BYU waited nine years to play Notre Dame. Why playing the Fighting Irish meant too much for the program to pass up

Big brother vs. little brother, the rivalry will be restored this weekend to close a chapter of BYU history

Brigham Young quarterback Taysom Hill throws a pass in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Provo • As the calendar turned to October, JD Falslev’s usually quiet phone began to chirp with delirium as a group message of former BYU players went off. Notre Dame was next on the Cougars’ schedule, and they had been waiting a long time for this moment.

The texts trickled in as snippets at first, as members of the 2013 football team shared memories from the last time they traveled to South Bend, Ind. Then, former offensive lineman Braden Brown escalated it, finding videos of the last game between the Irish and the Cougars. Finally, former lineman Ryker Mathews found the gem that sent everyone in the chat into a frenzy.

He sent a clip of the introduction videos from the game on NBC, where star wide receiver Cody Hoffman and quarterback Riley Nelson went viral for their fun facts about nicknames and languages.

“That game meant a lot to us,” recalled Falslev, a former running back who played on the last BYU team to play Notre Dame. “It’s big for the program. … I always wanted BYU to play [this game again].”

After advocating, plotting and praying for nearly a decade that the Cougars and Irish would meet again, after a change of venue, and many concessions, the teams will meet again this weekend in Las Vegas.

Little brother vs. big brother.

The aspiring vs. the aspirational.

BYU vs. Notre Dame.

For the BYU faithful, it was worth the price.

Instant credibility

Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III is hit by BYU defensive back Daniel Sorensen as he dives in for a 20-yard touchdown run during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. Notre Dame defeated BYU 17-14. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Although there have been just eight meetings between these two schools, it is a rivalry that seemingly means plenty inside the walls of the BYU football program.

Much of it stems back to 2010, when athletic director Tom Holmoe got up to the podium at the student-athlete building and announced a seismic shift, that the Cougars would leave the Mountain West for independence in football.

It was a move made necessary after the Mountain West saw Utah and TCU bolt for Power Five conferences. But necessity didn’t translate to security — independence was the path less traveled in college athletics.

But that night, Holmoe reassured the fan base about the move. Notre Dame had agreed to play BYU six times over the next decade: four games in South Bend and two games in Provo.

“It gave the move instant credibility,” Tyler Tucker, another BYU alum, said. “It gave validation to the schedule. It was like, ‘Hey, independence is going to work and we are in it for the long haul.’”

And, rightly or wrongly, that credibility led to aspirations within the fan base. Notre Dame was a faith-based institution, with football tradition, that navigated life as an independent. Maybe, the thought was, BYU could create its own scale of Notre Dame’s success in the West. The feeling only intensified after the Cougars traveled to South Bend in 2012 and nearly took down an unbeaten, Manti Teo-led Notre Dame team.

A nearly lost decade

But reality quickly set in that it wouldn’t be that easy. BYU traveled to Notre Dame in 2013 and had a lackluster loss on the road. That same year, Notre Dame announced its scheduling agreement with the ACC to begin in 2014.

Holmoe originally had agreed to two separate three-game contracts with the Irish to get to six games. Notre Dame immediately lopped off one of those contracts, meaning there would be only one game left in the series. And that 2014 game, which was supposed to be in Provo, was rescheduled with no later date.

The prevailing thought nationally was that it would be over for the BYU-Notre Dame series.

But for BYU, actually playing the third game was a priority. Former players wanted it to happen, so did administrators and boosters.

“You can tell the parallels, both religious institutions,” BYU booster Ben Griffitts said. “Us diehard BYU fans would love to see us compared in the same circles as Notre Dame. We are not there yet. We are the little brother in that sense. But we are closer. ... This game is huge for us.”

It was a platform for the program that was too big to pass up.

“I think it is good for football, honestly,” former player Craig Bills said, who faced the Irish in 2012 and 2013. “Getting two institutions good academically and traditionally good at football, it is good for the sport.”

And because of that, BYU fought tooth and nail to keep it. After Notre Dame football announced its scheduling agreement with the ACC in 2014, it looked like the series with BYU would fall to the wayside like so many others have in college football.

“Notre Dame is a great university and our fans love that game, so I’ll be a little more patient to try to see if we can make something of that,” athletics director Tom Holmoe said back in 2016. “I’ll talk to my cabinet of people I trust, and right now we think it’s worth hanging on for a little bit.”

The Cougars naturally had the option to take the payout from the Irish and move on. It surely would have paid handsomely — not unlike when Tennessee paid off BYU for $1 million this summer.

Instead, Holmoe waited and kept negotiations alive. And finally, in September of 2021, the final game was announced. It would be part of Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series and be held in Las Vegas. The Irish would have a controlling share of the tickets. But the game was being played.

“It is a huge benefit for BYU to [play],” deputy athletic director Brian Santiago said this summer.

A final lesson

All week, BYU’s current coaching staff and roster have spoken to the mystique of Notre Dame and its unrivaled presence in the sport.

No matter how much the landscape changes with super conferences, the Irish stand as the pearl of the sport that no conference has yet to reel in. They have their own NBC deal. Their brand transcends the normal limitations of the sport.

“[We] know the historic value of Notre Dame,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “This is a big-time program we are going against.”

And in some ways, this final game between BYU and Notre Dame is a closing of a chapter. BYU is off to the Big 12. Its decade of independence has been smoother than most thought, but not sustainable. BYU couldn’t rise to the level of Notre Dame in that sense.

And maybe the lesson is that there is only one team in the country that independence can truly work for, and that is Notre Dame.

Still, it won’t make this game any less meaningful for the program. BYU will be on a national stage and a win could have a tangible impact on rankings, donor money and prestige for 2022 and beyond.

Falslev certainly thinks so. And that is why he will be watching intently from his home in St. George, texting with the rest of his teammates, witnessing a game he has been waiting to see for nine years.

“I’ll be watching,” Falslev said. “It will make all of us former players happy.”