Carroll understands the challenge ahead

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While you’ll get me thoughts on Charlie Weis’ press conference a little bit later, I thought it’d be worth taking a look at Pete Carroll’s press conference from yesterday and hear what he had to say about the Fighting Irish.

Living in the heart of Trojan country, I have a chance to hear from Carroll on a regular basis, and he truly is a guy that only knows one way. Whether he’s talking about football, stopping gang violence in Los Angeles, the weather, or rush-hour traffic, Carroll is all about positivity and taking on challenges. And after hearing his comments about the Irish, it’s clear that Carroll knows he’s in for a challenge this weekend.

It’s no secret that both Weis and Carroll know that everything they say in these sessions will be analyzed and scrutinized and studied for hints by the opposition. I’m sure much of what is said is said for a reason (like mentioning that a certain wide receiver was practicing in full pads yesterday for the Irish).

Here are some statements Carroll made during his presser yesterday. Allow me to read between the lines and speculate for a bit.

On Notre Dame’s passing attack:

You can’t be much better than they are. The efficiency he’s throwing at
right now, Clausen’s on it. He’s finding receivers. They’re protecting
him well. He’s keeping the negative plays down. Only two picks in all
the plays he’s made so far. These guys are loaded.

I haven’t seen
the rest of the schedule, but up until now, this is the best passing
team by far that we’ve seen. They pose the biggest challenge, and
they’ve got big play guys either coming out of the back field or the
tight end spot. Of course, Golden Tate is just having a ridiculous
start to the season. So this is a very, very good attack, and they’re
challenging the heck out of us.

Slowing the Irish down in the air is going to be a critical area for the Trojans and Carroll doesn’t mince words on the challenges it presents his defensive unit. Much has been said about the revamped and reloaded Southern Cal defense, yet a closer look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily support the thesis that this USC defense is as stout as the ones before it. While the glamor stat of zero touchdown passes allowed certainly strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, a closer look shows that opposing offenses have thrown for just about the same amount of yards against the Trojans as they’re averaging against their other opponents. With nickel back Brian Baucham questionable as he returns from a motorcycle accident, Shareece Wright academically ineligible, and Marshall Jones out for the season with a cracked vertebra, there are opportunities for the Irish to attack.

On the Notre Dame running attack:

Armando Allen is a good football player. When they put Golden Tate back
there, they run like crazy. They have a good running back, an
experienced offensive line. They have all the schemes. If
anything, they’re riding the strength of what Jimmy Clausen brings to
them. They’re such a high-efficiency throwing game, why not? They’re
putting up big time yards and all that, so.
 
But the running game is definitely there. One that has enough
variations to it, it taxes you scheme-wise. They do enough that they’re
not just a zone team. They do a lot of things. So, they’re fairly,
deeply committed to the whole wildcat system and all of that. With
Allen and with Tate back there, they’ve got a lot of different things
that they can do. They give you a very difficult spectrum of things to
prepare for.

It’s clear that Carroll has noticed the difference running game coordinator Frank Verducci has done with the offensive line, as well as the commitment to the Wildcat offense. It’s no longer just a gimmick, but something that opposing coaches need to game-plan for. That said, former Trojan defensive coordinator Nick Holt had success against the Wildcat with Washington’s defense this year, so it’ll be interesting to see if Carroll finds a similar solution. Interestingly, Carroll gets sidetracked again on the Notre Dame passing attack, which makes me wonder if he hopes the Irish make themselves one-dimensional, so they can just go out and cover the pass, or if he’s hoping the Irish throw the ball around the field, and USC will try to impose their will through a time-consuming ground game.

On preparing for Golden Tate:

It’s really a challenge. Really a challenge because they move them in
all their receiver spots, and then he winds up behind the center
getting the football. He is like a running back at receiver. He’s a
bigger, stronger, more physical guy when the ball’s in his hands. So
they have realized that. They’ve used him all over.
So we just
have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There
are so many things you can do it’s very difficult. They’ve done a
really good job of utilizing their special guys, and he’s the
beneficiary of that.

Carroll saw first hand what UW’s passive coverage on Tate did to destroy the Husky defense. Expect him to have everyone on the defense well-versed in Tate’s tendencies, and be ready for every possible outcome when Tate’s playing the X, roaming the slot, lined up in the Wildcat, or motioning from the fullback position.

On Notre Dame’s attacking defense:

They’re the most aggressive they’ve been. Last year they started really
coming after people, and this year they’ve picked up on that. They’re
pressuring well over half of the time which is a tremendous percentage
of pressure from the defense. In certain games they’ll get it up higher
than that.
 
So what that causes is they’re taking chances to come
after you. It’s very aggressive, and they cause bad plays. You can
protect really well, then there are some are opportunities, because the
coverage is more limited.
 
It’s just whether or not we’re able to handle the heat that they bring.
If we can, we can have a chance at moving the football. If they can’t,
they can control the game and cause some bad things and create some
negative plays and give you issues that you don’t want. They’re doing a
nice job now. It’s difficult.

There’s risk and reward here. That’s part of it. When you’re committing
people to the line of scrimmage, there is more space in the secondary.
That’s why protection is so important and the rhythm of the quarterback
is so important to get the ball out so you don’t get hit and disrupted.
 
The whole point of pressuring is to disrupt the offense. If you
can minimize that there are opportunities to make plays, and we have to
create some space and see if we can do that.

Carroll has to believe he can take some shots down the field. Expect to see Damian Williams involved in this game plan early and often, as well as the play-action passing game utilized early, especially if the Irish have early problems stopping USC’s ground game. Carroll also realizes how essential it’ll be to protect his quarterback, so I’d think max protection, two-man routes with the potential for big plays is a sound strategy against a defense that has proven susceptible to big plays. 

On Notre Dame’s run/pass tendencies:

They’re a team that’s interesting. They’re willing to throw the ball a
bunch if they think that’s what’s necessary in the game plan. Sometimes
they’ll go the other way. They’re not a set style that you can tell
what they’re going to do in a game plan.
 
The Michigan State game
they came out and played empty the whole first quarter, you know, ran
the ball like twice or something. Were moving the ball up-and-down the
field. They adjusted from there and did some other things.
 
This is a team that you have to see what they think of you. It’s going
to take a while. We have to be flexible early in the game and adapt.
See if we can get situated once they declare how they want to play it
from that side of the ball.
 
That’s how they’ve always been. It is kind of a wait and see what they think they need to do to win every time we play them.

This is one of the more interesting evaluations of Charlie Weis’ offense I’ve ever read. Carroll admits that scheming and game-planning for Weis’ attack is useless. Instead of guessing, he lets Weis dictate what he’ll do and counter-attacks. This has to be one of the more underrated aspects of Pete Carroll the coach. His ability to think on his feet, make in-game adjustments, and adapt his defense to match what the opposing coach is trying to do. When you think about USC defense, you rarely think of a team that let’s the opponent dictate terms. Yet here’s Carroll admitting that he does as much when facing a Charlie Weis run offense, even using Weis’ perception of Carroll’s own defense to guide his decision making. This is a fascinating revelation.

It’s apparent that while there is a rivalry between Carroll and Weis, it’s one based in admiration. While neither may like each other especially much, it’s clear that both need the other to succeed at their job. Weis needs to beat Carroll, and Carroll greatly enjoys the satisfaction that comes with out-smarting Charlie Weis at his own game.

Expect a chess match on Saturday. 

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.