Five things we learned: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20

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STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of talent that’ll be much better for the opportunity. But the realist can’t help but see a team defined by these 60 minutes — heart, effort and character usurped by back-breaking mistakes and missed opportunities.

As Notre Dame falls to 8-4, Brian Kelly made it clear that as important as it is to see the silver lining, the life of a football coach isn’t defined by anything but the bottom line.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said after the loss. “I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game.”

That the Irish did play a close one says a bunch about this team. Unfortunately, that they still ended up losing says just as much.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

***

With a beat up defensive front, Tyler Gaffney and the Stanford ground game was just too much to handle. 

With Louis Nix watching from in front of his computer, Stanford decided to put the game in the hands of its power running game, challenging the Irish’s beat-up defensive front to hang with the Cardinal’s impressive offensive line. 

Ultimately, the Irish couldn’t do it. Stanford ran for 261 yards on the ground, powered by senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown.

After the Irish held strong for most of the second half, Gaffney iced the victory was an impressive final carry, dragging along a handful of Irish defenders for a hard-earned first down.

“This one was pretty special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Gaffney’s performance. “When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming. That last run might have been his best run ever. There wasn’t a big hole. He squeaked through it. There was a guy after the hole. He took that guy for a ride.”

There were a lot of positives in the way the Irish defensive front battled for much of the second half, keeping the Irish in the game by keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone, but ultimately the Cardinal’s 51 carries at over five yards a crack was just too much.

***

With the game there to be tied, senior quarterback Tommy Rees just couldn’t get it done. 

With Notre Dame miraculously down just seven points in the fourth quarter, the Irish had two drives to try and tie the football game. Both ended in Tommy Rees interceptions.

The senior quarterback did a lot of good things against a Stanford defense that’s one of the toughest against passers in the country, but when it came down to crunch time, the Irish quarterback threw two critical interceptions that killed the Irish’s chances for winning a close game.

“Our offense kept us in it,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity. We just couldn’t get the ball to Will (Fuller) when we needed to.”

The interception that Rees threw to Fuller will likely go down as the quintessential Rees interception, a severely under-thrown deep ball that Rees just couldn’t physically get enough on.

The interceptions will keep Irish fans from seeing a solid football game Rees had played until then. In a game where the Irish offense put a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rees played before the snap as well as he ever has.

“Tommy did a great job with double checking, checking,” Kelly said. “There were some things going on out there. I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and he got us in some really good looks.”

On a night where Rees passed Jimmy Clausen in the Notre Dame record books for career touchdown passes, the veteran showed that while he couldn’t necessarily do all that was asked of him, he certainly would go down trying.

“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. Can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”

***

On a big stage, DaVaris Daniels put together an impressive football game. But he also showed how much work he still has to do. 

The Irish will say goodbye to veteran wide receiver TJ Jones after the bowl game, with the senior catching six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Stanford secondary. But playing against an elite defense and an excellent secondary, DaVaris Daniels showed that he has the goods to be next year’s No. 1 wide receiver, and potentially give even more to the Irish offense than Jones.

Daniels caught five balls for 79 yards and a touchdown, getting behind the Cardinal secondary for an impressive touchdown that reminds you just how talented the Chicago native can be. But for as tantalizing as Daniels’ skills appear, it’s also clear that the veteran receiver needs to advance his football game in the offseason.

“He does some really, really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s coming. I mean there’s a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He’s just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be. That’s the next level for him, it’s that consistency.”

That consistency was demonstrated by TJ Jones this season, with the senior elevating his game from complementary piece of the offense to leading man. As Daniels heads into bowl practice and the offseason, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Everett Golson, and take his game from sometimes to always, especially if the Irish want to build around some very talented offensive playmakers.

***

With the loss of Chris Watt, the Notre Dame offensive line just keeps getting younger and younger. 

Listening to Brian Kelly after the game, you got the feeling that whatever fell senior left guard Chris Watt, it was something far more serious than aggravating a PCL tear that Watt was playing through.

Watt’s loss is a serious one, pushing both Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. After starting the season with four upperclassmen along the offensive line, the Irish will now start ironman Zack Martin next to four first-year contributors. Yet they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment, a stark difference from the last time Notre Dame visited Stanford.

“They gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said of his beat-up offensive line. “They battled and held their own. It could have been ugly.”

The Irish struggled to carve out a run game, gaining just 64 yards on 24 attempts. But Tarean Folston gave some life to the Irish run game, picking up momentum in the second half while running for 50 yards on 14 carries. Probably more important than that was the excellent protection they gave Rees, giving up just one sack and holding national sack leader Trent Murphy to just two tackles.

“I’m very proud of our young guys,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “When you’re out there in the third and fourth quarter, we have four guys who never started this season, on the road against an opponent this this, it speaks volumes to the way we prepare.”

The experience Elmer, Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty gained late this season will serve the Irish well next season.

***

Notre Dame may not have won on Saturday night. But they finish the season a better team than they began.

Brian Kelly and his players refuted the idea of moral victories so often Saturday night after the game that you would be wise to believe them. Yet it’s hard not to tip your cap at the effort the undermanned Irish played with against a Stanford team that just couldn’t shake Notre Dame.

Senior linebacker Dan Fox made 15 tackles, elevating his play to levels unseen these past two weeks. After being bounced from the starting lineup early this season, Fox has carried the Irish defense through November.

“I really can’t wait to watch him play one more game,” Kelly said of Fox’s efforts. “Because he’s playing good football.”

Fox wasn’t alone leaving it on the field. Austin Collinsworth had another interception, making 11 tackles while playing just about the entire game with a safety position short Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate. Collinsworth isn’t Zeke Motta or Harrison Smith, but he played as well as you could ask on Saturday night.

Kona Schwenke played with an ankle that was heavily wrapped. Ishaq Williams returned even with a knee injury that robbed him of a month. And even with Stanford keying on Stephon Tuitt, the junior was a bear for the Cardinal to handle.

“Stephon Tuitt is one of the three top defensive linemen in the nation. He’s phenomenal,” Shaw said, before paying Louis Nix the ultimate compliment. “The best defensive lineman in the nation didn’t play tonight.”

There’s a maxim about horseshoes and hand grenades here somewhere, but not all 8-4 regular seasons are created equal. And as you watched the wounded Irish team walk towards the team bus, you saw a lot of guys that have had injuries rob them of a full season.

“Obviously you’re never happy at 8-4,” Martin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the season. But, you know, we got the right guys here and the right guys that bought into Coach Kelly’s system. As long as they do that, they’ll be fine.”

If you’re looking for a measure of this team, perhaps Kelly gave his most candid evaluation in some of his closing comments.

“We’re better in November than we are in September,” Kelly said. “I’d like to take this team and look at it where were you in September compared to where you were in November and we’re a better football team.”

When asked what that means, Kelly was perfectly diffusive.

“I guess I’ve got to find a way to get better in September.”  

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.