And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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Every time Notre Dame plays USC, there’s intrigue. But while most thought the Trojans’ loss to Washington last Thursday night dampened the enthusiasm for a potential matchup of two Top-15 programs, the abrupt dismissal of Steve Sarkisian changed everything.

On a Saturday packed full of big-time matchups, Notre Dame’s game with the Trojans might not be the biggest when it comes to playoff implications. But all of college football will be watching as USC plays for interim head coach Clay Helton, in charge of steering the Trojans through some remarkably rough waters. Helton is the fourth different head coach to face Notre Dame in four years, shocking after Pete Carroll’s tenure building one of the finest programs of the modern era.

There to see it all has been Shotgun Spratling. One of the busiest guys on the SoCal beat, Shotgun covers the Trojans for Scout’s USCFootball.com among the half dozen other places you’ll find his byline.

In one of the craziest weeks I can remember, Shotgun brought his A-game. Enjoy.

 

Okay, let’s tackle the Steve Sarkisian suspension / firing from a football perspective first. How badly does this impact USC’s preparation for Notre Dame this weekend? What do you expect from this team now that Clay Helton is the man in charge? 

Strangely, the craziness swirling around Heritage Hall this week might actually be good for the Trojans. When any kind of big incident happens in life, “work” can be a welcomed distraction. You can lock in and focus on one thing rather than being bothered by everything else. The player that might hang out in the quad, go to a party or any other social activity might instead spend the extra hour or two watching film in their room. No one wants to answer a constant barrage of questions about someone else’s actions.

With Clay Helton’s experience taking over previously and having gone through the interim experience before, he has a great idea of what will work and what may not to get the team motivated and focused in this type of situation. If the leaders on the team step up and show the right maturity, the Trojans are likely to have an “us against the world” type of attitude.

 

Off the field, this is a horrendous story for a jillion reasons. What do you make of the 180 Pat Haden made in the time between Sunday’s meeting with the media and Monday’s decision to fire Sark? And what do you make of the man in charge of Trojan sports? He’s coming under pressure now, too, and understandably when you look at the direction football and basketball programs have gone, not to mention the gamble on Sark. 

I don’t think it was necessarily a 180 as much as Pat Haden needed some time to digest, research and decipher what exactly had just happened. He was at a basketball event at the Galen Center when he was informed Sarkisian wasn’t at practice. I actually saw him leaving as I was arriving for the event and he definitely did not have a smile on his face. Sarkisian was scheduled to speak to reporters after the Sunday afternoon practice, so when he was unavailable, someone had to take his place. That put the wheels in motion and somewhat forced Haden to make a comment.

After he had a day to determine exactly what was going on, rather than an hour, I’m sure he was able to take his findings to the legal team, those he trusts and those he reports to and eventually come to the decision of firing Sarkisian. More than a 180, I think this was ultimately a progression of events during the 24-hour span.

Haden is coming under a lot of fire for the Sarkisian hire and that pressure definitely should be on his shoulders. This was his guy and Haden has said that Sarkisian was vetted “extensively” prior to his hire. The biggest concern is that Sarkisian had been known in coaching circles to have a good time. Obviously, if done responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with that and by virtue of him having no previous incidents or run-ins with authorities, you likely assume that he had done so responsibly in the past. But with abuse of any substance, there is almost always an escalation. Sarkisian is currently in the midst of a divorce and potentially losing his three kids as well. What effect did that have on him?

After former basketball coach Kevin O’Neill had an incident that involved alcohol and led to a suspension, it seems Haden should have come down more stringent against Sarkisian after the Salute to Troy event before the season began. If he did, maybe we all wouldn’t be in the current situation.

 

All of this comes after USC laid an incredible egg against Washington in the Coliseum on Thursday. Did you see that coming? And how did the Trojan offense get stopped?

The last five years while I’ve been in Los Angeles, I’ve grown to expect the unexpected. Thursday night’s game was very similar to the Washington State game in Lane Kiffin’s final half season. Turnovers and offensive ineptitude allowed an inferior team to beat a USC squad with vastly superior talent.

The offense actually stopped itself more than it got stopped. During the Arizona State game, the Sun Devils blitzed constantly and completely shut down the rushing attack, but rather than constantly trying to run it (which UCLA tried and failed to do the next week), USC attacked with the pass. Washington was the exact opposite. With big running lanes and continued struggles in the passing game, partially due to losing All-American center Max Tuerk and two starting receivers, USC didn’t just take what the Husky defense was giving them.

They continually tried to fling it around the yard. After a fourth quarter touchdown drive that featured a pass to a running back and four runs for 46 yards, USC got the ball back and went three-and-out on three consecutive pass plays. Then on a critical third-and-6 from the 25-yard line — an area Sarkisian has often run on third down when he plans to go for it on fourth down — the Trojans tried to pass despite the four previous runs on the drive averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. Cody Kessler, who had an uncharacteristically poor performance, took a sack and then USC inexplicably attempted a field goal down five points and Washington needing just a first down to assure that it could run out the clock.

 

Notre Dame’s had its share of injury woes. Now it appears the bug has caught the Trojans. All Pac-12 center Max Tuerk is done for the year with a knee injury. Defensive lineman Claude Pelon looks doubtful. What’s the status of this team physically?

Unfortunately, all of college football has been subject to injuries. It’s terrible, but the sport is becoming a war of attrition. The team with the best top-end talent is rarely going to win any more, but the team with the most quality depth has a much better chance.

Any time you lose an All-American caliber player like Tuerk it’s a big blow. Not only is he strong at his position, but he made all the calls on the offensive line, so he made his offensive line mates stronger as well. But even more important is that he was the “heart and soul of the offensive line and probably the offense” as sophomore lineman Viane Talamaivao told me after the game. It was an emotional blow to the unit. But the good thing is that the Trojans had been rotating in seven offensive linemen most of the time. Now Talamaivao just moves into the starting lineup. Toa Lobendahn, who is the Swiss Army knife of the unit, takes over at center where some think he should have been playing to begin with (with Tuerk moving back to tackle where he began his career). If Lobendahn makes the right calls, there might not be much of a discernible drop off.

Other injuries the Trojans are currently dealing with include Claude Pelon, who is doubtful after a knee sprain that saw his leg go a different direction than the rest of his body, and a pair of receivers. One of the Trojans best blockers and most consistent route runners, Darreus Rogers, was injured on the first play from scrimmage against Arizona State and missed the Washington game while explosive slot receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. took a direct hit below the knee while being wrapped up by another defender right before halftime last week. Rogers should be back, barring a setback, but he’s dealing with a hamstring pull and those are easy to re-injure. Mitchell Jr. is questionable. Freshman starting cornerback Iman Marshall (abdominal) also left the Washington game after a vicious blindside hit, but he is expected to play this weekend.

 

Last year, the Trojans torched an injury-ravaged Notre Dame defense in the Coliseum. This year, the key matchup will be an Irish secondary that’s underperforming take on the SC skill talent. How confident do the Trojans feel about this matchup?

You can bet that USC will show some clips from last season’s game leading up to this weekend’s visit to South Bend and it will be repeated over and over to the offensive line that they have to give Kessler some time in order for there to be a repeat performance. Explosive plays have been the Trojans’ calling card all season and that’s definitely a matchup they’ll try to exploit. But the injuries to Rogers, Mitchell Jr. and Marshall (because all the cornerbacks need to be healthy in order for the always dangerous Adoree’ Jackson to have extensive side on the offensive side) could play a big role.

 

Can this team keep it together? Can Helton’s ascent be similar to what happened when Coach O took over?

If there is any team equipped with trial-by-fire leaders, it’s this squad. Fifth-year senior Cody Kessler may have the most controversy- and drama-filled tenure of any quarterback in college history. He’s pretty much seen it all with four different coaches, including Helton as the interim for the second time.

The Trojans need to circle the wagons and take on the “us against the world” philosophy as I said before. And if Helton is wise, he will draw from Ed Orgeron’s actions when he was took over as interim coach and focus on the family and make sure that everyone is playing for one another the rest of the season.

 

You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire as the next USC head football coach? Do you think he’ll be given the chance?

All the tires will be kicked and all the rocks will be overturned. Similar to in 2013, the Trojans have a good amount of time before a hire has to be made, so there is no reason that they shouldn’t spend as much time finding the right candidate as possible.

If it was up to me, I’d really be going hard after power five conference coaches that have proven themselves already. In that regard, the first names on my list (in order) would be Gary Patterson, Dabo Swinney, Kevin Sumlin, Mark Dantonio, Kyle Whittingham and Mike Gundy. At least a passing chat with the college football bonafides (Meyer, Saban, Fisher, Miles, Stoops) would also have to take place just to gauge to see if there is any interest.

I don’t think Haden will get the chance to make the final decision, but he has a great relationship with the USC president, Max Nikias, so it’s still possible.

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.