Pregame Six Pack: Streaking into the Spartans

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In an era where spread offenses and up-tempo attacks seem to have taken over college football, the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State probably looks a lot like a game played a generation ago.

“You might as well just play it in the parking lot,” Kelly cracked earlier this week. “It’s a fight. Roll up your sleeves.”

With the stage set for another physical brawl between two teams that have plenty of history together, the Irish will face their stiffest defensive test yet with the Spartans putting up some very impressive numbers (even against some not-so-impressive competition). With four defensive touchdowns and opponents gaining only 177 yards a game against Michigan State, the Notre Dame offense will have its hands full a two weeks of very slow starts.

As the stage is set for the Megaphone Trophy, let’s dig into some details before the game airs this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Michigan State do battle.

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1. After practicing for the first time on Thursday, Sheldon Day looks like a game time decision.

After playing one of his most complete games of the season, Sheldon Day rolled an ankle late in the victory against Purdue. The Irish medical staff kept the sophomore defensive end’s foot in a boot until Thursday, when he gave it a test at practice.

Brian Kelly updated us on Day’s progress Thursday evening, with Kelly optimistic but still uncertain about his status for Saturday.

“He can play Saturday. We’ll see. He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but he’s available to us,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he responds. It’ll be a game time decision. He practiced today, looked pretty good.”

The drop off after Day is significant, with sophomore Jarron Jones and freshman Isaac Rochelle next in line. After that, it’s likely a mix and match of guys like Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams and little used seniors Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton.

“A little bit of everybody,” Kelly said. “All hands on deck.”

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2. With his confidence in place and play improved, if Tommy Rees continues at this clip he’ll be having a great season… against an even more impressive schedule. 

After taking command of the offense against Purdue, Tommy Rees went out and played what was probably his best half of football in his Notre Dame career. Rees has started off the season quickly, throwing for 969 yards through three games, seventh in the FBS, and first among quarterbacks that haven’t played a FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent.

Just as impressive, Rees has created big plays down the field, completing seven passes of 32 yards or more, compared to just 11 plays of that distance all year. While his physical attributes still leave something for many to desire, Rees continuing at this clip — especially against the defenses he’ll face — is quite an impressive feat.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet of highly rated defenses Rees will face, starting on Saturday.

No. 1 Michigan State
No. 4. USC
No. 14. Oklahoma
No. 15. Stanford
No. 21. Arizona State
No. 36. BYU

It’s the beginning of quite a stretch for Rees, who will face four Top 21 defenses in a row before facing off against Air Force and Navy. It’s also likely to be the defining stretch of the season for this team.

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3. Finding touches isn’t the only hard part for a committee of running backs. Keeping your mindset plays a part as well. 

Over at the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen tracked down Randy Kinder this week to talk about what it’s like to be a part of a running back by committee. Kinder, who played during the final four seasons of Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, was part of multiple backfields that got the ball to a wide variety of players.

“When you’re a young guy coming in, it’s a lot easier than when you’re an older guy,” Kinder told Hansen. “We knew when we got an opportunity, we had to make the most of it.”

Kinder did talk about the mental battle you wage as you fight to keep your confidence high. While we continually wonder about what this is doing to freshmen Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston, it could be making things even tougher on junior George Atkinson, who has looked really tentative and struggled breaking tackles.

“The flip side of that for me is going into my senior year, we had a young guy behind me who kind of blew things away,” Kinder said of Autry Denson. “And I found myself struggling to get as much playing time as possible. It’s a difficult thing. It’s something where you have to be very strong of mind and look for your spots. We were lucky because we had a good group who were very supportive and tried to keep us all focused on the team winning more than anything else.”

In ’93, Kinder, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton all got at least 89 touches, with Becton leading the team with 164 carries. In ’94, it was Kinder that led the team in carries with 119, while Becton got 100 and Zellars got 79. Kinder led the team again in ’95, with 143 carries to Marc Edwards 140 and Autry Denson’s 137. But in ’96, Kinder only had 53 carries and a career worst 4.7 yards-per-carry, a full yard below his previous season.

Talent is a champagne problem. But sometimes too much of it makes it even harder to utilize the personnel on your roster.

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4. Another year, another injury plagued Michigan State offensive line. Let’s see if the Irish defensive front can take advantage of it again. 

After three home games against underwhelming opponents, the Spartans will play in an opposing team’s stadium for the first time this year. That could be a very big test for another offensive line that Mark Dantonio has had to patch together.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward,” Dantonio said this week. “It’s going to be exciting to see that.”

Up front is where the biggest challenge lies for the Spartan offense, with three starters only underclassmen, as well as half of the two-deep. This year, one of Michigan State’s best offensive lineman, right tackle Fou Fonoti, has been hobbled by injury. Center Travis Jackson missed last week with an injury and is listed as a co-starter. Neither will be at 100 percent on Saturday.

Sophomore left tackle Donovan Clark, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has himself quite a match-up with Stephon Tuitt this weekend. Redshirt freshman Jack Conkin has slid over to right tackle to make room for Clark. The Spartans had already lost likely starting right tackle Skyler Burkland after he retired this summer after multiple injuries.

Like in years past, it might not be an optimal group, but the edict is firm from the Spartans head coach.

“The best guys are gonna play, that’s all I can say,” Dantonio said this week. “The best guys are gonna play, and you’ve got to be able — especially as we move into our schedule — you’ve got to play firm at the tackles. You’ve got to pass protect and do the things you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to play with power as well.”

This looks like it could be the match-up of Saturday, with Tuitt and Prince Shembo likely liking their chops.

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5. Let’s not get too worried about Notre Dame’s ability to self scout just yet. 

After many people (me included) worried about the Irish’s predictability when playing in certain formations and personnel groupings, Kelly was asked about the halftime comments from Darrell Hazell last week about formational giveaways.

He didn’t sound overly concerned.

“We lined up in the same formation twelve times, eleven times on the last drive,” Kelly said Thursday. “They knew exactly what we were doing, and we had the ball for 7:22. It’s still about execution.”

Still, he didn’t dismiss the need for the Irish to be diligent self-scouting.

“I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been self-scouting a long time,” Kelly said. “We know what our tendencies are. We have that self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants.”

Expect to see a new set of wrinkles this Saturday against a Spartan defense that’s going to challenge the Irish aggressively, especially quarterback Tommy Rees.

“(Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a great job with the scheme. They are a team that’s done a great job of forcing turnovers,” Kelly said earlier this week to SiriusXM’s Jack Arute. “They force you to protect and if you don’t the quarterbacks are throwing under duress and you know what happens.”

A more thorough self-scouting evaluation will happen over the bye week, just in time for the Irish to face off with USC.

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6. Maybe Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a home field advantage after all. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame Stadium isn’t quite the visitors’ paradise that it once was. The Irish are close to matching their longest home winning streak in 15 years, with a victory on Saturday potentially making it ten straight games.

After watching both Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggle at home, Kelly’s Irish have seen things turn around, maybe not coincidentally after they started piping music into the stadium. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that fateful night against USC, when Crazy Train became a prelude to impending doom.

Kelly hasn’t been shy tweaking the home game weekend schedule, moving things like the team mass or the players walk to the stadium. It’s all been in a quest to focus his team properly for the task at hand.

“I just think the way we’ve spaced out the day, Friday and Saturday, has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.”

As for the game environment, Kelly talked about the added benefit piped-in music has brought to Saturdays at Notre Dame, with the players and student body being the primary beneficiaries.

“Those are all little things that have been worked through the team, and they enjoy it and they like it,” Kelly said. “Those are all little pieces where they feel like they are part of that, and part of the tradition is great, and then having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Still, winning at home isn’t just about a few new songs and a change in the weekend schedule.

“I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of levels,” Kelly said. “We’ve learned how to play the game. I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games.  We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.”

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

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