And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

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With the College Football Playoff’s selection committee deeming this a Top 10 matchup, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for its best opportunity at impressing committee voters. As a narrow underdog to Todd Graham’s Sun Devils, the Irish are facing a stiff test against an Arizona State team with an improving defense and growing confidence.

That self-belief could be because it feels like the stars are aligning. After beating USC on a Hail Mary and having Utah’s All-American kicker Andy Phillips miss in overtime, this Arizona State team doesn’t look like the one that gave up 62 in a blowout against UCLA, but rather has one that looks and feels like a team of destiny.

Matched up against the Irish in the flagship afternoon game this Saturday, Graham and the entire campus (students began camping out earlier this week) understand that this isn’t just another football game.

“I think it’d be silly to say this is like any other game. It’s not any other game to me,” Graham said this week. “Growing up a football fan, getting an opportunity like this late in the year… This is the kind of game you want to coach in, the kind of games our players want to play in and obvious our fans want to see. So I’m looking forward to seeing a packed house and creating a memory.”

To get us ready for Saturday, Nick Keueger of House of Sparky joins us. In addition to being the managing editor of Arizona State’s SBNation blog, Nick is a future graduate at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State. We shared Q&A duties this week, so if you’re interested in seeing my answers to his questions, go check them out.

Either way, enjoy our discussion here.

 

The Sun Devils’ are 7-1 thanks to some fairly amazing finishes. A Hail Mary to beat USC. One (basically two) missed field goals last weekend in overtime to beat Utah. What has that done to this ASU team’s self-belief? How confident is this group as they welcome the Irish to Tempe?

These wins have been pretty spectacular morale boosters for the program, but I think the players understood wins such as Utah and USC also took a fair amount of luck. Against the Trojans, the Sun Devils managed under 40 yards rushing and the special teams was poor with a punt return for a touchdown by Nelson Aghalor. The Utes provided a tough defense for Taylor Kelly to throw against and he should have been picked three or four times, but the stat line will only show one.

The blowout 62-27 loss at home to UCLA also shows just how poorly this team can execute. The Sun Devils allowed five plays of 80 yards or more that night as Mike Bercovici threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away too. The Sun Devils have seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in 2014. Right now they’re riding one of those incredibly tall waves, but the optimism and confidence is tempered given what has transpired so far this season.

 

Taylor Kelly is back after missing three games with injury. How has he looked against Washington and Utah? Are his relatively modest numbers a product of the defenses faced or a little bit of rust?

Combined with what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell admitted was rust, Washington was a lot of game planning for Kelly not to throw because the winds were gusting upward of 50 to 60 MPH. The offensive line also left a lot to be desired that night, giving up seven sacks against Washington. Kelly was also without one of his faster targets in sophomore wide received Cameron Smith because of injury. Utah was a bigger test and a more true version of Kelly facing a very good defense.

Although he didn’t get a passing grade from many ASU fans, his saving grace was his dual threat ability especially on the last drive against Utah, which helped him finish with 14 rushes for 55 yards. The Sun Devils running game is nearly non-existent with Bercovici at the helm and Kelly provides that extra spark on the ground. Without that, the maroon and gold don’t win their last two games.

 

When we spoke this summer, the Sun Devils defense was a big mystery. It’s had some ugly moments, but seems to be hitting its stride. What’s been the driving force for the change?

The personnel remain the same, but Todd Graham is figuring out a lot of the right formulas on defense. He moved Antonio Longino from a roaming linebacker spot Graham likes to call “Devilbacker” to a weakside inside linebacker spot which has increased his production dramatically with over half of his tackles coming in the last three games. He’s also putting some heavier guys in combination together on the defensive line, junior Mo Latu who is 365 pounds is seeing a lot of extended playing time alongside other defensive tackle junior Jaxon Hood and senior defensive end Marcus Hardison.

There are other guys who are just simply playing better like junior college transfer and junior corner Kweishi Brown who is finally just getting his feet wet enough to feel comfortable at the Division I level.

 

The marriage between ASU and Todd Graham seems to be in full bloom. Yet with some high profile jobs potentially opening up this offseason, his name always seems to be among the ones to watch, especially after his previous moves. As someone close to the scene, do worries of him leaving sound ridiculous? Does it look like he’s really working his dream job, as he mentioned after leaving Pitt, or a guy that would take an offer from a place like Michigan seriously?

Any rumors were quelled for good in September when he donated $500,000 to the capital campaign toward redesigning Sun Devil Stadium. His wife’s parents also live in the Valley and he continues to repeat that there is nowhere he would rather be. As funny as this sounds, Todd Graham is an extremely loyal person. That is when it comes to who he surrounds himself with in his coaches. Graham has had his pick of hires and now that his other great friend in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is here in his first season after he brought in Mike Norvell on the offensive side the ball in year one, I honestly don’t think Graham could be happier with where he’s at. He’s ready to build his legacy at ASU, his contract just got extended again this past summer and it would shock a lot of people if he left anytime soon.

 

The Sun Devils have one of the best WRs in the country in Jaelen Strong. He had a big game last year in Notre Dame’s victory over ASU in Dallas. How has Strong elevated his game this season?

While he has definitely caught a few more balls in open space, his ability to adjust his body while in the air has improved tremendously. It means everything to Taylor Kelly that when he throws a ball in Strong’s direction, either Strong is coming down with it or nobody is. He’s not faster necessarily, but put on about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Mel Kiper Jr. recently compared him to former Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in how he operates on the field.

 

This was a game that ASU’s former AD fought very hard — and loudly — to save. With a national broadcast, and even a surprising early kickoff, how big of a game is this for Sun Devil fans and students? Just about everybody expected this to be a night game. Do you think an early afternoon start makes a difference?

The early afternoon kickoff was welcomed in Tempe and it should be a beautiful 80 degrees or warmer here Saturday. The only thing that got a lot of people riled up was College GameDay choosing East Lansing over Tempe for their location Saturday. The Sun Devils don’t often get a chance to play many games during the day because it’s still just too hot in Arizona to schedule a day game until late October or early November. Fans were also glad to have a Saturday game at a reasonable hour, which they could bring the entire family out to see instead of the usual 7p.m. kick.

Students started up a tradition of camping out for tickets to the first few rows of the student section last season and called it “Camp Fargo” because the tickets are given out at the basketball arena on campus named Wells Fargo Arena. The new tradition has continued this season, the line for student tickets started Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and is already wrapped half way around the building. If anything, I might argue a day game could enhance the atmosphere just because it doesn’t happen around here very often anymore.

 

Notre Dame got the better of ASU last year, a somewhat surprising outcome considering some of the struggles the Irish had with Tommy Rees behind center. With Everett Golson, the Irish offense has taken a big step forward. What are some key matchups for ASU’s defense that we should be watching?

Golson, like Taylor Kelly, enjoys moving the chains with his feet. In that case, senior defensive end Marcus Hardison who is second on the team with seven tackles for loss against left tackle Ronnie Stanley will be one to keep an eye on as Hardison will need to keep contain. The cat and mouse game between Golson and sophomore middle linebacker Salamo Fiso in identifying coverages and schemes will be one to watch too. Todd Graham plays attacking defense, he blitzes to his hearts’ content and will force Golson to make quick decisions with the football. If, however, he makes the right ones it could pay huge dividends as is the case with any high risk high reward blitzing. So I think a big matchup to watch is Golson’s decision making against Graham’s exotic blitz packages. Outside linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (4 sacks) is one of Graham’s favorite players to blitz with along with senior safety Damarious Randall who leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.

 

Likewise, most expected the Sun Devil offense to be among the best in the country. Yet entering Saturday it’s Notre Dame that’s scoring at a better clip. Since the end of September, the Sun Devils have only broken 30 points once. Is something wrong?

The Sun Devils have run into two very good, stout Pac-12 defenses. Stanford was the No. 2 defense the country when ASU played them and Notre Dame fans know first hand how tough they are defensively. The running game couldn’t get going against the Cardinal either with Bercovici at the helm. Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha stunted the Sun Devils running game in their tracks in Seattle in horrendous conditions I touched upon earlier. I will say the offensive inefficiency against Utah is cause for some alarm. There were times where Kelly seemed flat out ineffective but ASU also may have found a few solutions in the running game with freshman Demario Richard. If I were to point to one thing, I’d say the Sun Devils finding a balance has been tough. Occasionally it will just become the “D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong show” with almost nobody else involved on offense and that’s when ASU has run into the most trouble.

 

Call your shot. How do you see this game shaking out?

With the academic suspensions on Notre Dame’s side and the loss of Joe Schmidt, I’m ready for another high scoring shootout just like the game in Dallas. The Fighting Irish provide a well-balanced attack in my opinion and it seems in the Pac-12, teams are pass or run first so ND provides a unique challenge.

That game in Dallas was special for both sides, regardless of the outcome, it helped both fan bases tremendously and both teams gained great national exposure. Saturday seems a little more hostile in my opinion. The Sun Devils and their fans have a bit of a chip on their shoulder just like any team would against a group they lost to last season. Unfortunately for ASU, they tend to lose these kinds of huge games on a national stage. Taylor Kelly is a very good quarterback and will do everything he can to keep the Sun Devils in it, but in my mind I just can’t see this young defense being ready for an offense as dynamic as Notre Dame.

Notre Dame: 38 ASU: 31

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For more from Nick you can follow him on Twitter @NickPKrueger. You should also be getting updates @HouseofSparky.

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