Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan State edition

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Round three of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits,
leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we head into the Michigan State
game.

1. Charlie Weis may have been a Bon Jovi guy, but Brian Kelly is a Van Halen man.

While the real news should be that defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston has been released from the hospital, Brian Kelly gave everybody a snap-back to the 80s moment by comparing Elston’s return to the band dynamics of Van Halen.

“Van Halen was just OK with Sammy Hagar,” Kelly said. “David Lee Roth was still what
made Van Halen. So we had Sammy Hagar in this week. Wasn’t too bad. But
David Lee Roth is back. He’s the rock star around here.”

Not sure Kelly would be wise to start playing “Running With the Devil” at the LaBar practice fields, but as one reporter pointed out, it might have been the first Van Halen reference by a football coach in Notre Dame history.

Elston received a standing ovation from the team when he returned to The Gug this afternoon. He’ll be joining the team in East Lansing, but won’t do so in a coaching capacity, with Lorenzo Guess filling in at tight ends coach and Mike Denbrock shifting down to defensive line while also spear-heading the special teams.

2. Dan McCarthy returns as the safety position slowly heals itself.

Last week we took the time machine back to November of 2007 to find out more about walk-on safety Chris Salvi, who was suddenly thrust into the two-deep at safety with injuries to both Dan McCarthy and Jamoris Slaughter. This week it looks like we’ll finally see the younger McCarthy brother roaming the secondary.

“McCarthy moved around pretty good today. He’s a go,” Kelly said. “Slaughter is
probably emergency backup. That’s the way it looked today. He got, for
the first time, McCarthy, real reps in seven-on-seven. And I know our guys were
excited in practice that he’s ready to go.”

Kelly described McCarthy’s injury as a soft-tissue problem that’s befuddled the Irish training staff as they’ve tried to find a solution. It’ll be interesting to finally see Dan McCarthy in the secondary. He clocked only one minute of playing time last year and made 15 special teams appearances, but all reports had McCarthy as an elite high school athlete and a guy who has all the tools to be a playmaking safety. Getting on the field was the first step, and with Slaughter injured and only three scholarship safeties available, this could be the breakout game needed for Dan to make his mark.

3. They will be battling for the Megaphone Trophy.

While many people don’t associate Michigan State as a true rivalry, the Irish and Spartans will be battling for the cherished Megaphone Trophy, a keepsake that has been sponsored jointly by the school’s alumni clubs in Detroit since 1949.

The megaphone is half-blue with a gold ND monogram on it and half white with a green MSC for Michigan State. Every game since 1949’s score is printed on the Megaphone, with the winning team holding onto the trophy for the year.

After 36 consecutive years of playing for the Megaphone, the Irish took a two year break in 1995 and 1996. The next interruption is scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

4. Playing under the lights is a rare occurrence in Spartan Stadium.

There have only been nine night games in the 87-year history of Spartan Stadium, and the Irish have been a part of three of them. Notre Dame holds a 2-1 record at night against Michigan State. Here’s a recap of the three primetime face-offs:

September 9, 1998: MSU 45, No. 10 ND 23 — After springing the upset on the defending national champs in Michigan, the Irish got drilled by Nick Saban’s Spartans, who had a staggering 42-3 lead at half before cruising to a 45-23 victory. “I’m embarrassed, this football team’s embarrassed,” head coach Bob Davie said. “There’s
not going to be a whole lot of talk about it. I think we came in here expecting
to play well and we didn’t. We had no chance because of our execution.”

September 18, 2004: ND 31, MSU 24 — The Fighting Irish defense forced six turnovers and Brady Quinn threw and ran for a touchdown. Tommy Zbikowski’s fumble strip and return for touchdown and Matt Shelton’s 123 yards on three catches helped pace the Irish win. “When we come into the team meeting and look at the film, we’re going to be very ill,” Michigan State coach John L. Smith said.

September 23, 2006: ND 40, MSU 37 — Cornerback Terrail Lambert’s interception return for a touchdown capped off a miraculous rally to help the 12th-ranked Irish escape with a narrow victory. The Irish trailed 37-21 halfway into the fourth quarter when they stormed back in a driving rainstorm. Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns and Jeff Samardzija had two of them as Notre Dame mounted an epic comeback. “I think at halftime the guys realized the season was starting to fall away for us… It was basically ‘Hey fellas, what’s it gonna be? Are we going to be a bunch of also-rans or are we going to come out here and give it a chance to win the game?” Charlie Weis said after.

5. The new kids are alright.

Asked this afternoon about the first-year starters that were performing well, Kelly pointed out a few players that just two weeks ago were some of the biggest concerns on the team.

“After two weeks, taking both games into account, there’s a couple
players I would point out. Defensively, I’d say Carlo Calabrese – very
little experience coming in, has played consistent for two weeks in a row,” Kelly said.
“Offensively, I’d say Zack Martin – very little experience, but at the
left tackle position has done a really nice job. You could throw TJ
(Jones) in there, I think you could make the case for Taylor Dever. I
think our tackles, as first-time starters, have done a really nice job.”

The fact that we haven’t noticed Zack Martin is one of the best compliments I could give the rookie left tackle. There’s a very good chance that in three years Martin is one of those Irish players that is getting talked about weekly by guys like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay.

6. Want to beat Michigan State? Better stop the running game.

While the wins that the Spartans have put up haven’t been all that impressive, the way the running backs are putting up numbers has been pretty eye-popping. Both Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker are averaging over 9 yards per carry, with Baker running for 300 yards and 3 TDs in just two games and Bell pounding his way for 190 yards on only 20 carries. That’s all been done without presumed starter Larry Caper, who is returning from injury this week. Kelly knows it’ll be a test for his defense.

“We’ll know where we are defensively against the run, because we’re going
to get challenged,” Kelly said. “In the 3-4 defense, they’re going to run right at
us. We’ll find out a lot about ourselves after this weekend relative to
the running game.”

Baker is the defending CFPA National Running Back of the Week after dicing the Florida Atlantic defense for 183 yards last week. For the Irish to win, the defense will rely on the front of Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to step up their game.

7. It wasn’t all negative for Bob Diaco’s defense last week.

Adding to the legend of Denard Robinson wasn’t in anybody’s plans on the Notre Dame sideline last weekend, but there were plenty of positives to take out of the defensive performance, even if they did give up 502 total yards of offense to the Wolverines’ quarterback.

The Irish defense was able to force 10 punts last weekend against Michigan, the most by an Irish opponent since Rutgers punted 10 times in 2002. Michigan was only 3-for-16 on 3rd down, and the Irish forced five three-and-outs. Final stat that’ll have Irish fans kicking themselves: The Irish held Michigan scoreless for 31:24 from the second quarter until the game’s final drive.

“If we make a stop against Michigan, all that would be talked about was the 32, 33 minutes of shutting out Denard Robinson,” Kelly said.

8. The defense might not have closed, but the coaching staff did on the recruiting trail.

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross gave us the immortal line, “Coffee is for closers.” Well, there’s no coffee in the defensive team meeting room, but there should be in the coaches lounge. Recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and personnel man Dave Peloquin certainly did their jobs off the field this weekend with the commitments of Stephon Tuitt, and George and Josh Atkinson. Defensive line coach Mike Elston handles Georgia for the Irish, so Tuitt is likely the fruits of his labor, especially coaching the position that Tuitt plays. As for the Atkinsons, credit needs to go to tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, who pulled the brothers out of California, always a victory when you’re recruiting against coaches like Lane Kiffin, Rick Neuheisel, Chip Kelly, and Steve Sarkisian.

With 19 recruits committed after just the second week of the season, expect the coaching staff to swing for the fences with their final few spots and start targeting some high-profile juniors for next season.

Just to put an issue to rest, it’s pretty certain that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff will be able to recruit just fine at Notre Dame.

9. Irish win the tale of the tape against the Spartans

Here’s an interesting comparison of the two rosters breaking down the heights and weights of the starters by position groupings.

        AVERAGE HEIGHTS & WEIGHTS

                                                                  Michigan State          Notre Dame
       Offensive Line & Tight End                 6-5, 293                    6-5, 300
       Offensive Backs & Wide Receivers    6-1, 214                    6-1, 210
       Defensive Line                                    6-4, 277                    6-3, 291
       Linebackers                                        6-1, 231                    6-2, 244
       Defensive Backs                                 6-0, 191                    6-0, 197

The Irish have a pretty distinct advantage on the front line, as well as against the undersized Michigan State linebacking corp, so it’ll be interesting to see if Notre Dame tries to pound the ball themselves.

10. Armando Allen has a shot at going down in the Notre Dame record books.

The first two games of the season have shown Irish fans a new and improved version of Armando Allen. And it’s that new running back that’ll likely go down in the school’s record books as one of the most versatile backs in Notre Dame history.

Right now, Allen sits at 8th on the all-time list for most career all-purpose yards for Irish running backs. He trails Julius Jones by nearly 1,600 yards so getting to the top of the charts might not be doable for Allen, but making his mark as the top receiving back very well could be. Armando only needs 433 receiving yards to pass Joseph Heap as the yardage leader for running backs, and only needs five catches to pass Darius Walker as the running back with the most catches in Irish history. He’s got a chance to pass Walker on Saturday, and should be able to pass Heap with a great season.

11. Common ground at Cincinnati doesn’t give either coach an upper-hand.

You’d think that Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio’s paths would have crossed somewhere along the line, especially considering that Kelly succeeded Dantonio at Cincinnati. But according to Dantonio, there’s not much of a connection between the two coaches.

“I don’t really know him that well,” Dantonio said of Kelly. “I really don’t know him. I know of him, I know his reputation, I know he’s a great football coach, but as far as the Cincinnati thing, to me it’s sort of a non-issue. The fact that he went to Cincinnati and was able to win championships there, to me, he helped make the dreams come true for some of the players I recruited.

“When we recruited some of those players, we were just entering the Big
East, we were just getting new facilities. We recruited them with the
idea that they could do something special. The fact that they were able
to recognize that dream, and [Kelly] had a part of doing that, I think
is a huge statement for what he did for that program and what he did for
those young people. So I applaud him for that.”

12. If you’re looking for a showcase position, look no further than middle linebacker.

Most Irish fans are familiar with the exploits and potential of Manti Te’o. But if you’re looking for the class of the football field at middle linebacker, check the opposing defensive huddle. The Irish might not play a finer defensive football player this season than the Spartan’s Greg Jones, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, and a returning first-team All-American. Jones has started 35 games for the Spartans, ranks second among all active players in college football with 379 career tackles, and was named to the preseason watch list of six major national awards.

Last season against the Irish, Jones had nine tackles, a total that’d rank among the top performances for Irish players this year, but a game that ranked as one of his least productive over the last two seasons.

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.