Things To Learn: A blowout would do more than just boost Notre Dame’s ego

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Considering No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) has won each of its last three games by at least three possessions, it may be odd to hear talk of the Irish needing to put their opponents away more definitively. It was a common theme for head coach Brian Kelly early in the year, and one not entirely done away with yet despite averaging 46.3 points the last three weeks.

It lingers in a different form, though, one of needing to play well for four full quarters, not spurts and starts.

Notre Dame’s offense was outscored 13-0 in the second quarter last weekend at Virginia Tech. A similar struggle unfolded in the second quarter two weeks ago, with the Irish finding the end zone only 39 seconds before halftime, not reaching midfield on two previous possessions in the frame.

“We had a good run offensively, and then maybe not such a good run defensively,” Kelly said Tuesday, implying the vice versa could be just as applicable. “It would be nice to put it all together. We’ve got some room for growth there.”

So when a blowout of Pittsburgh (3-3) is wanted, it is not so much to reduce fans’ stress levels, play underclassmen or even establish bragging rights for the four players from Pittsburgh (three from the city itself, sophomore offensive guard Josh Lugg from near enough to mitigate any debate). Those would all be appreciated, and the second would hold tangible value, but it is more about proving Notre Dame is capable of 60 complete minutes.

To be clear, this is a nit getting picked.

“They’re still winning football games,” Kelly said. “They’re still showing resolve. They’re still doing a lot of really good things, but it’s nice to know that after six weeks, there’s still plenty of room for growth.”

A rout would allow some reserves to play, and that serves more of a practical purpose than it would have a month ago against Ball State. Remember how that was supposed to be a showcase for the freshmen taking advantage of the new rule regarding eligibility?

Obviously, that did not happen, and Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC) could fill that role, but at this point doing so would also get key starters additional rest. A few of them need it.

While junior defensive end Daelin Hayes is good to go, per Kelly, after a stinger kept him from traveling to Virginia, the defensive line is still ripe for both rest for its starters and reps for its backups. Tackle and end Jayson and Justin Ademilola have seen more and more time — the former due to the injuries to sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and freshman Ja’Mion Franklin and the latter due to Hayes’ injury.

Even junior end Jamir Jones stepped in with Hayes, and if such were to be needed again, Jones would need to prove he can be trusted. The former linebacker has yet to have much of that chance. The Panthers may provide it … if the Irish can put together a complete game.

Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill is playing with a cast on his broken hand. That should neither get better nor worse within the game — if the cast wasn’t trusted, he wouldn’t be playing — but a lead and some subsequent time for freshman Shayne Simon would at least save Tranquill some pain.

“You have to acclimate to that cast,” Kelly said, shifting the focus to Tranquill’s on-field performance and away from his dismissal of any pain. “He got caught inside a couple of times with his left hand being the lead hand, and he struggled a little bit trying to get outside. He’s getting used to playing with that cast, and he felt it a couple of times on Saturday.”

Simon broke through defensively against the Hokies, making a goal line stop in his first defensive series of his career. Kelly has seen that coming since the summer; Simon just needed time to adjust to the game at this level.

“He had the athletic ability,” Kelly said. “But the game, it’s the tactical piece that you have to put together. … Everything is now a nice routine, and they’re starting to get a lot more comfortable.”

More pertinent to the point, a hefty lead could spare both junior cornerback Troy Pride and junior running back Tony Jones the misery of playing through a sprained ankle. Kelly was more optimistic about Jones’ recovery this week than Pride’s, but both should be monitored.

Even if Jones’ injury no longer limits his workload, as Kelly indicated Tuesday, some carries for freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister would serve the purpose of protecting against whatever ailments yet await the position group.

An ankle injury hampered Notre Dame junior cornerback Troy Pride a week ago. With the idle week coming up, a reduced workload this weekend would serve even more good than usual. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As for Pride, when asked if he was moving well Thursday, Kelly began his reply with an uncertain “Mehh.”

“I’d say he’s okay,” Kelly continued. “He’s going to probably play, but we think we have to use [junior Donte Vaughn] and him. I think you’ll see probably a couple of corners play, but [Pride is] probably better than I thought.”

The phrase “a couple of corners” points to freshman TaRiq Bracy.

“I trust him,” Kelly said. “It’s just the physicality piece more than anything else. He has great makeup speed. He plays the ball pretty good. I probably wouldn’t want to extend him too much but he’s a guy we can put on the field.”

Finding playing time for Jamir Jones, Simon and Bracy is not about testing freshmen in a blowout like it would have been in early September. Now it is about giving snaps to players who will need to contribute in November so as to also give a rest to starters who will certainly need to produce then, as well.

The situation at nickel back is a bit more dire than that. Neither senior Nick Coleman nor freshman Houston Griffith has taken to the position in senior Shaun Crawford’s absence (ACL).

“We’ve got to get better there,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There’s no question. …

“We’ve got two guys there that we feel are best-suited for the position in Houston and Nick, and they’re going to continue to get work on it. We’re going to spend even more time on it, and those are the two best players in our program for that position.”

Opposing offenses have targeted Notre Dame freshman Houston Griffith when he has been in at nickel back. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

This should be a good weekend to work at it. Pittsburgh ranks No. 102 in the country in passing efficiency and No. 113 in yards per attempt (6.3). Even if Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett were to expose Notre Dame’s nickel back, it would not likely be for much damage.

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh senior receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes is something of a prototypical slot receiver at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. He is the third of Pickett’s three genuinely-contributing targets with 13 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns in six games. (After the top three, no other pass-catcher breaks 65 receiving yards. Context: Six Irish targets eclipse that mark with sophomore receiver Michael Young at 63, as well.)

Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book has completed more than 70 percent of his passes since taking over as starter three weeks ago, despite missing on most of his deep throws. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

This is also an ideal opportunity to (im)prove junior quarterback Ian Book’s deep ball. Pittsburgh ranks No. 91 in yards per attempt against, giving up an average of 7.6 yards per pass. Book has averaged 8.45 yards per attempt, despite struggling to connect downfield. If looking at S&P+ ratings, Notre Dame has been about middling in the deep ball regard, rated No. 52 in offensive passing explosiveness. The Panthers’ defense? No. 108 in the category.

Exploiting that would go a long way toward putting Pittsburgh away early, which would in turn get the hobbled off the field and give the inexperienced an opportunity.

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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.