Pregame Six Pack: Stanford edition

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With turkey and leftovers stuffed into refrigerators everywhere, the rest of the weekend can be dedicated to what’s important (and no, it’s not Black Friday sales): Football. As the final regular season Saturday of the year approaches, Notre Dame has the chance to prove that they’re a different team than the one that opened the season stubbing their toe twice.

As the Irish journey to Palo Alto, Brian Kelly‘s squad will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team they’ve played in Kelly’s two years in South Bend. After getting beaten convincingly by the Cardinal last year, Kelly welcomes another chance at measuring his team against one of the nation’s best.

“They were a physical, good‑looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably,” Kelly said this week. “I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.”

We will see tomorrow night. With the regular season closing, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s prime-time affair with No. 4 Stanford.

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1. Andrew Luck’s next touchdown pass will pull him equal with a legend.

It may already feel like it, but believe it or not, Andrew Luck doesn’t have a bust in Canton, Ohio yet. But the senior quarterback, all but certain to be playing his last game at Stanford Stadium, needs just one touchdown pass to pull even with the gold standard of Stanford football: John Elway.

Luck current has 76 touchdown passes, needing just one more to pull even with Elway at 77, and just one more on the season to pull even with his single-season record of 32, set last year. In the senior quarterback’s three years of starting he’s already put his stamp all over the Cardinal record books, trailing only Elway and school-leader Steve Stenstrom in career passing yards, while likely pulling ahead of Stenstrom as the school leader in total offense on Saturday as well. Luck also holds the school marks for completion percentage and passing efficiency.

More impressively, Stanford is 30-6 with Luck as its starting quarterback. That’s far and away the most wins by any quarterback in school history, well ahead of Stenstrom (24) and some guy named Jim Plunkett (22).

Even though all of America knows it now, the Irish have always realized how dangerous Stanford’s senior quarterback is.

“Before he was really a household name, we could all tell he was that good,” Harrison Smith said. “He’s gotten even better. He’s got it all. He can throw the ball like nobody we’ve seen.”

***

2. The spotlight is back on Cierre Wood… Right where he wants it.

After carrying the load from the backfield at the beginning of the year, Cierre Wood takes back the featured running back role after a knee injury to Jonas Gray cut short his senior season. And the junior from Oxnard, California is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Irish get a big win in Palo Alto.

“If they need me to carry the ball 50 times that’s what I’ll do,” Wood said. “If they need me to carry it 10 times that’s what I’ll do. As long as we get the W that’s what I’m more concerned about.”

The number of carries Wood gets will likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, as the Irish will lean heavily on the back that started the season as a clear-cut starter, but since ceded a little more than half of the carries to Gray.

Running backs coach Tim Hinton was impressed with the way Wood handled the situation and is confident he’ll be ready to pick up any slack now that he’s the lead back once again.

“You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce,” Hinton said.

With freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only depth behind him, Wood knows all eyes will be on him as the Irish prepare to battle the No. 6 rush defense in the country.

“Wherever my teammates need me, that’s where I’ll be.”

***

3. Irish eyes need to be in the right place against an explosive Stanford offense.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might be the only person to compare the offense Andrew Luck pilots to those run by service academies. But the Broyles Award nominated Diaco has a good point, and Stanford’s offense will challenge the discipline of Irish defenders more than any offense the Irish have faced this year.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a discipline challenge,” Diaco said. “It’s a different offense, but not that much different than Navy or Air Force, where they’re running it, running it, running it, but they’re really producing a bunch of chunk yardage plays with passes off their runs.”

The Irish linebackers will be tested more than any time they have been this year, forced to play downhill to help stop a Cardinal running attack that’s among the best in the country. That job is made much harder with Luck’s proficiency in the play-action passing game, one of the biggest challenges linebackers face.

“They are an explosive offense that has a tough, rugged, run-the-ball first mentality,” Diaco said. “Probably the best o-line we’ve faced, with for sure the best group of tight ends we’ve faced, and a pack of running backs that are as good as any group that we’ve had so far. So the proof is in the pudding as it relates to the whole team.”

***

4. George Atkinson has a chance to add to an already impressive freshman season.

George Atkinson has already had an impressive freshman season, making an immediate impact in special teams with two kickoff return touchdowns, tying the school record that’s shared by Irish legends like Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, and Allen Rossum. But on Saturday night, Atkinson will have a chance to make an impact just a few miles from his hometown, and potentially do so in the backfield as well, as he and fellow freshman Cam McDaniel will be forced into action at running back.

Tim Hinton knows it’s not ideal, but expects both Atkinson and McDaniel to be ready.

“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. They’re freshman. You look around the country and there are some freshman that are obviously playing.  The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps that some of those other freshman were getting because we were trying to get our two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.”

So far, neither Atkinson nor McDaniel has shown the ability help the run game, with the duo combining for just 12 carries and 36 yards, with Atkinson chipping in two short touchdowns. But Cierre Wood knows that it’ll be his job to pay it forward, helping the youngsters get up to speed for Saturday night.

“I’ll just do what the veterans when I was coming up did for me,” Wood said. “Help them learn the basics first, then everything else will take care of itself on the field.”

It’s apparent for anyone that’s watched Atkinson this year that the freshman has game-breaking speed and an explosiveness that would be great in the open field. But he’s raw at running back, a slight player that probably would’ve come into Notre Dame as a wide receiver if the depth chart wasn’t as thin as it is. Yet the Irish could help their cause if they find a way to get the ball to the talented freshman in space, giving him the opportunity to show off his speed and the athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field.

Playing in front of plenty of family and friends, not to mention a national television audience, Atkinson has the chance to put his career on a really impressive trajectory if he can come up big against Stanford.

***

5. It’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Stanford.

There’s no use holding onto all those wonderful tricks and gadgets the Irish have likely worked on all year. It’s time to use a few of them against Stanford, hopefully catching the Cardinal off guard with one or two unexpected wrinkles.

Consider this a quick wishlist of things Irish fans hope to see on Saturday night:

Special Teams:

It’s time to see what Kelly and Mike Elston have up their sleeves in terms of a fake punt. Last year the Irish were successful pulling it off, and it’d be great to see if the Irish can steal a possession away from the Cardinal if the timing is right. Even better, keep Michael Floyd back returning punts all evening, even if it’s in punt safe mode. Better yet, try setting up some blocking for him.

Defense:

Just because Brian Kelly doesn’t think he can trick Andrew Luck doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. After all, Luck has a limited group of receivers right now and injuries to wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo means he’ll be working well down the depth chart at some key positions. For as good as Luck is, he’s thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and threw two against the Irish last year.

It’ll be a blow to the Irish defense if Stephon Tuitt can’t play on Saturday, but it’d be surprising if the Irish get much out of the talented freshman that’s been severely ill with an undisclosed illness. Either way, Saturday night is a great opportunity for Aaron Lynch to make some noise, especially against an offensive line that’s one of the best in the nation. (At the very least, Lynch should try and draw some holding flags.)

Offense:

It’s time to bring back Andrew Hendrix in a package or two. When he was used, it was always in the middle of a series as a complement to Tommy Rees and the running game, and that’s the perfect way to use him Saturday night. If Theo Riddick is healthy, the Irish could get him on a jet sweep, or better yet — use that as a way to get Atkinson some carries in space. Even thought the hook-and-lateral didn’t work against Luke Kuchely, putting it on tape the week before Stanford was a purposeful move. If the Irish can get Cierre Wood around the edge, they’d be wise to try using that quick pitch / lateral that has been so successful over the past two years, but hasn’t been used in weeks.

Regardless of how highly ranked Stanford is, the Irish need to take their shots down field with Floyd. Feeding the ball to Floyd quickly in the possession receiving game is fine, but they need to run the top off the Stanford defense, and athletically, the Cardinal don’t have anyone Floyd’s equal, and the secondary is missing standout safety Delano Howell. Floyd is just seven catches away from Golden Tate’s single-season record of 93. Expect him to break that sometime in the third quarter. In one of the premiere games for tight ends in the country, it’d be good for Tyler Eifert to go cement his place as the Mackey Award winner on Saturday night.

***

6. Another game, another set of alternate uniforms. But don’t worry Irish fans, these ones are on Stanford.

In a trend that’s likely leading to an ulcer for some football traditionalists out there, when the Irish battle the Cardinal on Saturday, they won’t be facing a team wearing their traditional white pants, cardinal jerseys and white helmets, but a squad that looks like a group of red storm troopers, with black matte helmets punctuating an all-red look.

The Cardinal are joining the Nike Pro Combat revolution, wearing an alternate uniform that’s a whole lotta red, which according to Nike’s marketing machine is a “metaphor for the pulse of life and the heart that pumps the relentless engine that is Stanford Pride.”

Stanford joins Oregon, Georgia, Boise State, Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State as team’s that have gone with the “Pro Combat” look, and of course, Shaw has no problem embracing it.

“I think they’re great,” Shaw said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a recruiting world that we live in.”

For an early look at what the Cardinal will be wearing when Andrew Luck takes his Senior Day photos, you can see every detail — right down to the Nike gloves with an “S” on the palms — here.

 

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.