The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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The polls and rankings are out. For the first time in a long time, Notre Dame is in the country’s top five teams, checking in at No. 5 in the BCS rankings, the AP Poll, and the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

With their third victory against a top 25 opponents, the Irish now shift their focus to one of the country’s top defensive units in BYU. But before we get there, let’s take a run through Saturday evening’s good, bad, and ugly.

THE GOOD

The Secondary. Let’s start with the unsung heroes of the evening. Anchored by Zeke Motta’s nine tackles, and Matthias Farley’s eight, the back-end of the Irish defense played  rock solid football again, taking the ball away twice thanks to Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley’s interceptions, and limiting Josh Nunes to just 12 of 25 passing for 125 yards.

It’s amazing to see the progress this group has made, and through half the season, the Irish rank an astonishing No. 5 in pass efficiency defense, a tremendous accomplishment for a group of players that are all learning on the fly.

The front seven. At this point, it’s starting to feel like a broken record. Manti Te’o had eleven tackles, playing at his usually elite level. Stephon Tuitt was a man possessed, racking up seven stops, and sharing a sack with Kapron Lewis-Moore. Louis Nix played up to the level that David Shaw praised. Prince Shembo was a load off the edge, getting consistent pressure, while just missing a few sacks. And the trio of Danny Spond, Dan Fox, and Carlo Calabrese all had productive nights on the stat sheet.

The Irish held Stanford to just 13 first downs, one courtesy of a penalty. They also held the Cardinal to just 272 total yards, another opponent staying below the 300 yard total. The goal line stand at the end of the game is stuff of legend, and while Stepfan Taylor ran for 102 yards, he needed 28 carries to get there, and most importantly for the Irish, they held him to zero yards on his final two touches.

Tommy Rees. Not much you can say about one of the most maligned players in recent memory. Rees might not embrace the role of a closer, but he certainly thrives in it. He was 4 of 4 passing, and his three overtime completions were incredibly clutch, especially after a sack on first down backed up the Irish to second and very long.

With Stanford bringing heat all afternoon on the quarterback, Rees and the Irish finally completed a slant patterned — a great tonic for a blitzing defense — and TJ Jones made a nice catch on a tough throw for the win.

TJ Jones. Clutch catch and nice afternoon for the junior, who has elevated his game this season and ascended into a pivotal role for the wideouts.

The running backs. The numbers won’t wow you, but it was a productive day for the Irish runners, playing against a defense that has all but shutdown the Irish ground game the past few years.

Cierre Wood did what Cierre Wood does. He ran for 66 yards on 12 carries, a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Once again, Theo Riddick didn’t break four-yards a carry, but he made three catches in the pass game, the most crucial being in overtime. It was hard to get George Atkinson on track, and he had just four touches, but he still averaged seven yards a carry.

The offensive line didn’t play their best game, but the Irish netted 150 yards on the ground, a number just about everybody would’ve said was enough to win the game, and beat Stanford’s total of 147.

Kyle Brindza. Nice day for the kid. Four kickoffs, four touchbacks. Two for two on field goals.

Tyler Eifert. The four catches are a move in the right direction, and that touchdown catch should be on every highlight reel this season. He also had perhaps the best quote to encapsulate the victory.

“We went in and we took the game,” Eifert said. “We won the game for ourselves. We didn’t wait for them to make a mistake. I think that’s huge.”

THE BAD

Turnovers. It was a bad day at the office for Everett Golson on Saturday. Before he was knocked out of the game with what Brian Kelly diagnosed as a concussion, Golson had given the ball to Stanford three times on fumbles. In his sophomore season (although freshman eligibility wise), Golson has now accounted for all the Irish turnovers on the season, something Brian Kelly knows is problematic.

“It’s something that obviously we cannot continue to have.  He’s got to take better care of the football, and he’s got to do it in practice, and he’s got to be smarter,” Kelly said. “I think if you look at the first turnover, we’re talking about mishandling a direct snap, something that we do every day, totally unacceptable. The other turnover was holding onto the ball.  It was the sack fumble against the three‑man rush.  Again, maybe we could have put him in better situation there. And then the third one, it’s easy for him to just step out of bounds and avoid contact.  So all of them are coachable, all of them are correctable, and we’ll continue to work on it with him so we can eliminate these mistakes.”

In wet conditions against a team that makes a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage, Golson’s primary job was the hold onto the football. That didn’t happen. Against another stingy defense this weekend, Golson will likely face the same recipe of pressure and confusion.

Penalties and Mistakes: Not a great day at the office from an execution perspective. Notre Dame had nine penalties for 70 yards, and senior Mike Golic was hearing his name called for all the wrong reasons on Saturday. Stephon Tuitt’s roughing the passer call kept the Irish defense on the field, too.

When asked about Golic’s play, Kelly did a nice job putting things into perspective, and also hinting at some other issues along the line and in communication with Golson.

“I don’t know that Mike Golic had a lot to do with those false starts. You know, there’s a lot of other things going on out there that I’m not going to get into right now,” Kelly said. “Mike has made progress.  Mike is‑‑ he played against a very, very good defense, and they won some, Mike won some.  The thing with Mike, he’s such a dedicated player.  I mean, he comes to practice every day; he’s purposeful.  He’s not going to be First Team All‑American at that position, but here at Notre Dame, he doesn’t need to be; he needs to just be Mike Golic.  And we’re proud of the steps that he’s made to help our offense.”

End zone play calling. After playing to the team’s strengths for much of the first six games, the Irish got burned playing aggressively out of their own end zone, with Golson stripped, sacked, and Stanford scoring its only touchdown. It was a rare blip in the radar for the Irish, and a head-scratching time to play aggressively, especially with Golson narrowly escaping harm the play before.

To his credit, Kelly addressed the situation in his post game comments and again yesterday, acknowledging that he’d maybe like those calls back. In a game like that one, giving away seven points nearly killed the Irish.

THE UGLY

This section stays empty thanks to the Irish pulling out a victory on a day that had the makings of a very ugly one. Pounding rains. Difficult playing conditions. Far from alluring weather from a recruiting perspective. But a win cures all.

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.