Five things we learned: No. 3 Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0

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For a long time 38-0 signified the gap between Notre Dame and college football’s elite programs. In 2003, Michigan embarrassed the Irish, a top five team proving skeptics right that 2002 was a fluke as the Wolverines pounded the Irish, holding Notre Dame to just seven first downs and 140 yards.

“They came at us in every imaginable way,” Tyrone Willingham said. “There’s nothing positive about how we played. We were outplayed, outcoached, everything.”

A year after another Irish resurrection, Notre Dame felt the brunt of two more ugly 38-0 defeats. With Charlie Weis needing to rebuild after back-to-back BCS berths, the Irish crashed back to earth, in a season where Notre Dame had to rally to avoid being the worst team in school history. Again against Michigan, the Irish were thumped, gaining just 79 total yards against a Wolverines team that had lost to Appalachian State. And against the Irish’s other heralded rival USC, the Trojans demolished the Irish at home, with back-up quarterback Mark Sanchez breezing by Notre Dame before Pete Carroll called off the dogs.

“You see where they are, you see where we are,” Charlie Weis said after the defeat. We’re at different ends of the spectrum at this point.”

They symbolism of Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory over Wake Forest will mean a lot more if the Irish take care of business against Southern Cal next weekend. But after lopsided losses so often over the past decade, the fact that it’s Notre Dame — now 11-0 and marching towards a potential birth in the national title game — separating itself from competitors by wide margins, well, it shows you just how far this team has come.

“We’ve played three top ten teams, all of them great,” Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said after the defeat. “I can’t imagine anybody from what I saw today, playing better than Notre Dame.”

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Irish’s 38-0 demolition of Wake Forest.

***

On a day filled with emotion and enthusiasm, the Irish played close to the perfect game.

After an emotional pregame ceremony that honored the Irish seniors and their families, many wondered how Notre Dame would start the game. After an inauspicious beginning — a holding call on the opening kickoff pinned the Irish deep in their own territory — Everett Golson threw a perfect strike to Theo Riddick for a big 3rd and 11 conversion. On the very next snap, Cierre Wood broke a 68-yard touchdown run on a nice option pitch from Golson.

From there, the route was on, with Notre Dame  sprinting to 21 first quarter points and playing their most complete football game of the season.

“We have a paradigm for winning.  It’s something we talk about actually in our locker room.  It’s called four quarters of winning,” Kelly explained.  “It starts with getting off to a quick start.  We talk about getting off to that quick start how important that is in the first quarter.  Second quarter is attention to detail.  The third quarter is effort and enthusiasm, and the fourth quarter is finish strong.  I think that came together in this football game more than any game we’ve played this year.”

The Irish checked off every box their head coach asked for, gaining 221 yards in the first quarter, their most since the third quarter of the Miami blowout. From there, they handled their business, continuing the offensive explosion until it was time to clamp down and win the football game.

On a day where the emotions of the moment could have taken away from the attention to detail, credit this football team for playing like champions.

***

With another tremendous game, Everett Golson’s progress is right on schedule.

By halftime, Everett Golson was in uncharted territory. The young quarterback in his first year on the job came out firing from the start, throwing for an astounding 317 yards in the first half, not far from the 30-minute record set by Jimmy Clausen in a 2009 losing effort against Navy. Golson completed 17 passes in the first half before exiting the game in the third quarter with an impressive stat line of 20 for 30 for 346 yards, with three touchdown passes and one ill-advised interception.

“What you impressed me with that kid today is how accurately he threw the football,” Grobe said after the game. “We knew that he was going to be a problem for us with his feet, either running the football or making plays out of the pocket. I couldn’t be more impressed with how accurately he threw the football, especially two or three of the deep balls.”

Even without DaVaris Daniels, Golson had no problem finding receivers, throwing accurately both short and long and once again being incredibly efficient on third down. For the first time this season, the Irish offense seemed to stress defenses vertically, with Golson hitting Theo Riddick up the seam, John Goodman and TJ Jones on deep balls, and letting Tyler Eifert do what the All-American tight end does.

Outside of the one ill-advised interception Golson threw in the end zone, it was a spectacular game for the young quarterback, who is growing into his role as the leader of the offense quite nicely.

“Obviously, he’s a guy that makes explosive plays. He’s got the ability to throw it. He can run the football. He’s elusive. I think we’re seeing a guy that’s growing each and every week,” Kelly said. “Now he made some mistakes that a young quarterback has a tendency to make. We’ve got to kind of slow him down a little bit. But he’s definitely on the right path to providing us the offense that we need.”

Golson is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence heading into Los Angeles for Monte Kiffin and the Trojan defense. After extending the field vertically, he’ll give the Trojans one more thing to expect.

***

Better late than never, Tyler Eifert turns into an offensive difference maker.

It has taken some time for All-American tight end Tyler Eifert to develop some chemistry with Everett Golson. But with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, the duo is making headway, with Eifert making big plays in the passing game, and finally started to do some damage down field.

It was a tremendous day for Eifert, with the senior from Fort Wayne breaking Ken MacAfee’s 35-year school record for career catches by a tight end. Just as important as any individual record, Eifert continued to develop as a key cog in the Irish offense, a process that’s taken longer than many expected. After turning down an opportunity to head to the NFL after last season, Eifert hasn’t put up the numbers you’d expect from a player of his caliber, but he certainly hasn’t harmed his cause.

“Coming back, not going into the draft. Coming back to get his degree says so much,” Kelly said. “But to also play at the level that he’s played, to break the kind of records with the great tight ends that have been here at Notre Dame is an amazing feat.

“I think it’s a combination of a guy that understands Notre Dame, understands the value of a great education, and wanted to be on a championship football team. I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.”

Mike Mayock spoke about Eifert’s decision to return to school during the broadcast, saying that while his stats aren’t what they were last year, talent evaluators and NFL scouts think Eifert has helped his cause by showing his ability to both block and make plays down the field. Jim Grobe certainly echoed that sentiment.

“What we find so often in tight ends is they’re one or the other,” Grobe said of Eifert. “They’re big guys, really good blockers, or they’re undersized guys that can run and catch a football.  He’s the perfect combination.”

***

In Cierre Wood, Brian Kelly has a chance at another six-star recruit.

In his three seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has landed a few “six-star” recruits — players that decided to come back to school instead of putting their names in for the NFL Draft. After landing Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Manti Te’o, Kelly and his offensive staff should set their sights on running back Cierre Wood.

After leading the Irish in rushing the past two seasons, Wood started the season seemingly in the head coach’s dog house, suspended for the year’s first two games for a mysterious violation of team rules along with linebacker Justin Utupo. And while Wood has continued to put up impressive stats in his third season in the Irish backfield, Kelly and the offensive staff have leaned more heavily on fellow senior Theo Riddick, choosing versatility and consistency, even if the results are more modest.

On paper, the decision is confounding. Riddick is averaging a decent 4.58 yards a carry on the season while leading the team with 160 carries for 734 yards. Wood, after running for 150 yards on just 11 carries, now has 720 yards on just 102 carries, averaging more than seven yards a carry. If you’re looking for consistency, its been Wood delivering on a weekly basis, not Riddick. At his worst, Wood has averaged 5.4 yards a carry, while having two games where he averaged better than 10 yards a carry. On the other hand, Riddick has had seven games where he’s failed to average four yards a carry, with big ball games against Navy, BYU, and Boston College buoying his stats, leading you to believe that the better place for him would be in the hybrid role many envisioned him playing from the start.

Wood mentioned on Facebook that Saturday would be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, leading you to believe that he’s ready to depart South Bend after getting his diploma. But Kelly believes that the senior running back, who has a year of eligibility remaining, still has work to be done.

“Cierre continues to do the job we ask him to do,” Kelly said.  “He’s getting better. I mean, he’s got a long way to go, but he had a great night tonight. I think we blocked well up front.  He saw the things necessary to put his foot in the ground and play North and South. He’s a better football player when he goes North and South. I think he’s starting to understand that as well.”

No coach has handled his players better than Kelly at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz was on the sideline, so it’s difficult not to give the benefit of the doubt to Kelly about distributing touches at a crowded running back position. But with George Atkinson still learning on the job, there’s not a ton of options behind Wood in the backfield, even with Cam McDaniel as an excellent safety blanket.

With NFL scouts likely to throw some tough questions his way after the two-game suspension, perhaps there’s unfinished business in South Bend for Wood. It would behoove the Irish head coach to at least present the case.

***

It was a storybook ending at Notre Dame for the senior class.

Even the gruffest of men had to feel their emotions stir during the introductions of the senior class. Watching veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, and Manti Te’o embrace their family and celebrate an up-and-down career at Notre Dame brought out the best in college football, and the afternoon romp felt like a celebration of the Irish’s greatest hits in a resurgent season.

Te’o had said many times that one of the big reasons he returned to South Bend for his senior season was for the chance to run out of the tunnel and be met by his parents. When asked if the moment lived up to his expectations, the senior linebacker was unflinching.

“Everything and more,” Te’o said. “I can’t believe this is the last time I’ll be playing here.”

With the game well in hand, Kelly paid special tribute to his senior defenders, calling a timeout to remove them to the roar of the approving home crowd.

“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense,” Kelly explained. “They have been obviously the rock.  They’ve carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively. It just seemed to me to be a pretty good gesture to allow us to honor those seniors.”

It was certainly a moment well received, and one that will never be forgotten by Te’o.

“Just Magic,” Te’o said of the timeout, where he, Zeke Motta, and Kapron Lewis-Moore ran off the field for the last time. “Like everything’s come full circle. For coach to do that, he could have easily taken us out and not even put us on the field.  But it was a TV timeout, and he said I’m going to send you guys out there, and then I’m going to call a timeout, and one by one I’m going to sub you guys out. So that’s the type of coach that Coach Kelly is.  I’m just very lucky to play for him.”

In Kelly and Te’o, player and coach found the perfect partner. For the head of the Irish football program, he found a transcendent leader to bridge the gap between past and present. For the linebacker, he found a coach that brought out the best in him, challenging Te’o to surpass the expectations heaped on his shoulders from the start, something entirely uncommon for Notre Dame lately.

With one last step in front of the Irish, the job is far from complete. But on Saturday afternoon, a perfect autumn day for football turned into a celebration of Notre Dame’s miraculous season. Another chapter in a storybook season.

“That’s the great way to end my career playing here in Notre Dame,” Te’o said.

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.