IBG: Bring on Stanford

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The Irish Blogger Gathering continues with some pertinent questions about the game against  Stanford. Running the show with a Q&A befitting the written exam on the GRE is the crew from One Foot Down, who have certainly put some time and effort into the questions at hand.

I’ll do my best to answer them. (Apologies for no Opponent Preview this morning, you’d be shocked at how hard it is to find someone that actually writes and follows Stanford.)

1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses
how have your expectations for this season changed?  Has the rough start
affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?

I’m rethinking my Rose Bowl prediction, but I don’t think I’ve changed my expectations. From an end-game perspective, I didn’t have a number of wins in mind that would make me think this season was a success or not, but it’d be great to see this team get better as the year went on, which would be a change from the past few seasons.

The last two coaching staffs did a great job of building early momentum, infusing excitement into the fanbase and recharging everyone. Obviously Kelly’s two last-second losses killed the momentum he was building and some fans understandably reacted. I’d like to think of myself as a level-headed, logical optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, and I’m not going to let two brutal breaks change that.

2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two
games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has
looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde?  Or are
we just a work in progress?

I think work-in-progress is a fair label. I also think that this defense is structurally flawed, thanks to some poor roster management. Kelly was left in a bad spot, particularly with depth at defensive end and in the secondary, and it’s hard to play winning defense without those two positions having good depth. That said, I’m more bullish on the Irish defense than others, probably because I’ve had the chance to sit with Bob Diaco and listen to the staff’s philosophies. Make no mistake: If the Irish don’t play great defense this year, it isn’t because of the coaches. Habits are hard to break, and while there have been improvements, last year’s Irish defense did a lot of things poorly, and we’re seeing some of those habits come out at the worst of times.

3. I’ve heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player
make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to
consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great
plays against State.  Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at
critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his
staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?

Kelly hinted at the problems on the offense when he discussed ball-control throws yesterday. For the Irish offense to move the chains, Dayne Crist needs to do a better job making the short throws, making the proper two-man reads, and getting the Irish offense to operate at a higher efficiency level. I fully appreciate how difficult the transition must’ve been from a Charlie Weis pro-style, downfield offense to a Brian Kelly no-huddle, spread attack. Crist hasn’t played a lot of football, had to rehab a torn ACL this offseason, and still is playing at a pretty high level.

4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents?
Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?

Before the season, I ranked the Stanford game as the 7th hardest on the schedule, and I absolutely take that back right now. Even if Stanford is a paper lion, I think they’re a more dangerous team than BC, Michigan, and Michigan State, so Notre Dame has to play a clean football game to win.

As for the biggest win of the last six years… Huh? This is still Stanford. Don’t get me wrong it’d be a big win, and looking back at the last six years and the quality wins is a depressing exercise, but I can’t call beating a Stanford team that beat up on Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest the best win of the last six years. 

5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND’s
academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish
supporters consider Notre Dame’s unique combination of strong academics
and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the
college football world.  With stricter admission standards and far-less
football notoriety, Harbaugh’s Cardinal have burst onto the national
recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football
players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance
to compete at the highest level.  Could you foresee sustained excellence
by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong
Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame’s niche?

Without getting too macro, Stanford is taking advantage of having a prestigious name brand, something Notre Dame knows plenty about. That said, there aren’t too many similarities that Notre Dame and Stanford share after crossing off good academics and private institutions. What’s getting good football players to Palo Alto is Jim Harbaugh. He’s an aggressive recruiter chasing top-talent, and doing it in one of the premiere states for football talent. Do I think Stanford threatens Notre Dame’s niche? No. But if last year was an indicator (Notre Dame and Stanford each poached players from each other), the Irish and Cardinal will see plenty of each other on the recruiting trail, just because they’re forced to look at the same profile of athlete.

6. Let’s talk statistics.  Will they matter this weekend?

a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense
nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33
yds/gm).  Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the
99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). 
Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford’s rushing attack?  

This is the match-up of the afternoon. Stanford’s offense and quarterback Andrew Luck both depend on a strong rushing attack. Stanford pounded the ball 49 times against UCLA and averaged 4.3 yards a carry — not all that spectacular when you consider that UCLA turned the ball over four times. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been stout by any means against the run, but they should stack up physically, and need to eliminate the big play.

b. Notre Dame’s Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318
yds/gm) and Stanford’s Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74
yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack? 

The Irish need to be able to throw the ball against UCLA. I’m not buying the hype on the newly transformed Cardinal defense. I’m throwing out games against Sacramento State, a mediocre team in the Big Sky Conference, and UCLA has some of the most dreadful quarterback play in the country. That said, the 3-4 defense could be exactly what Stanford needs to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish should get a very good luck from their scout team and defensive coaches this week. As long as Dayne Crist and company can stop turning the ball over, Notre Dame will be able to score some points.

c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?

Kelly will go with what’s working, but I suspect we’ll see Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and possibly Robert Hughes getting some carries Saturday. There hasn’t been great balance on offense for the Irish, but before we get worried, they’ve only played three games and Armando Allen has looked great this year. The Stanford run defense looks susceptible, and I’m sure Kelly will try and control the game on the ground.

d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the
Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%).   Stanford’s Red
Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish
Defense’s Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%).  Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford’s RZ conversions and improve theirs?  How would you do that? 

I don’t have any idea if the Irish will stop Stanford in the red zone. Ideally they’d do it before Stanford gets there, or win the field position battle and set up longer fields for the Cardinal. Andrew Luck is a really really good quarterback and his mobility makes Stanford dangerous in the red zone. The Irish need to hold on to the football and make their red zone possessions count. No team is going to keep a 50 percent red zone average like Stanford’s defense has, but the Irish need to hold on to the football down in Stanford’s end of the field and get touchdowns instead of field goals to win the game.

7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still
trying to find its identity.  Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a
well-oiled machine thus far.  Do you think this Irish squad can really
bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal?  What
if it’s not all that close?

Slow down, Mr. Negative. On paper, Notre Dame matches up fine with Stanford. It was only last year where Notre Dame moved the ball up and down the field with a team playing for nothing with a dead-man-walking coach, and a defense not much better.  Put frankly, the Irish have just been on the wrong-end of two very heart-breaking losses. But Brian Kelly isn’t going to lose his team after three games, and like it or not, transitions are tough. There are going to be bumps in the road. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Irish win, and for as lopsided as this may appear, Stanford is only a four-point favorite in Las Vegas. 

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.