BYU and Notre Dame will meet Saturday for the first time since 2013, the ninth all-time meeting between college football independents with faith-based ownership taking place in Las Vegas, of all places.
But there is one member of the No. 16 Cougars’ coaching staff who has a substantial history with the Fighting Irish — second-year offensive line coach Darrell Funk. He was Michigan’s offensive line coach from 2011-14 when the Wolverines and Irish faced off four times, each team winning on its home field.
“Marcus (Freeman) is a really good coach. His kids play hard. They are sound. Yeah, they are going to be tough. We know that. They got good people. They got good schemes, good personnel. They are going to be all we want.” — BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk
“So I’m 2-2 against them,” Funk said. “We beat them at our place every other year, including the first night game at Michigan.”
Michigan honored Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard before that 2011 game, fell behind 24-7, and then rallied in the final 17 minutes as Funk’s offensive line took control and paved the way for three straight touchdown drives.
After Notre Dame took the lead with 30 seconds remaining, Michigan drove 80 yards and Denard Robinson threw a 16-yard game-winning TD pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left.
“That was a great one,” Funk said.
Is this BYU offense capable of similar production against Notre Dame at Allegiant Stadium?
Funk said it will take a better performance from the O-line than in the Cougars’ last three games – a loss to No. 25 Oregon and wins over Mountain West members Wyoming and Utah State.
“They are going to be every bit as good as Baylor and Oregon were personnel-wise,” said Funk, who has also coached at Indiana State, Purdue, Akron, Ball State and Northern Illinois in the Midwest. “At all my jobs in the Midwest, I was always in touch with Notre Dame recruiting, whether I was at Michigan and we were going after the same guys, or I was at Ball State and I knew who they recruited. It didn’t matter. They always had dudes who could play.”
Funk has also worked with first-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman.
“Marcus is a really good coach. His kids play hard. They are sound. Yeah, they are going to be tough,” Funk said. “We know that. They got good people. They got good schemes, good personnel. They are going to be all we want. But I feel like we match up well with them and our kids will come to play.”
Funk knows that if 4-1 and No. 16-ranked BYU wants to “upset” the Irish, favored by four points, it must get more out of its running game, especially in the first half. The Cougars started slowly against Wyoming and Utah State; against Oregon, the running game never got going because they fell behind so quickly.
BYU’s offensive line was supposed to be a strength, and it protected quarterback Jaren Hall well. But it has struggled with its run blocking.
“Obviously, we are not where we need to be in the running game,” Funk said. “We have done some pretty decent stuff protecting most of the time. Run game is where it starts, and we had to look inward, look at some things.
“It all starts with me,” he continued. “I got to figure out ways to get advantage blocks, get guys on the right people, and you know, when we have done that, we have had times where we have still broken down. And other times when we have done it, we have had a chance. But that is where it really starts, is the running game needs to be more consistent, obviously.”
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick acknowledged the run game can improve, but he said the entire offense must play more consistently, avoid the three-and-outs that plagued them the last three games. On the positive side, the Cougars are taking care of the football well, having committed just one turnover in five games.
“I think we are playing good football. We just want to be ready to play against a good team on Saturday,” Roderick said. “I am not trying to address any glaring things. We just want to keep getting better at every thing and the main thing is to continue to take care of the football the way we have. That’s been the most important factor in us being able to stay in games.”
Preseason All-America candidate Clark Barrington, BYU’s starting right guard, said the linemen are aware that work needs to be done, particularly in the running game.
Having minus-21 rushing yards in the first half against USU last week “wasn’t something that we are proud of, for sure,” he said.
BYU is 73rd in the country in rushing yards per game, with 152.2. The Cougars are averaging 4.8 yards per carry, which isn’t bad.
Funk has started the same five offensive linemen in all five games: Connor Pay at center; Clark Barrington at left guard; Blake Freeland at left tackle; Harris LaChance at right guard; and Kingsley Suamataia, at right tackle.
Campbell Barrington and Joe Tukuafu (once he got healthy) have rotated in; Funk said redshirt sophomore Brayden Keim “is really coming on now” and could see more time.
“I said before the year that we were going to be rotating seven, maybe eight guys,” Funk said. “One of the things that comes with that is maybe you lose a little continuity, but to me really only maybe one guy has stood up and played like, ‘Hey, I am indispensable. I can’t be taken out of a game.’ That means the other guys are either close to them, or deserve a chance to show what they can do.”
He did not reveal which player has been flawless, but it is probably Freeland, the 6-foot-8 junior who could be BYU’s most draftable player next April.
“So, in a nutshell, through five games, we are not where we need to be, but I believe we are really going to start taking off. I believe that,” Funk said. “… It is a combination (of things), but we are working hard to improve it. I feel confident moving forward that these kids are committed to it and I know as coaches we have really looked ourselves in the mirror and tried to get us in the best possible situations we can.”
Cougars on the air
No. 16 BYU (4-1)
vs. Notre Dame (2-2)
Saturday, 5:30 pm MDT
Las Vegas, Nevada
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM