Notre Dame’s defense holds off Ball State while offense idles

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took longer than expected, but No. 8 Notre Dame eventually got around to holding off Ball State 24-16 on Saturday. The Irish (2-0) never let the game fall into doubt, but the Cardinals (1-1) similarly refused to be routed, running 97 total plays for 349 yards to strain Notre Dame’s defense.

That 3.6 yards per play average camouflaged how much the defense needed to handle. Still, Ball State found the end zone only once, a 10-yard pass from senior quarterback Riley Neal to junior tight end Nolan Givan with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Neal finished with 180 yards on 23-of-50 passing with two interceptions.

“Overall as a defensive standard, the goal is for their offense not to score,” Irish fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “When they do put points on the board, there’s stuff to learn from. It wasn’t a perfect game from us. There will be a lot of film to watch with 97 plays.”

It may not have been a perfect game, but Notre Dame’s defense allowed only one play of more than 20 yards, held the Cardinals to 3.8 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) and 8-of-23 on third-down conversions. Ball State managed only three possessions longer than 40 yards and got into the Irish red zone just three times. The first two of those each resulted in field goals.

“We just focused,” senior linebacker Te’von Coney said of the red-zone shift. “We always say we don’t want to concede points. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly and [defensive coordinator Clark] Lea always talk about that. Just when they get down to the red zone, we have to play harder. It just takes one play to get them off schedule. Make that play and get them off the field.”

Notre Dame’s offense, meanwhile, struggled. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed 17-of-31 pases and threw for a career-best 297 yards, diminishing that feat with three interceptions. Although the running game averaged 4.89 yards per carry (sacks adjusted), it still gained only 132 yards, part of why the Irish went 4-of-14 on third downs.

“We thought we would be able to take the gimmies and the easy throws and then make big plays out of them,” Wimbush said. “We had a good game plan in terms of running the ball.

“Some things sometimes just don’t work as effectively as you may wish.”

Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong led the way with 13 carries for 66 yards and the first score of the day, adding three catches for 61 yards. Junior Tony Jones chipped in 61 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 13 rushes.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Receiving the kickoff to open the second half, Ball State needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie Notre Dame at 14. Given the flow of the game to that point, reaching a tie seemed just as likely as the Irish opening a two-possession lead. The latter came to be reality, largely because of Tranquill.

He got to Neal just before his release, forcing the quarterback to overthrow his intended receiver. The credit naturally goes to junior safety Jalen Elliott for making the subsequent interception, but it all stemmed from Tranquill’s pressure.

It was Elliott’s second interception of the day, the first of any quantity by a Notre Dame safety since the 2016 season.

“You hope with the game plan, you’re able to make the plays,” Elliott said. “Our coaches put us in position, so all we have to do is go out and make the play.”

Elliot’s first interception was caused by senior nickel back and former safety Nick Coleman deflecting a pass. In that regard, it was a stellar day for the Irish safeties, a weak spot in recent years. Junior Alohi Gilman added nine tackles, to go along with Elliot’s seven.

“We’re just trying to do our job,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t just the mindset of let’s go get a pick. It was the mindset of do our job and a play is going to come. We stuck to that, we did our job, and the play came to me.”

Six plays after Elliott’s interception, rather than Ball State tying the game, it was Jones plunging into the end zone from a yard away to eliminate any real concerns for all effective purposes. The suddenly-somewhat comfortable 21-6 Notre Dame lead began with Tranquill’s blitz.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame junior cornerback Julian Love should not be commended for tackling an offensive lineman by the shoelaces. What deserves praise is what Love had to do to get to Danny Pinter after Ball State’s right tackle caught a backward pass across the field, opposite the defense’s momentum. Love merely shrugged off two defenders and in doing so, he saved a touchdown, bringing down Pinter at the five.

“We knew they were going to come in and do a lot of tricks, try to get our eyes in the wrong place, try to make some plays,” Coney said. “A great job on their part — happy that Julian Love was able to come up and make the play.”

The Cardinals executed the misdirection well, hence Love being isolated against two blockers. If not for his takedown, Pinter would have likely scored and brought Ball State within 14-10 with fewer than three minutes remaining in the first half, rather than merely gain three yards on what was technically a rush.

Instead, Love’s agility forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal, their second of the day, not finding the end zone until the fourth quarter. It does not take a logical leap to credit Love with literally saving four points, provided Ball State could convert the extra point.

Irish senior linebacker Te’von Coney (right) led Notre Dame’s stout defensive effort with 14 tackles in Saturday’s 24-16 victory against Ball State. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Coney’s presence was not as omnipresent as it has been in the past. His 14 tackles felt like many more than only three fewer than the 17 he had in the Citrus Bowl victory, but they were 14, nonetheless. Three of them came behind the line of scrimmage, including a six-yard sack.

“All week we talked about things we thought they would do and trying to go out there and do my job,” Coney said. “Execute as best as I can.”

Coney now has 24 tackles through two weeks with 3.5 for loss, but he wants more.

“We have a standard that we hold ourselves to, and today we don’t think we did that,” he said. “We’re going back into the film room and correct things, come back much harder next week.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Whether it was a byproduct of a vanilla offensive scheme or simple ineffectiveness, the Irish offense spent much of Saturday afternoon stalled. As did Ball State’s. Each team managed only one possession that covered a suitably-full length of the field to reach the end zone. Notre Dame opened with a five-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, and the Cardinals put together a 13-play, 79-yarder to cut the deficit to 24-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The difference, then, between the offensive outputs? The Irish scored touchdowns immediately following both Elliott interceptions while Ball State got just one field goal off three turnovers.

“It all goes back to getting off the field and getting the [offense] the ball back,” Elliott said. “We know we have a dynamic offense. Once we get them the ball back, they’re bound to make a play.”

Without two interceptions from an Irish safety — for so long a foreign concept — this result actually may have gone the other way.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
“You can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard.” — Brian Kelly.

The full context: “The first thing I tell them when we come in (to the locker room) is, number one, you can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard. Understand that. First and foremost, you won a football game. But you’ve got to critique it. Did we live up to the standards that we’ve set in the way that we played? No.

“I did a poor job preparing you. You’ve got to bring the energy necessary to play this game. It’s not chess. It’s football. It requires an energy that may have been lacking. Let’s look at why that wasn’t there.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
13:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 1-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Ball State 0. (5 plays, 74 yards, 1:54)
6:17 — Ball State field goal. Morgan Hagee 25 yards. (19 plays, 85 yards, 6:49)

Second Quarter
8:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 31-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 3. (1 play, 31 yards, 0:09)
2:30 — Ball State field goal. Haggee 23 yards. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 6. (13 plays, 36 yards, 2:55)

Third Quarter
10:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jones 1-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Ball State 6. (6 plays, 56 yards, 1:55)
2:01 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 6. (8 plays, 33 yards, 2:30)

Fourth Quarter
12:01 — Ball State touchdown. Nolan Givan 10-yard pass from Riley Neal. Hagee PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 13. (13 plays, 79 yards, 5:00)
1:30 — Ball State field goal. Hagee 49 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 16. (8 plays, 26 yards, 2:21)

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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