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

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The sun came up in South Bend Sunday morning.

After all, the Irish did beat Virginia in thrilling and unlikely fashion, with backup quarterback DeShone Kizer hitting Will Fuller for a 39-yard touchdown pass with a dozen seconds left on the clock.

Thus ended a bittersweet victory for the Irish that kept the lofty goals of the season alive all while added a few dozen more challenges to the schedule. And with Malik Zaire joining Tarean Folston and Jarron Jones with season-ending injuries, another talented piece of the puzzle will be relegated to the sidelines as the Irish continue their mission.

With one of the major hurdles of the season approaching this Saturday when Georgia Tech comes to town, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s come from behind victory over Virginia.

 

THE GOOD

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s playmaking assassin was at it again on Saturday, bailing out the Irish with two long touchdown catches, including a logic-defying game-winner that saw Fuller matched up in single coverage with the game on the line.

Fuller’s now caught four touchdowns in this young season, scoring from 16, 66, 59 and 39 yards, explosive plays that even a young Randy Moss would tip his cap to and salute. That’s 19 touchdowns in his last 15 games. While Fuller has yet to break loose on a screen pass, the junior receiver has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player this season, and it really isn’t even close.

Fuller received the game ball yesterday evening for his efforts. Head coach Brian Kelly said that his star receiver, “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.”

 

C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back broke loose for a career day on Saturday, dominating the first half by carrying for over 100 yards and finishing the day with 155 yards on 17 attempts, notching 9.1 yards per carry.

As the Irish look ahead to life without Zaire and Folston, Prosise is now Notre Dame’s lead back. But the senior is still figuring things out in the backfield, and Prosise now readies himself for the bumps and bruises that come along with carrying the load.

“I’ve just got to keep getting treatment and stay in the training room,” Prosise said. “I have to keep my body fresh and let it heal. I know I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I know my body will be back and okay when we start practice again on Tuesday.”

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the workload for his converted running back. And when asked if he thought Prosise had what it took to be a 25 carry a game back, Kelly said it was too early to decide that.

“I think that’s probably asking a lot right now. I think he could be down the road. I think he still has to gain some more volume in terms of getting comfortable into the position,” Kelly said. “I think we can ask more of Adams and Williams. And the volume at the running back position can continue to increase and it can increase with all three of them and as the season progresses, I think it can increase with C.J., as well.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s young quarterback led the Irish down the field to an improbable game-winning touchdown, the latest passing score for victory by a Notre Dame quarterback since some guy named Joe Montana won the Cotton Bowl as time ran out in 1979.

And after the game, Kizer impressed many with his poise and composure, understanding that the offense was now his to run.

“I’ve been ready for a while,” Kizer said. “I have no doubt in my ability to be the quarterback for Notre Dame.”

Kizer showed off his arm strength—not to mention his accuracy—when he bought time waiting for Fuller to get down the field and then delivered a perfect strike for the touchdown pass. His head coach, as you might expect, sounded confident that the team could rally around Kizer and that the offense could continue to thrive.

“Certainly DeShone doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone. He has a lot of weapons around him and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing,” Kelly said.

 

QUICK HITS. 

The stat sheet showed a dominant performance by Jaylon Smith. He made 11 total tackles including 2.5 for loss. I have a hard time putting anybody from the back-seven of the defense in the good category, but Elijah Shumate had 10 tackles and KeiVarae Russell made nine, including a critical strip-sack and forced fumble on a corner blitz.

C.J. Sanders broke loose on a nice punt return, looking close to breaking another one as well. If I’m in charge of Notre Dame’s special teams, I’m swapping out Amir Carlisle for Sanders, as I think the young freshman can add a spark, especially in a game that might need the Irish to juice their offense.

While we’re talking special teams, you’ve got to give Scott Booker a tip of the cap for the design and dial-up of the fake field goal. He’s been a whipping boy long enough around here, so you’ve gotta give him credit when he does something good, too. (Now about that two-point conversion play…)

Another day, another disruptive day for the defensive front. Sheldon Day added another tackle for loss. Isaac Rochell had seven tackles, including a TFL. Daniel Cage chipped in three stops as well.

Man, that was one pretty ball DeShone Kizer threw. Clutch, clutch deep ball.

Two straight games: No Turnovers. 

 

THE BAD

Third down offense. It’s inexplicable that the Irish offense, especially on a day where Notre Dame ran for over 250 yards, couldn’t convert a single third down. A whopping zero for 10, one of the more bizarre, disappointing and frustrating performance we’ve seen in a few years.

Kelly kept things fairly vanilla when asked about it, but he was pretty clear about his displeasure.

“We were largely ineffective in our short yardage run game. There are a number of reasons for it. There were some miscues. Some credit goes to Virginia. I thought they did a good job of defending us on third and short, but it is unacceptable to be that ineffective on third downs.”

Needless to say, the Irish are going to need to find a way to extend drives, especially against an offensive like Georgia Tech’s.

 

The pass rush. Notre Dame failed to get home with any blitz scheme, minus the strip-sack, fumble recovery forced by KeiVarae Russell. (A big play we need to acknowledge.) That’s a problem, even if there was some disruptive play by Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell.

Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti need to do more. (And Trumbetti’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was a back-breaker, putting the Irish back onto the field and eventually giving up a touchdown that would’ve never happened had Trumbetti not drawn the flag.)

The lack of a true pass rusher isn’t  a new development. Notre Dame knew they needed to find somebody who could come off the edge. But too often the Irish brought pressure and didn’t get there, with Joe Schmidt and Drue Tranquill getting to Matt Johns two steps too late one too many times.

 

Short Yardage. At this point, I don’t want to just duplicate some of my complaints from the Five Things. But Notre Dame’s struggles in short yardage offense were inexplicable, especially considering the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry.Over 250 and seven a touch, but inexplicably soft on short yardage!

I’m going to give this group a mulligan. And I think having inexperience at running back and quarterback plays into the struggles. But this needs to get fixed, and quickly.

 

Red Zone Defense. We got spoiled by Bob Diaco’s red zone defense. But after Virginia scored touchdowns on three of four appearances in the red zone, the Irish sit at 106th in the country in touchdown percentage given up.

Here’s how the Irish have done in the past five years in giving up touchdowns in the red zone:

2015: 75% (106th)
2014: 70% (116th)
2013: 52% (18th)
2012: 34% (3rd)
2011: 58% (46th)
2010: 42% (7th)

It’s too soon to draw conclusions on this defense. And last year’s unit at the end of the year was a beaten and broken group. But at face value, these stats are beyond obvious.

This group has struggled under Brian VanGorder in the red zone and they need to fix that immediately. Saturday was a terribly disappointing performance by a group that needs to play tougher and smarter near the goal line.

 

Secondary play. Notre Dame’s back-end played poorly, making Canaan Severin look like an All-American and letting Matt Johns slice and dice the defense. The secondary fell for an end around pass thrown by Johns, who was split out wide. That just can’t happen.

But no play was more frustrating than the 3rd-and-15 conversion that Virginia picked up late in the fourth quarter, right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s zone defense. It was a mind-numbingly frustrating conversion that pushed the Irish to the brink and could’ve cost the Irish the season.

Cornerback Devin Butler had no receiver in front of him, yet failed to sink deep into his zone. Worse than that, safety Max Redfield was inexplicably late getting to the deep route (the only pattern in the entire play that could get the first down), and when he arrived, he made a brutal effort to make a tackle, looking like a hockey defensemen throwing a shoulder instead of the last line of defense wrapping up a receiver that never should’ve been open. He took out Butler and when everything was over the Cavaliers had first and goal. One play later, they were in the lead.

After an active game against Texas, Redfield looked pretty bad on Saturday. He was wearing a cast on his hand, with Kelly saying after the game that Redfield was nursing a thumb injury similar to Joe Schmidt’s. But if Redfield is on the field, he needs to do more than hurt the team. And if he can’t be the free safety the Irish need and play with this injury, it might be Matthias Farley’s job soon.

 

THE UGLY

Malik Zaire’s injury. Seriously, this one is brutal. You could see it on Brian Kelly’s face in his postgame comments. You heard about it from the solemn players who didn’t look like they were celebrating a last-second victory.

Zaire’s loss is one of those not-fair injuries in football. And the heart of the Irish offense will now need to beat from the sidelines, doing his best to help DeShone Kizer from crutches.

Notre Dame’s John Heisler did the best job describing what the postgame scene was like. I’ll clip a snippet for you:

Brian Kelly came around the corner, stood right next to where Zaire sat, and it’s a wonder the Irish head coach could figure whether to laugh or cry.

“Look, I asked you to go out there and play for each other. I think I know I’ve got a team that will compete to the end.

“We know we’ve gotta play better. But there’s no quit in here anywhere. I love this group. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better as a football team.”

Kelly then presented the game ball to Fuller, the guy Kelly said “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.

“Injuries are never anything we like to deal with, not when it’s our brothers. It stinks. . . . We lost Malik, and DeShone got his opportunity to step up. You don’t know when your time is going to come. DeShone didn’t know, but he came through and helped us win.”

Fuller, ever the calm and in-control one, referenced Zaire before leading his teammates in singing the Victory March.

Zaire put on a gold Notre Dame hat and Kelly and then quarterback coach Mike Sanford both sat with him—with Sanford kneeling and then associate head coach Mike Denbrock putting a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder.

Coming up with the right sort of consoling words to help Zaire was anything but easy, but everybody gave it their best shot. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick had one arm around Kizer as they viewed the scene.

Kelly visited with Zaire’s parents in the hallway tunnel on his way to the interview room, and Sanford did the same as he left the locker room.

Meanwhile Kelly can’t help but like his team’s fight:

“It says a lot abut their resolve as a group. They never got to the point where they didn’t believe they could win.”

You can’t help but feel for Zaire and his family after an injury like that. Now it’ll be up to his teammates to make sure they go out and win for their injured quarterback, especially in a critical game this weekend.

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