Notre Dame will host UNLV on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) in a game that has huge bowl implications for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame appeared well on its way to a New Year’s Day bowl after a 3-game winning streak, with a New Year’s Six bowl also a possibility. Now, after a difficult, upset loss to Stanford last weekend, the program is soul-searching while also worrying about simply securing bowl eligibility in Year 1 of the Marcus Freeman era. A game against the Rebels, 1 of 3 non-Power 5 opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule, might come at just the right time for a Fighting Irish team that needs a fresh injection of confidence.

Here are 3 thoughts on the game, with a prediction.

A fast start is needed for Notre Dame

In Notre Dame’s 3 losses, the Fighting Irish have scored a grand total of 3 points during the first quarter. Those points came on a Blake Grupe field goal on the season’s first possession at then-No. 2 Ohio State. Since? The Fighting Irish have laid a goose egg in the opening quarter of each of their defeats. Opponents have scored just 14 points during the 1st quarter of those losses, but in the cases of Marshall and Stanford, opponents Notre Dame outclasses from a talent standpoint, the lethargic Fighting Irish starts have allowed confidence to creep in on opposing sidelines, and eventually, Notre Dame was felled by lesser opponents on each occasion.

Notre Dame has not done much better during the 1st quarter of its 3 wins. The Fighting Irish trailed BYU 6-3 after a quarter, trailed North Carolina 7-0 after a quarter, and dueled Cal to a scoreless draw after 1 quarter.

That means Notre Dame enters Saturday without a 1st-quarter touchdown this season.

That’s a woeful fact to carry halfway through the season, and the Fighting Irish need to change that against UNLV.

Huge game from Audric Estime would be what the doctor ordered

UNLV is tied for 91st nationally in rushing defense and while it is a respectable 64th in yards allowed per carry, the Rebels give up explosive runs in bunches, ranking among the 100s in explosive runs (10 yards or more) allowed, per CFB Stats. Notre Dame needs to exploit that Saturday afternoon.

After 2 weeks of running the football with great success in wins against UNC and BYU, the Fighting Irish were merely adequate in the run game against Stanford, with 150 yards rushing on just 4.4 yards per carry. Audric Estime averaged 7 yards per carry against Stanford but was benched after losing a fumble and finished the game with just 8 carries, his 1st game under double-digit attempts since the Ohio State game.

Estime needs the football early and often Saturday, as his success on the ground opens everything up on the perimeter for the Fighting Irish.

Michael Mayer was Notre Dame’s lone midseason 1st-team All-American on many lists, but it is the effectiveness of the ground game that creates space on the field for other playmakers. The key to that is Estime. Playing a UNLV defense that has surrendered 41 points per game in their past 2 contests, Notre Dame should find success early — and often — in the run game.

A takeaway from this defense would be nice…

Notre Dame is tied for 120th in the nation in turnover margin. The Fighting Irish have produced 2 — yes 2 — takeaways. That goes beyond “teams protect the football against Notre Dame well and it is a statistical outlier” and becomes a Notre Dame problem. The Fighting Irish just aren’t doing enough defensively to force mistakes by opposing teams.

UNLV gives the ball away quite a bit, with 8 turnovers during their 7 games. The Rebels also rank 31st in the country in turnover margin, however, thanks to a ball-hawking group of defensive backs who enter South Bend, Ind., ranked tied for 3rd nationally in interceptions (11).

Drew Pyne needs to be careful with the football Saturday if Notre Dame wants to avoid another dogfight at home.

The biggest thing that would help Notre Dame, however, would be quarterback pressure to force errors. The Fighting Irish are in a respectable tie for 36th this season in sacks but rank just 55th in quarterback pressures. They did a fine job of getting to Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, disrupting his rhythm almost all night in the season opener. They did just enough to slow Drake Maye and UNC as well. But consistent pressure has been lacking.

For Notre Dame to be the best version of itself over the 2nd half of the season, Isaiah Foskey needs to be great, not merely good. Foskey, who Pro Football Focus rates as the top defensive end among independents, has been solid, but with just 3 sacks and 13 pressures, he hasn’t been the All-American many fancied he was when the season started. NaNa Osafo-Mensah was marvelous against Stanford but consistency has been lacking. Reserve Justin Ademilola has been solid, and his 25 tackles lead the position group, but like so many others in this group, his pressures are limited (9).

This Notre Dame defensive line is loaded with premium talent. It just needs to play like it more often.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, UNLV 21

Until the Fighting Irish go out and show they can dominate an inferior opponent, it’s tough to see them blowing out anyone. That’s just the nature of things right now. UNLV also will be motivated after playing its worst 2 games of football this season. If quarterback Doug Brumfield, who missed the bulk of the prior 2 games with a concussion, can play Saturday, the Rebels will have their best playmaker back on offense. With Brumfield, they played Cal to a near standstill (20-14 Bears win) in Berkeley and rattled off 3 wins in a row thereafter, scoring at least 31 in each win. In Year 3 under Marcus Arroyo, the program has gone from a complete mess to a team that might find its way to a bowl game. The Rebels will show up Saturday and be ready. A Notre Dame team ready to play in the opening quarter would be refreshing. If that happens, it will be a banner day in South Bend. If it doesn’t,, expect a narrow Notre Dame win.