Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape

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There are no hard feelings between Notre Dame and departing offensive line coach Harry Hiestand as he heads to the Chicago Bears. That much was most clear when the Irish released a statement not only from head coach Brian Kelly but also from Hiestand late Wednesday evening, a clear difference from just last week when Kelly issued a standalone statement in a seemingly-similar circumstance.

“Harry is an outstanding coach — one of the best offensive line coaches in football,” Kelly said. “He developed young men in the spirit of Notre Dame. I know this was a difficult decision for him based upon his feelings for this program, this University and his student-athletes.”

For six years, Hiestand and Kelly worked together by essentially working apart. By no means was that a sign of a strained relationship. Rather, Kelly trusted the most-veteran assistant on his staff to operate autonomously. Hiestand rewarded that trust by producing cohesive and productive units time and time again, no matter what first-round NFL Draft pick had just walked out the door.

“I’m thankful to Coach Kelly for letting me coach my way,” Hiestand said. “I’m also appreciative of the offensive linemen for being the best part of every day here and working extremely hard to be the best.”

There are no hard feelings between Hiestand and his positional charges, either. Rather than take to social media with shocked emojis or vague questions of loyalty, senior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Alex Bars both praised Hiestand alongside Kelly’s words.

“Coach Hiestand built upon the standard of Notre Dame offensive line play,” said Mustipher, expected to anchor that line in his fifth season with Bars at his side once again. “He helped bring it back to where it made those before us proud to tune in every weekend. The lessons he taught me as a football player, and as a man, will carry me through the rest of my life.”

Praising a football coach for growing a player into a man may come across as cliché, and lauding offensive linemen in general for being better-spoken than many of their teammates no matter the team is a premise widely-accepted by football media members. But the degree of which that latter statement has been true among the Irish for the last few years is a testament to Hiestand upholding the former sentiment.

“Harry’s been an incredible influence on me and all the offensive linemen that he’s coached,” Bars said. “He’s shown us the way and we’ll continue to maintain the standard of excellence expected by a Notre Dame offensive lineman.”

There would never be an ideal time to lose a coach of Hiestand’s caliber, but losing him at the same time as two consensus All-Americans depart in left tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) and left guard Quenton Nelson (56) will be especially difficult to overcome. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Without Hiestand, reaching that standard of excellence will become much harder. Exactly how much harder cannot be known until the vacancy is filled, but there are few, if any, offensive line coaches of Hiestand’s caliber. One with a delicate touch will be needed to figure out the process of replacing two first-round picks in left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson gathered from offensive coordinator Chip Long before the Citrus Bowl that Notre Dame will look to move freshman tackle Robert Hainsey over to left tackle, leaving sophomore Tommy Kraemer at right tackle. The two split time at right tackle this season.

In that scenario, the new offensive line coach will need to prepare Hainsey for arguably the toughest offensive line spot, coach up Kraemer in pass protection and, most of all, find a left guard to complete the unit. He will have a number of highly-touted and well-coached options to choose from, beginning with junior Trevor Ruhland, sophomore Liam Eichenberg and freshman Josh Lugg.

Hiestand would have looked at that puzzle with a version of zest. Unseen, of course, as he hardly ever showed any emotion* aside from frustration with anything not focused on football and, more specifically, the finer points of offensive line play. Such tunnel vision will be nearly impossible to find in any possible candidate.

That single-mindedness earned his players’ respect. It, and Hiestand, certainly played a role in repeatedly convincing highly-considered draft picks to return for one more season with the Irish. The likes of Nelson, McGlinchey, Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin all turned down possible first-round selections for another season under his tutelage. They both trusted Hiestand to improve them further and felt some degree of loyalty to his cause that they wanted to aid it for another fall, helping groom another generation of offensive linemen in doing so.

It paid off. Stanley heard his name called with the No. 6 pick in 2016. Martin went No. 16 in 2014. There is a good chance both Nelson and McGlinchey are drafted sooner than that this spring.

Chris Watt turned a third-round selection into a three-year career thus far, despite hampering injuries. Nick Martin went from the 50th overall pick in 2016 to starting the first 14 games at center for the Houston Texans this season before injury cut short his season.

Hiestand’s methods yielded dividends both for the players and the team as a whole. In three of the last six years, Notre Dame’s rushing attacked finished in the top 40 in both yards per game and yards per rush. Twice in the last three years that latter figure landed in the top 10, at No. 3 in 2017 and No. 8 in 2015. (As always when discussing national ranks in regards to rushing totals, these were not adjusted for sacks, although Hiestand’s offensive lines gave up only a few of those, highlighted by 0.62 per game in 2013.)

This departure is one that will set the Irish back, but it was not unforeseen and it was entirely understandable.

“While disappointed to see Harry go, I’m not surprised by his decision,” Kelly said. “We knew six years ago when we hired him that his final step in coaching could be in the NFL.”

Filling Hiestand’s shoes might not be truly possible for Kelly, but aiming high for a top-line coach will be a priority, nonetheless. That unit’s success affects literally every offensive decision.


*One occasion Hiestand did border on showing emotion came when Notre Dame received the Joe Moore Award as the country’s most outstanding offensive line this year. Kelly set up the presentation by calling Hiestand in front of the team. Unless the video shared on social media was heavily-edited, Hiestand responded by not moving, averse to the spotlight as any offensive line aficionado would be. As soon as Kelly hands the moment over to former Irish offensive lineman and Joe Moore Award founder Aaron Taylor, Hiestand knows what is happening and a smirk flashes across his face.

The response of the entire auditorium illustrates a respect the entire Notre Dame program had, rather, has for Hiestand and his work.

OUTSIDE READING: Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor


2012: 189.4 rushing yards per game, No. 38 in the country; 4.87 yards per rush, No. 31.
2013: 151.3 yards per game, No. 80; 4.47 yards per rush, No. 52.
2014: 159.5 yards per game, No. 68; 4.28 yards per rush, No. 67.
2015: 207.6 yards per game, No. 28; 5.63 yards per rush, No. 8.
2016: 163.3 yards per game, No. 80; 4.47 yards per rush, No. 63.
2017: 269.3 yards per game, No. 7; 6.25 yards per rush, No. 3.

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Notre Dame lands dazzling athlete recruit, Brandyn Hillman, with signing day just two weeks away

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The early signing period opens in two weeks, and Notre Dame is not done adding to its class. Rivals.com three-star athlete Brandyn Hillman (Churchland High School; Portsmouth, Va.) joined the Irish class of 2023 on Wednesday afternoon, turning down offers from North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia Tech in doing so.

Hillman’s recruiting process was a unique one, also holding offers from USC, Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as closer offers like Virginia, West Virginia and Boston College.

Three months ago, Hillman had none of these offers, a startling late process for someone who is expected to sign on the dotted line in two weeks. In less than one week in September, Hillman went from only one scholarship offer, from FCS-level Norfolk State. Within a week, nine FBS offers had flooded in. He visited South Bend in mid-October, watching Notre Dame fall to Stanford.

Some of that may be group-think, one school following another’s lead in uncovering hidden talent, but Hillman’s spring and early summer recruit camps put him on those schools’ radars. In physical-ability testing, Hillman’s gifts were clear.

The Irish have reportedly chased him with an open-ended thought as to where he will play, at an offensive skill position or at defensive back. He played both quarterback and cornerback in high school, and at 6-fo0t-1 and 200 pounds, he could easily adjust into either a running back or receiver, or defensive back role.

Looking at his highlight reel, Hillman’s abilities are nearly comical compared to his high-school competition. In fact, let’s dispense with the usual 2-3 paragraph summation of these clips, and instead just publish the notes taken while watching it, with some light editing.

The first clip of Hillman’s eight-minute highlight reel has him taking a shotgun snap, faking a screen pass and then cutting upfield through two defenders. About 20 yards later, he jumped over the last remaining defender en route to a 73-yard touchdown run. Okay then.

Next highlight, a stiff arm to clear his way for another long touchdown run. Third, jumped another defender, another long touchdown. Long touchdown runs are not highlights for this guy; he needs to show how he embarrassed the defense.

It is easy to see how these types of plays led to a rapid recruiting process, albeit a late one. Every coach who sees him thinks this is the scat back of the future.

He is not sought as a quarterback, and his passes make it clear why. They look to all be on the first read and are far from thrown on a line.

But quick hips and churning legs make him a dynamic runner. His quick acceleration is not apparent when focusing solely on him, his legs not necessarily spinning at a high rate, but given how easily he outruns every defender, he is clearly accelerating with ease and effectiveness.

Arm tackles against Hillman are hopeless. This is one of the most fun highlight reels I have ever watched. On some of his long touchdown runs, receivers are throwing up touchdown signals when Hillman still has three defenders to beat, and they are right.

But again, outside of perhaps Navy, Hillman will not be an FBS-level quarterback. Most of his passes would be intercepted, and it is not a complicated passing offense he used in high school. There is not much zip on these balls. Fans should dismiss thoughts of him becoming a preferred quarterback.

Defensive highlights begin at the 5:17 mark. Shorter, I suspect, both because Hillman prefers offense and because those highlights are generally more dramatic.

First defensive play, he is sagging off a slot receiver. Screen pass to the receiver wide of the slot, ball carrier gains some steam. Hillman plants him 10 yards down the field with such suddenness, a literal laugh out loud was heard in this office.

That acceleration mentioned earlier helps Hillman make up ground when chasing down ball carriers, even if simply trying to work through the tackle box.

It is not hard to imagine that acceleration helping Hillman catch up to a receiver who has beaten him downfield, especially if that pass is at all underthrown.

A physical defensive back, far more so than most.

This is not the most elite of preps football. The field conditions give that away. In that respect, maybe there is a comparison to Jack Kiser, and if that is the impact Hillman delivers at Notre Dame, it would be quite the recruiting win.

This does not seem to be a passing-heavy level of football, so his coverage skills would presumably need some work, likely his route-running, as well. But the Irish have three cornerbacks for 2023 and four other receivers in this class. There’s time.

Things We Learned This Season: Notre Dame’s culture created progress, though inexperience begat losses

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If the transfer portal window has genuinely changed anything about college football, it is when one season feels like it has ended and the next has begun. That transition used to wait until mid-January, but now the transfer portal window opening on the Monday after conference championship weekend kickstarts the offseason ramp-up to spring-practice impressions from new arrivals, which obviously creates the summer’s anticipation and then preseason hype. Thus, before the portal leads to a new quarterback at Notre Dame and a couple of receivers that create nine months of hopeful hypotheticals, let’s ponder what was learned in 2022 …

A talented football team, one largely “driven” by its offensive and defensive lines, one led by a first-time head coach not yet well-versed in game-management challenges, and one lacking the types of perimeter playmakers that raise ceilings in college football this decade.

By the end of the 2022 season, Notre Dame was what it was expected to be, even though its 8-4 record was a bit disappointing way of reaching this expected end. The No. 21 Irish should never have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, not when replacing the experience that comes with 22 career starts from a quarterback and three decades of head-coaching mishaps, the former again a need after Drew Pyne’s entry into the transfer portal but one that may be solved with a modern-day shortcut.

But at the core, Notre Dame was exactly what first-time head coach Marcus Freeman wanted it to be, not a team reliant on a single star but an “O-line and D-line driven program,” a phrasing he first trotted out early in preseason practices and one that held on well into November, though this space never quite found the right way to format it. That being the Irish focus made last Saturday’s 38-27 loss at USC all the more frustrating for Freeman, because Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams’ repeated evasions of Notre Dame’s defensive line eventually rendered the offensive line’s greatest strength, run blocking, less an asset.

“As I just told the team, I’m sure everybody is disappointed, from me on down,” Freeman said that night. “You want to see how you compare against a team like that when you’re playing at your best. We didn’t play at our best. …

“They are a dang good football team, really good. We have a really good football team, and that’s just a disappointment. You want to see when two really good football teams both play really well, you want to see what the outcome is.”

The loss may have made Freeman a bit more self-critical than was deserved, as the Irish forced Williams’ to grow into a headline-dominant star a bit quicker than he had in the season to date, a standalone star for only a week before a hamstring limited the Heisman Trophy finalist on Friday night in the Pac 12 title game against Utah. But Freeman’s point was valid, Notre Dame was not at its best at USC.

For that matter, college football fans were deprived of any such moment all season when it came to the Irish. “Two really good football teams both playing really well” never quite came to be. Either Notre Dame’s gameplan was too conservative to allow for excellence (the 21-10 loss at Ohio State), the opponent was utterly outmatched along both sides of the line (the 35-14 win vs Clemson) or one star forced the Irish out of their ideal game (Williams). While Notre Dame fans relished beating the constant-nemesis Tigers on Nov. 5, the lack of any heavyweight bout in Freeman’s debut campaign may be regretted in years to come, if for no other reason than the memory to look back upon but more likely because testing Freeman’s resolve in the biggest of moments would have been a welcomed Irish luxury in this down-and-up season.

That is in years to come, though.

This year, Freeman’s naivete caught up with him in one regard or another first against Marshall and then against Stanford, the kinds of games Brian Kelly excelled at winning in his final five seasons in South Bend. It is not a welcomed excuse, but such missteps are common from first-year head coaches, especially ones coming from the defensive side of the ball. The instincts needed to press the right buttons on a Saturday afternoon come with time and frustration.

The surprise of the Irish season may have been that those two frustrations in Notre Dame Stadium did not ruin the entire year.

Fifth-year left guard, four-year starter and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson expressed that frustration immediately after the Irish fell to Marshall, Patterson playing on an injured foot that undoubtedly added to his dismay. As Notre Dame lined up to sing the Alma Mater after the game, Patterson instead headed up the tunnel, jersey and pads already removed.

In his defense, the Irish had lost at home only once in Patterson’s entire career, what to do following a loss was not ingrained in his muscle memory. Also, Notre Dame had just been beaten along both lines; his frustration was well-founded.

Yet, the Irish rallied, inexplicable Stanford shocker aside. They beat up Clemson as badly, if not worse, as Marshall had beaten up Patterson & Co. two months earlier. USC needed Williams’ escapes because Notre Dame’s defensive line had the Trojans’ offensive line beaten. Freeman’s engines arrived for the Irish this season, even if a couple weeks later than ideal.

“I’m proud of the way our team continued to progress, continued to fight, continued to get better,” Freeman said. “… We didn’t win today, they played their hearts out, and that’s what I told them in the locker room.

“I’m proud of the way you played, because you never quit, you continue to get better.”

Plenty of teams lose that program-wide drive toward progress after their season goes awry. Immediate examples were seen this year in College Station, Chestnut Hill and East Lansing.

“Shoot, after week two, you could have went an opposite direction,” Freeman said. “After week six, when we lost to Stanford, it could have gone in a bad direction. But these leaders and these guys continue to fight.”

Disappointment has become the norm at Stanford, Wisconsin and Florida. Only time will tell if new coaches will change that. Freeman did not have that mandate, courtesy of Kelly’s resurgence following the 2016 debacle, and Notre Dame’s response to losing to Stanford suggests there need not be panic or continued frustration following the loss in Los Angeles. The Gator Bowl matchup with No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC) can serve to prove that to some regard, but not definitively given the increasing exhibition nature of bowl games.

“They’ll fight after this one,” he said. “It hurts, because you gave it your all, but our leaders will keep us together.”

The season-opening loss at Ohio State made it clear the Irish lack the playmakers to hang with college football’s best in 2022, hence some transfer portal focuses, and the botched two-minute drill against Stanford further exposed the inexperience at Notre Dame’s two most-critical positions, but the Irish did not falter after either occasion.

When Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick promoted Marcus Freeman, he cited a want to further the culture in the Irish locker room. Its response to those losses may have confirmed that culture more than winning ever could. Patterson’s public frustrations embodied it, but the wins that came after proved it.

Holding onto that culture and even furthering it this offseason will be Freeman’s next challenge, beginning with the thought of importing a starter at the position most focused on come any given Saturday. Not just in the Gator Bowl, but for 2023.

Leftovers & Links: Transfer portal opens fast, but slow for Notre Dame … for now; Mayer & Foskey status TBD

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The transfer portal is open.

The difference between this year and the previous few years is that there is a set window for undergraduate players to enter the database better and more ominously known as the portal. And that window began today, Dec. 5.

There was uncertainty about how this opening day would go. Like the first moments of National Signing Day, with announcement after announcement after announcement? With a trickle throughout the day and the week? Would players be out of the portal (again, it’s just a database) as quickly as they entered it?

Through half a day of it, the answers are all somewhere in between.

For Notre Dame’s concerns, only two players have jumped into the portal thus far today: junior quarterback Drew Pyne, as expected since his announcement on Friday, and freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy. More will assuredly follow in the coming month, likely this week if not even yet Monday night.

“We’ve had individual meetings with a lot of our players,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Sunday night. “Really just talked to them about taking it a little bit at a time to kind of figure out their plans for the transfer portal, for playing in the bowl game and other decisions they have to make.”

Some players already have homes — most notably, Phil Jurkovec may finally get his return to Notre Dame Stadium next season, date to be determined, having already committed to Pittsburgh — while others are piling up. The quarterbacks draw the most attention, and understandably so, with North Carolina State’s Devin Leary joining the fray on Monday, perhaps a name for Irish fans to note.

The possibility of Leary, of course, is presumably part of why Pyne is transferring and not playing in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 against No. 19 South Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC). Along with names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (though the Syracuse rumors around Armstrong are noticeable and logical), Freeman has quarterback candidates to chase and intends to do so.

“We had a conversation this week, myself and Drew, as well as many of the other players that we have on our team in terms of our intentions, my intentions into certain positions, look for transfers,” Freeman said. “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster. I always want to be up front and honest, and I was with Drew, told him that we would possibly look at taking a transfer quarterback.

“I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal, and I definitely respect his decision.”

With the quarterback carousel moving at lightning speed — Michigan’s Cade McNamara to Iowa and Jurkovec to Pittsburgh already underscoring how quickly that specific position will develop each offseason; Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei is widely expected to land somewhere on the West Coast — Pyne skipping the Gator Bowl makes sense. He needs to secure his next position now, not in January.

“What he has done for our program, the ability for him to step in week 2 and throughout the season, he did a tremendous job,” Freeman said.

In Pyne’s stead, Freeman said sophomore quarterback and initial 2022 starter Tyler Buchner is “full go.” Now, let’s add in this space’s continued disclaimer that coaches are almost always more optimistic publicly about injury timelines than they should be, and all initial expectations for Buchner’s return from a serious shoulder sprain, one that necessitated surgery, ruled out a bowl game. But, Buchner has participated in Notre Dame’s two practices this week.

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster,” Freeman said. “You have Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli and Ron Powlus. All have been practicing the past two days that we practiced and could see any of the three play. They’ll all be ready to play.”

Neither junior tight end Michael Mayer nor senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey partook in those practices, something Freeman said was intentional as Notre Dame gears some of its bowl prep toward developing younger players. It also gives the two biggest NFL draft candidates on the Irish roster a chance to consider if they’ll play against the Gamecocks.

“We had a plan to sit out some guys as recovery for these last two practices of development and trying to really focus on the younger guys and developing the younger guys on our team,” Freeman said. “So I told both of those guys just take the week and take a couple of days to really think about what they want to do for their future.”

Freeman outright acknowledging the possibility of Mayer and/or Foskey skipping the bowl game represents both the changing of the times and the program’s understanding of the logic to such a decision.

“We will discuss it sometime this week, probably early this week.”

ON JAYDEN BELLAMY
Bellamy was one of three cornerbacks signed by Nore Dame last recruiting cycle, and while the other two blossomed into starters — Benjamin Morrison snagging five interceptions in the final two Irish home games and Jaden Mickey stepping in for Cam Hart at USC — Bellamy never saw the field.

With Hart returning next season, though missing the bowl game due to a shoulder injury, Notre Dame’s top three cornerbacks for 2023 are established, and there remain three sophomores on the depth chart for Bellamy to compete with and five defensive backs committed in the recruiting class that should sign on the dotted line on Dec. 21, when the early signing period commences.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback

UPDATE: ON Osita Ekwonu
Senior defensive end Osita Ekwonu joined Bellamy and Pyne in the portal late Monday, finishing his Irish career with six tackles in 16 appearances, two of those tackles coming on Senior Day against Boston College, his only defensive snaps in his Notre Dame career. In his previous 15 games, Ekwonu had appeared on only special teams.

An Achilles injury sidelined Ekwonu in 2021, costing him some traction on the Irish depth chart amid its most talented position group.

His transfer can illustrate some of the folly around transfer portal discourse, something this space somewhat and regrettably encouraged with an embedded tweet on Monday. When pointing out only half — give or take — of portal entrants eventually find homes, it is too easy to ignore that many entrants are former walk-ons looking to elongate their playing careers or graduates who would have needed to transfer following their undergraduate careers all along, including long before terrifying concepts like a “transfer portal” existed. Ekwonu would have transferred 10 years ago, too, but his next stop always would have been uncertain.

Those numbers also neglect to remember there are more players than ever eligible thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. The vaguest of math suggests it is up to 20 percent more than usual roster size allocates for. As a result, some players are inevitably not going to have homes even if they want to keep playing.

Maybe that will not be Ekwonu; the intention here is not to suggest his career is over. The intention is to remind that Ekwonu would have been transferring somewhere as soon as graduate students were allowed immediate eligibility after a transfer, a rule instituted in 2006.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury

ON TIMING
This outgoing roster flux will continue for a week or two, and then there may be a few more departures immediately after the bowl game, though most players will want to get a head start on the transfer process.

Freeman is in communication with all those weighing options, so few possibilities should catch him completely off-guard, but he is not pressuring players to decide today or tomorrow.

“We haven’t set a firm date, deadline, but we told them, … we need to kind of have an idea of what the future plans are for certain guys,” Freeman said. “For our guys that are deciding if they’re going to play or opt out for the NFL draft, they understand the sooner the better. I just didn’t want them to have to rush into a decision.”

Players debating the NFL draft or another season at Notre Dame are more likely to make that decision following the bowl game, completing the second wave of outgoing decisions.

The timing of incoming transfer possibilities will reveal much about what Freeman has or has not been able to accomplish in working with the academic side of the University in the past year. The greatest struggle for Notre Dame admitting many incoming transfers has not been their academic standing, although that itself is a clear hurdle, but the delay in academic decision-makers communicating the academic standing to potential transfers.

Traffic in the portal moves fast; making highly-sought playmakers wait to hear if they will lose one semester of academic progress or two if they transfer to Notre Dame is a sure way to lose those players.

So if a receiver or a quarterback — undergraduates, to be clear — commits to the Irish this week, even if there is no official Notre Dame welcome, that would indicate Freeman has made headway.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30
Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility
Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need
CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart
Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class
Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid
USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

OUTSIDE READING
College football’s transfer portal window is open. Buckle up for a frantic 45 days
Several Stanford players set to transfer as search for David Shaw’s replacement continues
Transferring Western Michigan D-lineman Fiske set to visit Notre Dame
Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he decided to leave Cincinnati now

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.