Pregame Six Pack: More than a consolation prize

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Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup might not advance the Irish to their ultimate goal. But it will provide college football’s grandest day with a premier matchup between two of the sport’s proudest programs.

So while Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma wage battle with a haphazard workday and New Year’s Eve revelers, the Irish and the Buckeyes will kick of January 1 with the most intriguing bowl matchup of college football’s postseason.

Notre Dame’s 127th team didn’t reach their ultimate goal. But they will have the opportunity to be remembered among the school’s best teams, an eleventh win—against Urban Meyer and Ohio State, no less—up for grabs on Friday morning in Glendale, Arizona. That’s more than a consolation prize.

The storylines are numerous. The rosters stocked with NFL talent. So before Brian Kelly leads the Irish into a battle against Meyer’s Buckeye juggernaut, let’s enjoy our final pregame six pack before we ring in 2016 with the Fiesta Bowl.

 

After a nightmarish second half of the season, Brian Kelly thinks he sees the C.J. Prosise of old. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise’s first season at running back was a phenomenal one. Notre Dame’s winner of the Next Man In Award ran for 1,032 yards and averaged 6.6 yards, a big-play threat and home run hitter from Day One as he stepped into the starting role after Tarean Folston injured his knee three carries into the year.

Yet Prosise’s big season was short-circuited as his hit count grew. He was neutralized against Temple before injuring his shoulder and suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh, then held out against Wake Forest. Just a handful of carries into his return against Boston College, Prosise suffered a high-ankle sprain, keeping him out of contact until arriving in Arizona.

If the Irish are going to find a way to cut into the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, they need Prosise at full strength. And for the first time in a long time, it looked like Prosise had the explosiveness back that turned him into one of the nation’s most dangerous big-play running backs.

“I’d like to get a lot out of him, a lot of big plays in particular,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He looked pretty good yesterday. I think yesterday was his first day that he really showed, I think, the best way to put it is, ‘That looked like C.J.’ That was the first time yesterday when we saw him cut and look explosive.”

 

After 13 months, Jarron Jones returns to one of the toughest assignments in college football: Slowing down Ezekiel Elliott

Not even a car crash with a suspended drivers license could slow down the Big Ten’s top offensive weapon. Now we’ll see if Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense can do it.

The Irish have one thing going for them that the Columbus P.D. doesn’t. That’s the return of Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound run-stuffer who should help the middle of the Irish defense hold up against Ohio State’s veteran and outstanding offensive line.

How many snaps Notre Dame gets out of Jones will be interesting. Kelly has sounded optimistic. Brian VanGorder less so, pegging Jones’ contributions in the 10 play range. With sophomore Daniel Cage battling an ankle sprain and Jones getting on the field for the first time since he suffered a major foot injury, the Irish senior is one very large X factor.

“I think for him the biggest thing is gaining back the confidence,” Isaac Rochell told Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. “After not playing for two years, your ego is kind of down, you doubt yourself, but after he gets into the swing of things, gets into the game, makes some tackles, he’ll start to get his mojo back and feel a little bit better about his game.”

The Irish certainly hope so, especially as they take on a running game that requires an answer for not just Elliott, but quarterback J.T. Barrett.

 

There’s going to be a bullseye on cornerback Nick Watkins. At least Brian Kelly thinks so.

With KeiVarae Russell’s leg still healing and Devin Butler breaking his foot during practice this week, the next man in at cornerback is Nick Watkins. That pushes the seldom-used sophomore into a difficult situation, making his first start against one of the nation’s most talented teams.

Kelly expects Watkins to get tested early and often.

“He’s going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them,” Kelly said.

But Watkins isn’t your ordinary third-stringer. The Dallas native was one of Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruits, a talented coverman out of a high school powerhouse. Physically, his skills have always looked the part, though he struggled to put the mental together with the physical.

After a strong bowl season of practices, Notre Dame’s head coach is confident that Watkins can do the challenging job Brian VanGorder asks his cornerbacks to do.

“I think he’ll hold up. He’s a kid that will compete,” Kelly. He’s got a lot of pride. He’s got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

That Kelly is showing confidence in Watkins is interesting considering he wasn’t earlier in the season. After looking like he had pulled ahead of Butler during spring practice, Watkins ceded backup duties to the veteran Butler, behind him all season, including the start against Stanford and what would’ve been the Fiesta Bowl until the injury.

Sometimes it takes an opportunity for the lightbulb to go on. And after hearing Watkins talk this week, maybe that’ll be the silver lining of another difficult injury situation the Irish will have to overcome.

“You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When the chips are down, it’s how you respond,” Watkins said on Wednesday. “That’s still what I’m learning. To respond and be a great player for this team.”

 

When it comes to Notre Dame and Ohio State, there’s a lot of familiarity. 

This is just the sixth all-time meeting between two school separated by just 250 miles. But that doesn’t mean the connections don’t run deep.

Notre Dame has 12 players from the state of Ohio. Freshman C.J. Sanders‘ father played for the Buckeyes, while Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Urban Meyer in Columbus. Countless players on the Buckeyes count a Notre Dame scholarship offer and vice versa. Taylor Decker was an Irish commit before a late-game flip.

You might have heard that Urban Meyer coached at Notre Dame, working for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie before his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. Meyer has filled his staff with coaches with Notre Dame ties, including Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner from Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff. Tony Alford left last offseason to go to Columbus as well, named assistant head coach in addition to his running back duties. Meyer’s longtime strength coach Mickey Marotti was the head of ND’s strength program from 1998-2005.

Expect pregame warmup to be filled with some friendly hugs and handshakes before the festivities begin.

 

Nobody wants to talk about the NFL Draft yet. But the eyes of the NFL will be on the Fiesta Bowl Friday morning. 

Credit Ronnie Stanley for getting it out of the way. Notre Dame’s left tackle confirmed the news he all but announced when he decided to come back for 2015—he’ll be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet outside of Stanley, the rest of the game’s draft-eligible stars aren’t saying much.

Will Fuller isn’t talking about his NFL Advisory grade. Neither is Prosise. Ezekiel Elliott has made it known the Fiesta Bowl will be his final collegiate game, but Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith, two of the draft’s elite prospects, are keeping their plans to themselves until after the game.

How much talent will be on the field? Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has 15 of college football’s Top 100 players on these two teams alone.

Here’s the group:

No. 2: Jaylon Smith
No. 3: Joey Bosa
No. 5: Ronnie Stanley
No. 13: Ezekiel Elliott
No. 22: Michael Thomas
No. 33: Eli Apple
No. 37: Joshua Perry
No. 41: Taylor Decker
No. 47: Vonn Bell
No. 50: Adolphus Washington
No. 57: C.J. Prosise
No. 66: Braxton Miller
No. 67: Tyvis Powell
No. 73: Sheldon Day
No. 88: KeiVarae Russell

“There’s going to be a lot of guys playing football on Sundays,” Meyer said on Wednesday.

 

Like they’ve been asked all season, Notre Dame’s offense needs to win the game for the Irish. 

If the Irish are going to win the Fiesta Bowl, the offense is going to need to carry the day. That means better efficiency in the red zone from DeShone Kizer. That means a running game that takes what it wants from an undermanned Ohio State defensive front. And it means another big-time performance from Will Fuller.

The Irish are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. And even Ohio State’s biggest defensive star, defensive end Joey Bosa, knows the Buckeyes need to bring their best to the field on Friday to win the game.

“You look at them, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror,” Bosa said on Monday. “Athletes everywhere. Big, athletic offensive line. Quarterback that can run with the ball. Really talented receivers. There’s weapons everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge.”

For the Irish, the challenge will be cashing in their scoring opportunities. Having tight end Durham Smythe should help. So will C.J. Prosise, though expect Josh Adams to get the short-yardage opportunities.

Ultimately, this game will come down to Kizer. Much has been made this week about not receiving a scholarship offer from the hometown Buckeyes as they passed by him on their extended recruiting list at quarterback. But more will be made of a victory over a Buckeyes defense that’ll challenge Kizer with man coverage opportunities and an aggressive scheme.

Kizer has had a month to prepare for this defense. He’s drilled in the red zone, a place where his efficiency has struggled. Now he’ll have a final chance to prove no moment is too big for him.

Even the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

 

 

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.