Pregame Six Pack: Bring on Sparty

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If you canvassed a group of Notre Dame fans, not many saw a 0-2 start coming. In fact, if you look at NDNation.com’s annual probability poll, there’s a bunch of statistical stuff that I’m sure I’ll mangle when explaining, but the gist of it is that most people had the Irish beating USF and a majority of people had the Irish beating Michigan. Barely anyone had them losing both games. But as they say, that’s why you play the games, right?

There’s plenty of reasons to still believe the Irish will rally and turn this season into a successful year. But if Notre Dame wants to cling to their slim hopes of a BCS game, then this is a must win football game. After picking themselves off the canvas after two heart-wrenching losses where the Irish did more to beat themselves than either USF of Michigan, the Irish welcome the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans to town, with the co-defending champions of the Big Ten sitting at 2-0 after cupcake games against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic.

Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

1. If you’re looking for history to tell you it’ll all be okay, well — look for something else.

If you’re looking for stats to support the Irish in their quest to dig themselves out from the 0-2 hole, skip ahead to point two of the six-pack. Only one Irish team since 1900 has managed their way to a winning record after losing their first two games.

The dean of South Bend sports, WNDU’s Jeff Jeffers, tracked down the quarterback that lead that 1978 charge, a guy named Joe Montana.

“It was just one of those interesting years,” Montana told Jeffers. “Unfortunately you’d like to win every game but it doesn’t always pan out that way. Right now the Irish find themselves in a tough situation — they’ve got another tough team that they’re playing this week — but it’s not impossible to turn around. You’ve just got to get back to doing things and not making big mistakes when it counts.”

When Jeffers asked Montana what he’d tell this 0-2 Irish team, he leaned on some impressive advice from Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.

“It’s one of those things that Bill Walsh taught us a long time ago, it’s the fundamentals that carry you,” Montana said. “And when your fundamentals are strong, you’re usually winning. When you find yourself behind, you can look back on it. Those are the things that you’ve usually left behind a little bit.”

That 1978 team lost to Missouri out of the gates 3-0, then to Michigan 28-14, putting a pretty big dent in the hopes of a Notre Dame squad coming off of a national championship. But the Irish snuck by Purdue 10-6, beat Michigan State 29-25, and rattled off eight straight victories before a crushing 27-25 loss to the USC Trojans, a game the Irish almost came back and stole when Montana led Notre Dame on a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Irish finished that season with a win for the ages, beating No. 4 Houston in the famous chicken soup game.

That season wouldn’t have been salvaged if the Irish didn’t get past a tough Purdue team, who only lost two games and tied another before finishing with a win in the Peach Bowl over Georgia Tech.

2. Even former All-American Shane Walton knows how Gary Gray is feeling this week.

Sure, he never had a game like Gary Gray did last Saturday, but if the senior cornerback that’s played a lot of good football is looking for advice, there’s no one better to give it than former All-American cornerback Shane Walton.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune caught up with Walton, who relayed a story of redemption on the football field that I remember vividly from the student section:

Walton doesn’t recall ever going through an entire game with the same level of frustration that Gray faced, but he does remember an instance when his resiliency was tested.

Purdue, Sept. 16, 2000. Drew Brees was under center for the Boilermakers. Brees had a couple of early connections with Vinny Sutherland. With about four minutes left in the first quarter, the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Walton picked off a Brees pass and took it 60 yards to the house.

“I had just gotten beat for 20 or 30 yards (by Sutherland) on a fade,” Walton remembered.

He was pretty riled up.

“I thrived on adversity,” said Walton, who is back in his hometown of San Diego now. “That really made the juices start flowing. Struggle on a couple plays, but don’t let it bother you on the next play.”

The Irish beat Purdue that day, 23-21.

If Gray has gotten himself into trouble in one-on-one coverage, it hasn’t been because he’s been beat. His pass interference penalty against USF, and the trouble he had against Michigan was more a product of getting lost and not getting his head around in coverage, something a lot easier to correct than getting toasted by four steps.

Walton said it best when talking to Lesar:

“Any corner who has a game like that can’t wait for the next game,” Walton said. “It’s not like he’s the only one out there making mistakes. He’s just the one everybody notices. That’s the nature of the position. If a lineman goes the wrong way and doesn’t get to the quarterback, do many people notice?”

3. Brian Kelly giving his players an earful of advice isn’t anything new.

First, let me get this back on the record: I don’t care that Brian Kelly screams at his players. It’s also not anything new.

George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press caught up with some of Kelly’s old players at Grand Valley State to see how the coach handled an 0-3 start back in 2000.

“I can remember frustration,” quarterback Curt Anes told Sipple. “We were a very talented Grand Valley team at that point, that had high expectations. We were not meeting our expectations, and it was due to a lack of focus, not doing the right things in crunch time and trying to find our way through.”

(Sound familiar?)

That Lakers team that started 0-3 and then 1-4, but ended the year 7-4, so for those wondering if Kelly’s verbal stylings were phased out by his players, the answer is a resounding no. The 2001 team went 13-1 and was the D-II runner-up and the 2002 team went 14-0, led by Ames, who won the D-II version of the Heisman Trophy. It seems tough love on his quarterback worked pretty well.

“He’s a fiery guy,” Anes said of Kelly. “He’s got a lot of passion. Sometimes he lets some of that get to him, (and) he’s in the fish bowl at Notre Dame.

“Unfortunately, I think his emotions did get to him more than usual, but there’s a lot of pressure on this guy. I do know this: He’s looking for those guys that are able to withstand those verbal encounters that he gives. The guys that he really respects are the guys that can take it. He’s looking for guys to step up.”

Kelly’s histrionics only worry me if they get in the way of a player improving on the fly, and while I’d say the USF game was close, TJ Jones, the guy who received the brunt of the yelling, had a good fourth quarter and obviously stepped up and made a play in a similar circumstance the next week against Michigan.

It may be good fodder for opponents, Desmond Howard and ESPN, but fear not people, the Irish players can take it.

4. The Notre Dame secondary better be ready for B.J. Cunningham.

The key to the game tomorrow will be the battle between the Irish defensive line and the Spartans’ rebuilt offensive line. But if you’re looking for one guy the Irish need to stop, it’s Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.

The guys over at TheOnlyColors.com did a nice breakdown looking at Cunningham’s numbers versus Floyd’s this year.

Michael Floyd in 2011
Catches Targets Catch % Target % Yards Yards Per Catch Yards Per Target TDs
Tommy Rees 23 28 82.14% 38.36% 276 12 9.86 2
Dayne Crist 2 3 66.67% 20.00% 37 18.5 12.33 0
Total 25 31 80.65% 35.23% 313 12.52 10.1 2
B.J. Cunningham in 2011
Catches Targets Catch % Target % Yards Yards Per Catch Yards Per Target TDs
Cousins 14 14 100.00% 32.56% 173 12.36 12.36 1
Maxwell 0 1 0.00% 10.00% 0 0 0 0
Total 14 15 93.33% 28.30% 173 12.36 11.53 1

 

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Floyd put up his numbers against a talented USF secondary and Michigan, while Cunningham did it against a I-AA team and Florida Atlantic. Still, Cunningham hit the Irish for 7 catches, 101 yards and a touchdown last year, and he and Cousins will only be better this year.

5. Kirk Cousins comes back to the stadium that helped shape his career.

We talked about it yesterday, but Kirk Cousins returns to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since throwing an interception that cost Michigan State a shot at winning against the Irish in 2009, one of the toughest lessons of his young football career.

It’s a lesson he heeded last year, when Cousins wanted to make a play in overtime, but instead took a sack.

Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News explains:

“I’m someone who wants to go back there and get a better result,” he said. “But the focus has to be that I can’t do it alone. Part of playing there is that it is about the team and about 11 guys on the field working together as one unit. I can’t try to do too much by myself and have to rely on my teammates.”

A year ago, Cousins was back leading the Spartans against the Irish, only this time it was in East Lansing.

The game did, however, show how much Cousins had learned, not only from that play the year before, but from an entire season as a starting quarterback.

In overtime, with Notre Dame leading and one play before the now-famous call of “Little Giants,” Cousins proved how far he had come — by taking a sack.

It was third-and-5, and instead of forcing the ball, Cousins ate the ball at the 29-yard line.

“The protection broke down and I didn’t have a whole lot to do, so my best decision there was to take a sack,” Cousins said. “I was really frustrated coming off the field saying, ‘Man, you want to be the guy that makes the play in overtime and we end up taking a sack.'”

The next play was the fake field goal, and what Cousins described as “bedlam” followed.

Another ill-advised throw could have prevented the final play from every happening, but to Cousins and the Spartans, it was an example of just how far their quarterback had come.

Making Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket will be one of the keys to the Irish’s gameplan. If he’s given time, the Spartans quarterback is one of the best in the country, especially working off a solid running game in play-action. They Irish will need to be disruptive in the Spartans backfield.

6. It’s as simple as turnovers and takeaways. Both in 2011 and 2010.

For everyone that’s wondered whether or not the Irish have worked harder at practice on preventing turnovers, don’t worry. Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are well aware of the issue.

“For us, we’re 120th in the country in turnover-takeaways. That number is pretty stark. The numbers are clear. We’ve got to take care of the football,” Kelly said again this week.

The story of the 2011 season is pretty obvious. Turnovers = 0-2. But FunkDoctorSpock, he of the Irish web-o-sphere, looked back at the 2010 season, where the results were just as stark.

2010 NOTRE DAME SEASON

Games One thru Four
Turnovers Lost: 9
Turnovers Gained: 6
Turnover Margin: -3
Record: 1-3

Games Five thru Seven
Turnovers Lost: 4
Turnovers Gained: 8
Turnover Margin: +4
Record: 3-0
Games Eight thru Nine
Turnovers Lost: 6
Turnovers Gained: 2
Turnover Margin: -4
Record: 0-2

Games Ten thru Thirteen
Turnovers Lost: 5
Turnovers Gained: 9
Turnover Margin: +4
Record: 4-0

In the EIGHT wins: 10 Turnovers Lost, 19 Turnovers Gained (+9)
In the FIVE losses: 14 Turovers Lost, 6 Turnovers Gained (-8)

The message is what it always is. Hold on to the football and take it away.

Now it’s up to the players to do it.

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.