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

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Usually losing for the second time in the season’s opening month calls for greater introspection. But upon the second viewing of Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the results were quite clear: Early turnovers sunk the Irish on Saturday.

Those turnovers ultimately fall on quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior leader of the Irish offense once again played a subpar football game, completing just nine of 24 throws for 104 yards, passing for two touchdowns but throwing three first half interceptions.

Brian Kelly talked Sunday about the options at quarterback, and for those asking for a change, they’ll be disappointed. Kelly publicly supported Rees as the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix supplementing him.

“He certainly is,” Kelly said of Rees as the team’s QB1 moving forward. “With the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there’s no question that the quarterback that’s going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”

With the inmates restless and the Irish needing to move on quickly and prepare for Arizona State, let’s clean out the notebook and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma.

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THE GOOD

George Atkinson. It was a great day at the office for Atkinson, who ran for a career-best 148 rushing yards against Oklahoma. Given a chance to establish some rhythm, Atkinson rewarded the staff with his best effort.

As the Irish prepare to play an Arizona State team that looks a lot more beatable when its offense is on the sideline, they’re going to need that commitment from the ground game, and Atkinson also gives them a threat to take it the distance as well.

Carlo Calabrese. We don’t usually see a Notre Dame linebacker making double-digit tackles not named Te’o. The fifth-year linebacker was stout on defense, filling the stat sheet with ten tackles.

Jaylon Smith & Elijah Shumate: The youngsters on defense both contributed seven tackles against the Sooners, a dynamic opponent that challenges you in a variety of ways.

Tarean Folston. A very impressive run by Folston around the left side of the offensive line set up an early Notre Dame touchdown. He didn’t get many more opportunities after Atkinson started to pick up steam, but Folston showed himself to be an explosive option.

Speaking of freshman running backs, more rumors have spread across the internet about Greg Bryant. Palm Beach Post reporter Jeff Greer said that Bryant’s father mentioned the plan to redshirt Bryant.

On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t willing to go that far, but acknowledged that Bryant wasn’t available because of a knee injury.

“He didn’t play this week because of a knee injury,” Kelly said. “But you know, when you start talking about medical redshirts and you talk about redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line.  We have got to slow down a little bit here.”

Saving a year of eligibility would be a nice perk for Bryant, and a nice bit of roster management for the Irish, especially with Elijah Hood decommitting from the recruiting class.

An offensive identity forming. It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t going to run the table by spreading an offense out and beating them with one-on-one passing match-ups. That type of game plan seems to work if your quarterback’s playing on Sunday, and mostly if their last names are Manning (only Peyton) or Brady.

Kelly talked about getting back to the basics, and setting a goal of 200 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving.

“From an identity standpoint, we ran for 200 yards,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to run for 200 and throw for 200 and that’s the identity we want to have as an offense.”

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THE BAD

Tommy Rees’s accuracy. Notre Dame can’t win completing less than 40% of their passes. And Rees just hasn’t been as accurate as the Irish need him to be the past few weeks.

“I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.”

While Kelly did commit to playing more of Andrew Hendrix, he also revealed his season-long plan to keep a redshirt on Malik Zaire, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you start to think about the roster management needed after losing Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel unexpectedly.

“My guess is right now, unless we have an injury, you’re not going to see Malik, unless we get into an injury situation,” Kelly said. “We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go.  But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”

Rushing Defense. After a really stingy performance two seasons ago, the Irish just gave up too much on the ground against Oklahoma. The Sooners ran for five yards a carry, allowing Oklahoma to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes.

A season after not giving up a gain of over seven yards on the ground, the Sooners had five people with carries of over seven yards, including four ball carriers that had runs of twelve yards or more.

Ben Councell’s ejection. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was ejected from the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay. The hit ended Councell’s afternoon early, and will likely cost him the first 30 minutes of the game against Arizona State, unless the Irish win their appeal.

“We don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said.  “There was no intent, he was trying to make a play on the ball. We’ll obviously discuss it with the commissioner of the ACC and we’ll make our case that in video as we’ve looked at it, we clearly don’t see any intent for him to lead and intentionally try to strike with his helmet.”

If Councell isn’t back, the Irish will be in a bit of a pinch from a personnel perspective. Romeo Okwara could slide over to the field-side, or the Irish could slide a safety down in the box, perhaps a bigger body like John Turner.

Back-breaking slant for a touchdown. With 12:35 on the clock and the Irish down six points, Notre Dame could’ve gotten off the field with a third down stop and taking the ball back. But the Sooners lined up in a tight bunch formation, with Notre Dame looking to be in man coverage.

The Irish sent Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox off the short-side in a blitz, while Ishaq Williams dropped back into coverage. Sterling Shepard got a free release at the line of scrimmage and rant a quick slant across the middle, beating Jarrett Grace underneath before outrunning Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth to the end zone.

The blitz didn’t get there against the quick throw and the Sooners essentially clinched the victory.

QUICK HITS: 

* Bennett Jackson filled the stat sheet as a tackler, making seven stops and two behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s got to do a better job in coverage. Much is expected from the guy wearing a C on his chest.

* Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to put the blown blitz pick-up on one guy. But between Tommy Rees, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they’ve got to pick that one up.

* In a passing game that relies on precision, the young wide receiving corps isn’t necessarily doing their job. In the same breath that Kelly talked about Rees’s need to be more accurate against man coverage, he also talked about the receivers needing to do their job better as well.

“We have got some young receivers out there that are not precise quite frankly in their route running,” Kelly said.

THE UGLY

A terrible start. You couldn’t script a worse beginning for Notre Dame. The perfect recipe to not just lose a football game, but to also take the crowd out of it.

Terrible turnovers. Notre Dame isn’t going to beat anyone with a -3 turnover differential. And they certainly aren’t going to do it against a good team like Oklahoma, who turned those three into 21 points. Let’s run through the three crucial mistakes, just for posterity’s sake.

* Turnover One: Interesting that Brian Kelly won’t call this an interception even though it’s in the books as a pick. Rees was hit as (or just before) he was hit, and it flies right into the linebacker’s arms. Pick Six to start the game.

* Turnover Two: This one is on Rees, who threw the slant early to a spot and missed. Cornerback Aaron Colvin batted the pass into the air, it was intercepted and a handful of plays later the Sooners were up 14-0.

* Turnover Three: Not a great design, especially when DaVaris Daniels ran an incorrect route. Still, the quarterback has to make a decision that’s better than that, and it was thrown either behind Daniels or into traffic if it was heading to Jones.

Terrible September. Irish fans might have forgotten that these are the perils of a Notre Dame schedule. While some teams start with a cream-puff non-conference slate, the Irish have battled one mediocre squad and then played three Big Ten teams and Oklahoma.

While any BCS National title dreams are gone, the Irish could still find a BCS bowl if they run the table or finish with three losses. But after watching Arizona State put the finishing touches on the Lane Kiffin era, the focus should only extend to the Sun Devils.

 

 

 

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.