3) will be playing in front of their 237th straight home sellout, dating back to 1973, and are coming off a bye week after losing 28-21 at Pittsburgh the same day BYU was failing its last major test in the Midwest, a 27-17 setback at similarly built Wisconsin.
Mendenhall said after the 59-13 win over Idaho State last week that he wants this to turn into a rivalry, but knows that will take a number of wins over the course of the next eight years when the teams are contracted to play five times, perhaps consecutive wins, to get the attention of one of the most storied programs in the country.
"We have to do our share of winning first," he said.
For that, there is no time like the present. Notre Dame isn't nearly as good as it was last November, and BYU has the type of quarterback in Taysom Hill that should be able to deal with the Irish defense more adeptly than Riley Nelson did. Notre Dame's defense suffered a blow earlier this week when star defensive tackle Louis Nix underwent season-ending knee surgery.
BYU will also be missing one of its defensive stars, linebacker Spencer Hadley, but the Cougars have played without him before and the immediate worry for those in blue is that Hill has not thrown the ball well in losses and/or bad-weather games (Virginia, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin).
"Wisconsin did a great job [on Hill]," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Utah did a great job. We are going to have to [as well]. If we can do that, we can keep the points down."
The Cougars are averaging 33 points per game, while the Irish are giving up only 23 per game. The Cougars believe if they can score at least 24 points in their do-over against an Irish defense that doesn't have Manti Te'o, they will prevail. BYU is 72-10 in Mendenhall's nine years when it allows 24 points or fewer.
Hill watched last year's 17-14 BYU loss from the couch at his parents' home in Pocatello, Idaho having suffered a season-ending knee injury three weeks earlier but most of the other combatants are the same. So the "awe factor" of playing at the historic venue isn't something Mendenhall is worried about.
"All I can try to do is pass on that it is a great experience, but we are going there to play well," Mendenhall said. "They can look around the stadium and all that afterwards, hopefully after a positive experience."
And one that will likely determine whether 2013 will be looked back on as glorious, or not.
BYU at Notre Dame
O At Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, Ind.)
Kickoff • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 5
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 7-3, Notre Dame 7-3
Series history • Notre Dame leads 5-2
Last meeting • Notre Dame 17, BYU 14 (Oct. 20, 2012)
About the Fighting Irish • Star defensive tackle Louis Nix underwent knee surgery earlier this week and is out for the season. â¦ Coach Brian Kelly is 35-14 at Notre Dame. â¦ They are scoring 28.2 points per game and allowing 23.5 ppg. â¦ RB George Atkinson III is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt and has rushed for three touchdowns. â¦ QB Tommy Rees, who entered the game in relief last year, has thrown for 2,504 yards and 24 touchdowns.
About the Cougars • LB Kyle Van Noy has 13 sacks this season, one shy of the school's single-season record, set by Jan Jorgensen in 2007. With 24 tackles for loss, Van Noy is already the school's leader in that category with three games yet to play. â¦ WR Cody Hoffman has caught at least one pass in 40 consecutive games. He leads all active receivers in the country with 33 touchdown receptions.