Things We Learned: A vintage Notre Dame defense & a questionable change in QB approach

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It never quite became taboo, but the phrase “bend, don’t break” has largely been absent from Notre Dame conversations since former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco took it, and a library of other catchprases, with him to Connecticut following the 2013 season. By no means did that strategy backfire on the Irish back then — even 2013 featured defensive marks of 22.4 points and 366.2 yards allowed per game. Instead, those who came after Diaco preferred a more volatile approach.

Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea may have found a balance between the two. Saturday made it clear the defense will concede yardage, snaps (and snaps and snaps and snaps) and time before necessarily allowing points. Ball State’s 3.6 yards per play average should be described as nothing but paltry. For context, the lowest number forced by the Irish in 2017 was the 3.8 yards per play garnered by North Carolina. Just take a look at the Tar Heels these days to have an idea of what that company is like. (East Carolina: many points, North Carolina: not many points.)

“We’re a big bend-don’t-break unit,” junior safety Jalen Elliott said. “Whenever we get on the field, we take it personally. We have a lot of people that compete at the highest level. When we go on that field, it’s about getting the ball back to our offense and getting off the field.”

The strategy certainly worked. Whenever the Cardinals appeared to have found a rhythm, Notre Dame would suddenly buckle down in the red zone. Just like Michigan a week ago, Ball State scored only one touchdown on three trips inside the 20-yard line, the only touchdowns the Irish defense has allowed this season. It bends, but the breaks are few.

Part of snapping back into place has been the aggressive pressure Lea dials up. Some of that comes from the talented Irish defensive line, pressuring the quarterback with only four rushers chasing the quarterback. This weekend’s sole sack lands on senior linebacker Te’von Coney’s stat line, but it was created by a four-man rush flushing Cardinals senior quarterback Riley Neal out of the pocket, led by senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

That was one of seven Notre Dame tackles for a loss, joining three sacks and seven tackles for loss a week ago. The Irish chase the quarterback and get into the backfield plenty, but Lea is still able to take a, shall we say, flexible approach. Ball State needed to gain an average of 6.2 yards on third down. That may not seem all that high, but realize it faced third down 23 different times. Of 97 plays, that stands out.

Completely independent of how the Irish offense performed, Notre Dame has a defense it can depend on. Per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, it has development ahead of it, too.

“We’re playing better in the back end,” he said. “We’re contesting for the football at a high level, putting pressure on the quarterback. There’s some things we got to get better at. We know what they are. …

“We added some things that had been part of our install that we’d been working on that I think are effective and we’re going to continue to get better at.”

Irish senior rover Asmar Bilal brings down Ball State quarterback Riley Neal on Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Senior rover Asmar Bilal deserves his fair share of credit for the solid defensive performance.

After spinning his wheels for three years, never doing enough to force his way into playing time, Bilal took over at rover this season seemingly by default when Drue Tranquill moved inward to Buck linebacker for his final season of eligibility. Broadly speaking, expectations were low enough of Bilal to create much anticipation around freshman Shayne Simon.

Perhaps Simon’s appearance as third-string Buck linebacker on the depth chart this week should have portended Bilal’s bettering play. Maybe they are unrelated. Either way, Bilal excelled against Ball State.

He finished with five tackles including one for loss and one quarterback hurry. The tackle for loss may as well as have been considered a pass breakup. The Cardinals stacked two receivers, right away creating a coverage read for Bilal that a cynic may have doubted would be made correctly. Neal then threw a screen to the trailing of the two, only for him to immediately be met by Bilal. He had correctly diagnosed the play, shirked the block and stuck Ball State with a three-yard loss.

That paled in comparison to Bilal sticking with Cardinals 5-foot-9 receiver Justin Hall on a first-quarter wheel route in the red zone. That was a mismatch clearly favoring Ball State, yet Bilal blanketed Hall the whole way.

Giving credit where it is due, Bilal has earned his starting spot. (That said, Lea should still move heaven and earth to avoid Bilal covering Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch in two weeks.)

Notre Dame senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush hardly ran against Ball State, be that by design or dictated by the game itself. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now then, about that quarterback play …

Both Kelly and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush insisted the offensive game plan did not specifically reduce the number of designed quarterback runs included. And they know better than anyone outside the meeting rooms, so it seems best to take their word for it, but … it is just hard to believe.

“We had our [run-pass options] and the defense that they played prompted me to throw the ball out,” Wimbush said.

That is believable, especially considering the pressure the Cardinals defensive line brought most of the afternoon.

Yet, Wimbush had seven carries for 18 yards, once discounting the four sacks for 25 yards. Two of those rushes and 10 of those yards came on the final possession of the game, simultaneously burning clock while trying (and succeeding) to pick up one last first down. His only rush in the first half was a circuitous scramble to gain an exceptionally anticlimactic, albeit impressive, two yards.

“I don’t think it was intentional at all,” Kelly said. “I think it was just part of play calling and part of what we’re doing. I think sometimes we look too much into the whole, did you run him, did you not run him.

“The game and circumstances kind of dictate the play calling. Just has to flow with the game.”

With Notre Dame clinging to a 14-6 lead and suddenly-gifted good field position by junior safety Jalen Elliott’s second interception of the day, the first Irish play from scrimmage called in the second half by offensive coordinator Chip Long was, in fact, a quarterback draw.

It was a pivotal point in the game. Capitalizing on that interception gave Notre Dame its winning points and separated the Irish from Ball State, who failed to make the most of turnovers. Being his first play call after the half, Long theoretically had time to ponder the call. And he deferred to what sets Wimbush apart.

When has the Irish offense best produced with Wimbush taking snaps? When he has kept a defense on its heels with his legs. While that is not always possible, and thus developing Wimbush as a passer remains a priority, it is undeniable to this point. Last week, he took 17 carries for 95 yards (sacks adjusted), a 5.59 yards per rush average. When Notre Dame scored 49, 49 and 48 points against Boston College, USC and Wake Forest, respectively, in 2017, Wimbush ran for 207 yards, 116 yards and 114 yards. Yes, there is a cause-and-effect involved, but that only underscores the relationship.

Against speedier defenses (read: Georgia, Miami … perhaps Virginia Tech this season), that dual-threat option is not as readily-available. Taking advantage of the opportunity of a lower-tier opponent to work on the pocket passing game makes sense.

Either the Irish did not do that and instead simply took an odd, to put it generously, offensive approach or Kelly and Wimbush felt the need to deny the pseudo-practice.

Some may call for a change at quarterback, but Wimbush’s performance against the Cardinals absolutely does not warrant that. One of his interceptions was the result of a missed block getting him hit upon release, another was a simple drop by senior receiver Miles Boykin. Factor in another Boykin drop and an utterly-egregious one from sophomore Avery Davis, and Wimbush’s stat line could suddenly look like 21-of-28 for 367 yards with one touchdown and one interception. That is a charitable scenario, but it is also a plausible one.

That hypothetical aside, Wimbush’s legs are what set him apart. The ability to gash a top-flight defense like Michigan’s for 95 yards from the quarterback creates a dynamic no defensive coordinator wants to ponder. Removing that reduces the potency of Notre Dame’s offense. If for just one week to tinker and toy, so be it. If for flow of the game considerations, it seems a dubious decision.

Especially because it is clear the Irish offensive line is not yet a cohesive unit.

Ball State sacked Wimbush four times and made six other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, not to mention four more official quarterback hurries and untold pressures. Notre Dame’s tackles had no answers for the Cardinals’ rush. Wimbush trusts in the line to improve, and it will need to if he is to become the pocket passer perhaps preferred.

“We all have to do our part in being better,” he said. “It’s me protecting myself, getting us in the right protection, and I have no doubt that my guys up front are going to do their job and that’s never an issue for me. Those guys are leaders up front and I know they will take it as a responsibility to get better and improve each week.”

To be blunt, they will need to.

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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