And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

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Notre Dame begins its scheduling alliance with the ACC this weekend, as the Irish take on Syracuse this Saturday night in another primetime kickoff for the Irish. Second-year coach Scott Shafer’s squad is 2-1, coming off a disappointing two-touchdown loss to Rutgers that statistically could’ve played out like a blowout win for the Orange.

With the game moved to MetLife Stadium, the Irish play their first road game in another NFL stadium. And with Syracuse all-in on a game they’ve moved south, it’s of vital importance for Shafer and his staff from a recruiting standpoint in the Tri-State area.

The Orange are expected to be worthy adversaries in the two school’s first matchup since 2008, when Greg Robinson’s three-win squad came into South Bend and shocked Notre Dame on Senior Day. (Yes, I had to remind you.)

Joining us to get ready for Saturday night is John Cassillo of the wonderfully named Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician blog. John covers the Orange football team and the ACC, kind enough to answer some questions to get us up to speed.

Let’s go.
Q: After escaping Villanova, blowing out Central Michigan and then losing by two touchdowns to Maryland, are there any truths to Scott Shafer’s team? Three different Saturdays, three very different results. Was Syracuse looking past Maryland?

I don’t think they were, to be honest. You take a look at the team’s stats on the game — 589 total yards, 26 first downs — and they obviously showed up to play against the Terps. They simply couldn’t execute in the red zone as a result of penalties and unimaginative play-calling once they got to Maryland’s side of the field. If they manage to punch one or two of those trips into the end zone (10 of 14 drives got to Maryland territory on Saturday), you suddenly have a much different ball game.

 

Q: The box score for the Maryland game is insane. Syracuse outgained the Terps by over 200 yards, and ran for 370 yards. Obviously a pick six and a -2 turnover battle kills you, but this game seemed over at halftime. How poorly is this loss sitting with not just the team but the Orange supporters?

The fan base is pretty aggravated, just because it showed that these sorts of miserable, self-defeating efforts still aren’t behind us. A running narrative among Orange fans is that despite our thankfulness for Doug Marrone and Scott Shafer bringing this program back to some sort of respectability, boneheaded penalties and mistakes seem to be the guiding narrative more often than not (even in wins).

As I mentioned in the previous response: this team was pretty close to making this one a much tighter game. That’s cause for frustration about what could’ve been, especially for someone like myself who re-watched the game again after to take a look at how the offense ran itself. Somehow, 24 out of 79 plays from scrimmage went for 10 or more yards… and we still lost by 14. That’s enough to drive any fan base up a wall.

 

Q: Turning the focus to Terrel Hunt, he seems like a dynamic playmaker on the ground. He’s leading Syracuse in rushing and averaging 7.0 a carry. His passing numbers seem rather modest, but considering he was ejected before halftime against Villanova, he’s far from a one-trick pony. Is Hunt the key to the game against Notre Dame?

Hunt’s the key to every game against every team. And that’s not to downplay our other players, or prop him up too much at all. Our quarterback is arguably our most effective runner, and if once he gets that part of his game going, it opens up some lanes for passing the football.

You saw the epitome of that philosophy against Central Michigan, when he was highly accurate and decisive. You also saw the other side of that coin when he overthrew at least five different passes against Maryland. This defense can make plays, so it’s up to the offense — Hunt, in particular — to find a way to score points. When they do so, SU usually stands a fair chance at pulling out a victory.

 

Q: Cameron Lynch is off to a really impressive start, putting up big stats from his linebacker spot. Notre Dame’s offensive line has gotten out of the gates slowly. How do you think Chuck Bullough is going to attack Everett Golson and the Irish offense?

Same way he attacks everybody else: blitz like hell, and hope it breaks down the opposing offensive line. Now, Golson has some mobility so that throws in an extra wrinkle (despite practicing against a mobile QB in practice every week, SU can’t figure out how to defend them in game situations), and could slow down the blitz at the onset.

In that case, expect a five-man rush on most downs (four linemen plus Lynch or fellow OLB Dyshawn Davis) with the other two linebackers falling back into coverage. The Orange linebackers aren’t particularly adept at playing in coverage, however, which means there will be opportunities in the flat and the middle of the field. SU will let Golson grab those early gains in favor of beating up that front line — which typically pays dividends later and forces very quick releases under pressure.

 

Q: One of the surprises of the season for Notre Dame has been the performance of Brian VanGorder’s young but talented defense. They’re giving up just 10.3 points a game and are in the Top 5 in turnovers forced. Do you get the feeling that this will be a battle in the trenches, with Syracuse going head-up hoping to run the ball straight at the Irish?

Syracuse’s run game is a nice mixture of power (Hunt, Adonis Ameen-Moore) and speed (Prince-Tyson Gulley, George Morris, Devante McFarlane, Ervin Phillips), so if a game is going to be won in the trenches, the Orange have a slight advantage there based on depth alone. However, Notre Dame is the first top-notch front SU has faced all season, so who knows if previous results are really indicative of future returns.

If Syracuse is locked into a low-scoring game, they stand a much better chance, as it takes the pressure off Hunt to make plays, and allows him to just calmly run this offense to his own liking. Don’t mistake the run-heavy attack with a slogging style, though. The Orange aim to run 80 plays per game and their read-option is a no-huddle, up-tempo attack that forces defenses to collect themselves quickly.

 

Q: It’s a home game for Syracuse, but it’ll be played in the Meadowlands. Notre Dame obviously travels well, especially when it comes to playing in the NY metro area. What is your hope for the turnout? Will this be a hostile environment for the Irish?

Syracuse and Notre Dame both have pretty large fan and alumni contingents in the tri-state area, but given the travel distance needed for typical season ticket holders to get down to this “home” game, I’d say ND holds an advantage in terms of fan turnout. No hostile environment’s expected for either team, as it’s more of a neutral crowd more reminiscent of bowl games.

A good portion of the Central New York-based fan base is pretty bitter about these games being moved away from the Carrier Dome (understandably), where they’d be a shoe-in to outdraw the competition. I’m not nearly as mad since I live outside of the Northeast, but I get the displeasure among local fans and students, for sure.

 

Q: Give me the perfect formula for a Syracuse upset. (The Orange opened as 13-point underdogs.) Do you expect them to pull it off?

The perfect formula for a Syracuse upset involves taking care of the ball, forcing turnovers and finding a way to turn early offensive success into touchdowns. This team’s biggest problem in the last season or so has been bogging down in the red zone, so if they can continue to quickly move the ball (on the ground, setting up the pass) and translate that into points, Notre Dame could start to feel a bit of pressure.

I think the Irish defense is too fast and physical for some of our typical play-calls (bubble screens, in particular), but if SU can mix things up a bit and try to keep Notre Dame off-balance (this is where Hunt’s legs play a huge role, too), they have a shot at the win. I don’t expect them to win, unfortunately. But I could see them finishing withing 7-10 points in a closely contested matchup.

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For more from John, you can follow him on Twitter @JohnCassillo and read him here on the Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician blog.

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.