Five things we learned: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14

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With a tip of the cap to Mark Twain, perhaps the reports of Notre Dame’s internal revolt were greatly exaggerated. With much of the last 36 hours dedicated to rumors of a potential implosion inside the Irish locker room, the squad united quickly, putting together their most complete performance of the year as they demolished Navy 56-14 on Saturday afternoon.

“You saw a team that played together,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I told our team that’s the best collection of plays relative to all 11 players playing together.”

A week after Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for only nine carries, the Irish ran for a staggering seven touchdowns on Saturday afternoon, with Gray running for three and Wood rushing for two.

After losing the past two years to Navy, the Irish put up an astounding 56 points against the Midshipmen while holding them to only 229 yards of total offense. It was the most points for the Irish against Navy since 1994 and the 42 point win was the largest margin of victory since 1987.

Thanks to a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, the Irish righted a ship that seemed to be teetering this week. Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s dominant 56-14 victory over Navy.

After an embarrassing Saturday, the Irish just needed to get back on the field.

Nobody inside the Notre Dame football program felt good about last weekend’s performance against USC. After spending a week beating themselves up, they took out their frustrations on Navy.

“They whipped our butts today,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Irish’ 42 point victory. “Not going to make any excuses. That’s my 14th team playing Notre Dame, and that’s the most full butt-whipping. Coach Kelly did a great job getting his guys ready, bouncing back after the USC game. They cam prepared and focused and they got after us in all three phases. They got after us offensively, defensively and special teams. Just a total butt whipping.”

We’ll find out what this afternoon’s performance means, but if it’s any indication, a difficult week of practice and some harsh realities simply put this football team in a bad mood and very eager to prove some doubters wrong.

From the opening series of the game, it was clear the Irish brought incredible intensity to the field, and after stopping a 12-play Navy drive to start the game, the Irish opened the flood gates, jumping to a quick 14 point lead and never looking back.

“Today was a great example of the kind of football — everybody together, everybody playing hard for each other — that’s what we expect,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to just do it for four weeks. We want to do it for eight, ten, 12.”

Bob Diaco has officially exorcised his Navy demons. 

It might get lost amidst the off the field soap opera, but Bob Diaco dialed up the most impressive game plan of his career, shutting down a Navy offense that undressed the young defensive coordinator last year.

Without starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Diaco spent the majority of the game in a four-man front, putting Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming at end, with Stephon Tuitt, Sean Cwynar, and Louis Nix anchoring the inside.

The front four was key to shutting down a Navy running attack that averaged 325 yards a game and 5.7 yards a carry. The Irish held the Midshipmen to just 196 yards on the ground, and only 3.9 yards a carry on 50 attempts.

“We couldn’t move the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “They stopped us. We couldn’t move the ball which compounded things for our defense because they kept coming on the field and we couldn’t get any conversions.”

Like he did against Air Force, Jamoris Slaughter slid down to outside linebacker, joined by Dan Fox on the other side. While Te’o’s play was excellent, the trio of Tuitt, Nix and Cwynar was really impressive.

“Our front was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our two inside guys didn’t give much. You’re not going to talk a lot about them, Tuitt and Cwynar, they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played really well.”

While Aaron Lynch stole most of the preseason publicity, Tuitt has quietly emerged as one of the Irish’s most versatile defensive weapons. His seven tackles from the inside of the defensive line were incredibly impressive, and the freshman has quickly adding another difference-maker to a front seven in need of someone ready to step up.

After taking a lot of heat after last season’s loss, Diaco deserves a ton of credit — showing some great versatility with his defensive structure, and quieting the critics that blasted him last year. The Irish shut down Navy like no other team has done this year, the only team to keep the Midshipmen below 300 yards.

“I think we can put that to rest, about our ability to defend a very, very good football team,” Kelly said.

A week after disappointing, the Irish’s two star players came to play.

It didn’t take long to notice Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o. A week after quiet performances by the Irish’s two star players, both leaders stepped up with dominating performances.

Floyd led Irish receivers with six catches for 121 yards, including a 56 yard touchdown catch on a deep post thrown perfectly by Tommy Rees. He also contributed another score, running a tightrope up the sideline on a quick pass deemed a lateral for a second touchdown. It took just one play to realize that Floyd would present big problems for Navy, with the senior wide receiver beating two tacklers on the first play from scrimmage for 25 easy yards.

“The guy was unbelievable,” Niumatalolo said. “The kid is a complete player. The guy played well. What he did wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him, but we couldn’t get it done.”

On the other side of the ball, Te’o played one of the most complete games of his career. He led the Irish with 13 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, and his nearly error-free performance anchored everything Diaco’s unit did to stop Navy.

“We could not block Manti,” Niumatalolo said. “We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him, but the kid played phenomenal.”

The best way for veteran to lead his team is on the football field. Saturday afternoon, the Irish leaned on their two most important veterans and got everything they needed.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are officially 1A and 1B.

Brian Kelly didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was Jonas Gray that started in the backfield against Navy, not Cierre Wood. Gray embraced the role, setting the offensive tone with bruising runs of nine, eleven, and six yards, before charging into the endzone on a four-yard run. Four carries, 30 yards, and a touchdown for Gray on the tone-setting drive, numbers that actually hurt his season average.

“He was what we wanted him to be when we talked about how important he was to us when we started the year,” Kelly said of Gray. “He ran physical. He’s got burst, he’s got speed. He breaks tackles. He’s a valuable player, as well as Cierre Wood. Him getting off to a good start — he sets a physical presence for us.”

While neither back busted a long run, Gray and Wood put up almost identical numbers with the duo combining for 23 carries for 135 yards and five rushing touchdowns. More importantly, Gray’s emergence has helped keep Wood fresh, with both backs feeding off each other.

A solid running game is a recipe for red zone success, and Saturday’s seven for seven performance inside the Navy red zone was made possible by a stout running game.

“I think we probably ran the ball a little bit more effectively in those situations,” Kelly said of his teams performance inside the Navy 20. “We put more emphasis on the run game in that area, and i think that is a direction we want to keep moving.”

A week after forgetting about the ground game, everybody in the stadium was reminded that the Irish have a potent rushing attack, something that’ll serve the Irish well as they move into November football.

Brian Kelly has his finger on the pulse of this team better than anybody else.

Brian Kelly wasn’t in the mood to rehash what was said on Friday when he and his football team discussed his controversial comments from Thursday.

“I can tell you that as a family, we all have good days and bad days,” Kelly said after the game. “And you work through that as a family. And we had to work through some things this week. But in the end, like all families, if there’s a disagreement, if there’s any kind of need to communicate, it needs to get done and we did that. We communicated with each other as a team and as a family, and you saw it today. You saw a team that played together.”

While Kelly was mum about what happened behind closed doors, offensive tackle Zack Martin gave a succinct summary of Friday’s events.

“Coach Kelly apologized to us. We took his apology and we were fine with it,” Marin told the Chicago Tribune‘s Brian Hamilton. “He’s our leader.”

It certainly doesn’t pay for a head coach to differentiate between his guys and the previous regimes’ players, the only dicey thing Kelly said in my opinion. But Kelly — one of college football’s most media savvy head coaches — didn’t become stupid over night. Anything he said on Thursday was said for a reason, and it looks to have paid off, as the Irish went out and blew out a Navy team that’s turned one of college football’s most one-sided rivalries on its head in recent years.

While you may not agree with his tactics, Kelly inherited a senior class that was one of the most heralded recruiting groups in the country, yet has played below .500 football up until this point of their career. After replacing a coach that had different rules for different players, Kelly would much rather play bad cop and let a group of assistants he knows and trusts keep the team together, than except mediocrity when pressure is at its highest.

Nowhere in Brian Kelly’s job description does it say he needs to be a players’ coach. After watching his team play undisciplined and lackadaisical football for seven games, Kelly decided to use the media to send a message to the leadership of his football team. The press obliged and the veterans took the bait. Using one of the oldest tricks in the book, Kelly galvanized his team as they head into November.

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.