Things We Learned: At 8-0, Notre Dame still has not reached its best

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Notre Dame was good. The No. 3 Irish could be better.

That has become something of a theme this year. The routs of ranked opponents Stanford and Virginia Tech were impressive, but Notre Dame’s offense could have offered more. Entering the off week with a win against Pittsburgh, well, let’s not revisit that one. Saturday’s 44-22 victory against Navy in San Diego showed both peak offensive and defensive efficiency for the Irish, for a half.

“What we learned today is getting of to a great start is one thing, but if you don’t play with the same physicality for four quarters, you’re going to be in trouble,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, not for the first time this season.

Yet, 8-0 is 8-0, how serious can the nitpicking be?

Sophomore left guard Aaron Banks (center, blocking No. 97) held his own in his first career start Saturday. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

The greatest Irish changes came on the offensive line, and they worked this week. Working against Navy, though, is different than excelling in November.

Sophomore Aaron Banks started at left guard and senior Trevor Ruhland moved from there to starting at right guard. Former starter Tommy Kraemer saw action only once the outcome was no longer in doubt.

“We did some decent things,” Kelly said. “We pass protected very well today. I want to exert our will at any time, and we’re not there yet.

“We have to be more effective at running the ball when teams know we’re going to run the football. We’re not there yet.”

Nonetheless, Notre Dame ran 43 times against the Midshipmen, averaging 5.9 yards per rush. In a game against one of the worst passing defenses in the country, the play calls nonetheless shifted toward the ground game 43 :: 33. It cannot be said the Irish rushing attack was lacking this weekend.

Perhaps the clearest thing learned in this category is Kraemer’s time may be limited the rest of the season. It will be advertised as a timeshare, a rotation similar to the one he had at right tackle last year with Robert Hainsey. But Kraemer is at his best in a run-heavy offensive attack, and even with one, he did not play much against an undersized defensive line.

Making offensive line changes in November is too late for a contender. This needs to be the alignment to close the season, barring injury, and it once again appears to leave Kraemer as the sixth man on a five-man unit.

Irish sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong silenced any workload concerns in his return from a month-long recovery from a knee infection. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

That offensive line is clearing space for a still-developing group of running backs, and in this case, that adjective is a good thing for the Irish.

Sophomore Jafar Armstrong fit in nicely alongside senior Dexter Williams in the former’s return from a month-long absence with a knee infection. They had yet to play together, ships passing in the night between the infection and Williams’ undisclosed four-game suspension. As excellent as Williams has been in his four games, Armstrong offers a more diverse skill set.

“Having Jafar back in the backfield just allows our offense to be able to run a bunch of plays that we’ve been wanting to run,” junior quarterback Ian Book said. “He’s been preparing all week. Couldn’t be happier with the way he played.”

Those plays did not inherently include a 27-yard completion on 3rd-and-10 in the fourth quarter, a play Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo cited as a breaking point of sorts, but that improvised play still exhibited Armstrong’s abilities at their best. The converted receiver recognized the situation and made a break for Book to find him in coverage.

“As a quarterback, to see Jafar sprinting down the field, there’s nothing better,” Book said.

For the second time this season, Irish senior running back Dexter Williams found the end zone three times Saturday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

It would have been reasonable to worry Armstrong’s return may cut into Williams’ touches. Reducing the chances for a back with 512 yards on 74 carries, a 6.92 yards per rush average, would be counterproductive. That does not have to be the case. Williams can still rush 20-plus times per game while getting Armstrong 15 touches.

“What’s starting to become clearer to us is that Dexter is clearly that top back,” Kelly said. “He’s becoming a complete back. He has not been that for us.”

Such a breakdown is exactly what happened at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium. Williams took 23 carries for 142 yards and three touchdowns while Armstrong combined nine rushes with five catches for 116 yards and the night’s first score.

In time, offensive coordinator Chip Long will trot out the duo together, putting defenses in a bind similar to the one he relishes with two tight ends. This backfield is still coming together, even as the calendar turns to the month Notre Dame fans dread.

“Jafar is coming back after a month off,” Kelly said. “He’s not there yet as the runner that we want him to be. But, boy, can he catch the football, so they’re kind of identifying themselves as to who they are right now. I think we’re going to get more out of Jafar as we continue to play.”

The moment of fear Saturday came with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill crumpled on the field, but that turned out to be only a sprained ankle, and sophomore Drew White acquitted himself well for the night.

White should not be forgotten amid dreams of Playoff possibilities and Tuesday’s first ranking from the selection committee. In any other game, White would not have been the likely replacement. In the long-term — Kelly would not rule out Tranquill for the trip to Northwestern, but by no means is Tranquill likely for next weekend — White is probably no more than barely in the linebacker rotation. But he stepped forward against Navy, and that was needed.

One absent-minded defender can ruin a game plan against the triple-option. Its monotony, relentlessness and uniqueness demand constant attention. (See: Tiech, Alexander; 2010.) White filled that hole.

“You lose arguably one of your best defensive players in the first series against Navy, it harkens me back to when we lost Joe Schmidt,” Kelly said, remembering the dismal, injury-filled end to 2014. “Things can go awry quickly. They did not from that position. Drew went in there and did a really nice job.”

Quickly bypassed and forgotten on the depth chart, White had few paths to playing time, if any. Kelly would not even describe this as delayed gratification, because White could “not see the end in sight.” Six tackles on Saturday may not even be his end, considering this headache is scheduled annually.

“He continued to work through injury, dedicated himself to get bigger, faster and stronger,” Kelly said. “He found his opening in special teams. He found his niche this week with the triple-option.”

And with that, Navy and the triple-option are in the rearview mirror for another year. Notre Dame is through two-thirds of its schedule without a loss. Everything remains possible.

How much more can anyone ask for?

By the way, kickoff next weekend will be at 7:15 ET on ESPN.

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Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success

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LAS VEGAS — No one would fault Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner if there was some friction to their relationship. The two Notre Dame quarterbacks spent the better part of a year competing against each other to be the new Irish starting quarterback. Some competitive animosity would be human nature.

Instead, the two give each other a hard time about a shared guilty pleasure. Pyne insists Buchner get his rehab work done before practice because he trusts the sophomore’s reads on the junior’s passing mechanics and wants that feedback every day, especially as Pyne readies to face the first ranked team of his starting career, against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas on Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC). They have continued a trend of thorough tightness in Tommy Rees’ quarterback room.

Start with that shared guilty pleasure. Asked this week on the ND on NBC Podcast what his allowed luxury is, Pyne initially tried to feign innocence.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t think of anything right now.”

And then an acknowledging pause struck Pyne. His eventual admission gradually slid from a rarity to a frequency, and he dragged the injured Buchner down with him.

“Tyler and I have a little bit of a sweets problem,” Pyne said. “Not a problem. But once a day probably, twice or something, if we see a small piece of candy, we’ll have it.”

Perhaps that is trivial but think back to the quarterback competition that divided the Notre Dame locker room and played a significant role in the 2016 faceplant under Brian Kelly. Neither Malik Ziare nor DeShone Kizer would have ever offered something so playful about the other.

“He and I know that there’s nothing that can get between us that can impact the team in a negative way,” Pyne said back in early August when Buchner was named Notre Dame’s starter. “… Tyler and I are really good friends, we’re best friends. We watch film together, we hang out together, we play golf together.”

Go back a year and both learned from Jack Coan how to approach the job professionally, each citing Coan’s dedication to sleep in 2021 as something they were trying to mirror in 2022’s preseason. Go back a year before that and Pyne still regularly cites Ian Book drawing inspiration from Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor’s mountains of self-confidence. Book was one of the first people to reach out to Pyne with encouragement when he took over for Buchner after the latter sprained his shoulder and ended his season against Marshall.

And go back to Book’s time stepping in for Brandon Wimbush a month into the 2018 season. Wimbush handled the situation so well, no one blinked when it leaked before the College Football Playoff that he intended to transfer away from Notre Dame after the season.

Credit should go to Rees. He may get — and deserve some of — plenty of criticism for his play calling. He may be partly at fault for the Irish lacking any receivers in the junior or senior classes on the current roster. But Rees’ delicate handling of the quarterback room amid three touch-and-go situations in six seasons has helped Notre Dame avoid a 2016 repeat.

Trace that back to Rees’ time as a freshman in 2010, working under offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who would cede the position to Mike Sanford Jr., who lasted just the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

“When I got here, Dayne Crist put his arm around me,” Rees said in August. “He was tremendous as a young quarterback, as a mentor, as a friend. We used to joke he was an older brother to me when I was here.

Andrew Hendrix and I, I was in his wedding. We were extremely close. We came in together and are still close to this day. I was supported by guys all around me that really were good, and then when I had the opportunity with Everett (Golson), I wanted to give back the same way that the older guys did it for me.”

The culture of Rees’ quarterback room has turned each quarterback competition into fertile ground for a trusting friendship.

Pyne pointed out, only he and Buchner know what it was like to go through that competition this spring and summer. They studied each other more than anyone else did, because they had more at stake, even more than the coaching staff.

Buchner is beginning to get in some workouts after shoulder surgery, and Pyne actively insists they not overlap with practice.

“I want him behind me telling me what’s going on in the defense,” Pyne said this week. “I want him to see things and come to me.

“The other thing great about him is he tells me technique-wise what I need to do because he’s seen me throw so many times, he’s seen how I’m looking with my eyes, he knows what kind of player I am. He does that to help me, tells me stuff like that every single day. I’m very thankful to still have him, and he’s in great spirits and helps the whole team.”

At some point, Rees and the Irish will need to toe this quarterback competition again. There will be plenty of wonder if one will transfer for more playing time, as is both common in college football nowadays and the appropriate move for passers who have shown their abilities on such a big stage. Pyne will have a diploma and three seasons of eligibility remaining after this year. Buchner will have three seasons, as well, though he’ll be at least a year from that diploma.

That is then, though. For now, any Pyne and Notre Dame success, including against BYU, can trace some credit back to Buchner, standing behind his friend on each practice snap and critiquing Pyne’s form, as only a friend can do.

If he does not do it in practice, he’ll do it as they sneak some sweets around the football facilities.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame needs to find a fast start for a change of pace vs BYU

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LAS VEGAS — “We’re going to get there and be very strategic on what we do,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday referencing the Irish trip to Sin City to face No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC). And he wasn’t referring to always splitting on aces and eights. But let’s be clear, always split on aces and eights.

He was referring to Notre Dame skipping the Strip and heading straight to Allegiant Stadium for a brief visit today before an early bed check.

But he may as well have been discussing how the Irish need to start Saturday night. In perhaps an unexpected twist, Freeman has stopped preaching about Notre Dame’s finish to games even though the Irish blew second-half leads in his first three games as head coach. While the Irish clearly did not know how to finish, focusing on that failure overlooked the bigger picture.

“All of a sudden you sit here and you talk about finishing, finishing, finishing, but you go back and evaluate and there are plays in the first quarter that we weren’t executing the way we were supposed to,” Freeman said. “That’s where me as the leader said, ‘Hold on, take all the emphasis off of finishing and really look at every play of the game.’”

Your psyche may want to focus on your net losses when you get up from the blackjack table, but the third hand after you sat down was just as important as the last. (Don’t change your bet amounts throughout a sitdown at a table. Keep those wagers consistent.)

Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter collapses at Ohio State and against Marshall overshadowed the Irish mistakes early on, but there were Irish mistakes early on.

Against the Cougars, those first-half missteps should be more avoidable than usual. Maybe it has been a lack of focus as BYU looked ahead to this game, maybe it was disrespect for two inferior opponents in Wyoming and Utah State, maybe it was a coincidence. But it cannot be argued that the Cougars led the Cowboys only 14-10 at halftime two weeks ago and were tied with the Aggies at 17 last week. Despite beating UConn to open the season, Utah State should be universally disparaged as one of the worst teams in the country. Keeping up with BYU bode only poorly for the Cougars.

And then BYU outscored the Aggies 21-3 through the first 29 minutes of the second half. (Okay, that’s a lie. It was really 28 minutes and 51 seconds, but rounding up to 29 minutes there was as unaggressive as not splitting 10s. Really, why ruin a delightful hand?)

If once is an incident, twice is a coincidence and three times a pattern, then the Cougars have a pattern of starting slowly, reaching halftime at Oregon trailing 21-7 (as part of a 41-20 loss), three weeks in a row BYU has come out of the gates slowly. No thought of looking past the Ducks can be offered for that; there was no disrespect to a top-25 team.

The Cougars’ weakness meshes well with Notre Dame’s new emphasis.

“It’s not about finishing. It’s about finishing on every play,” Freeman said. “You have to make sure you execute on play one, no matter if you’re up or down, as you do in the fourth quarter.”

(No matter if you’re up or down, stick to basic blackjack strategy.)

This is more than simple coach-speak. Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had shown adeptness with the opening scripts in the past. Eight of Notre Dame’s 13 opening drives last season resulted in quality possessions. (Quality possession: Either a score or a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line.) Those created 31 points on five scores, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs and a costly interception inside the red zone against Cincinnati.

This year, only one opening Irish possession has resulted in a quality possession, a field goal in the season opener. But before the idle week, Notre Dame responded to its opening three-and-out with 10 consecutive quality possessions. To be clear, the Irish had only 11 genuine possessions in that 45-32 win. (“Genuine” ignores the final possession running out the clock.)

There is no rationale blackjack equivalent to that kind of hot streak. Heaters don’t last that long. Because when relying on cards dealt randomly, there is no force paving the way like Notre Dame’s offensive line, and there is no open highway like the Tar Heels’ defense.

“That’s what our identity has to be,” Freeman said. “We have to be able to run the ball. It’s not always going to be explosive, 10-15 yard gains, but if you’re able to move the ball with consistency and stay on track and stay in rhythm, it opens up everything in your offensive pass game.

“It’s great to see. It’s a testament to our offensive line. It starts with them. … Our offensive line continues to get better and better and better, which is really helping our run game.”

If there is any one thing to learn from this rendition of the Shamrock Series, it is if the Irish success running the ball two weeks ago was more because of North Carolina’s problems or because of Notre Dame’s development. In this unnecessary and forced analogy put into usage solely because how often does a writer have an excuse to so broadly discuss blackjack, the escalation facing the Irish is the equivalent of testing your counting abilities on an eight-deck shoe at Circa after working only with two-deck shoes in Treasure Island.

That may go badly. BYU has given up plenty of rushing yards this season, but it is leaps and bounds better than North Carolina. Count those decks wrong and you will be dissuaded from ever counting cards again.

In both cases, that should not be the takeaway. The takeaway should be returning to fundamentals, playing each hand smartly, finding holes in a good defense even if there are not as many available as there were against Gene Chizik’s unit.

“Sometimes it takes failures to really evaluate how you’re leading,” Freeman said Thursday. “It shouldn’t take that, but for me, after the Marshall game, I said hold on, let’s really look at how I am as a leader, where I can improve. …

“One of those parts was hold on, let’s stop worrying about finishing. That’s more outcome driven. ‘Let’s finish this game, we’re up in the fourth, finish the game.’ Let’s really evaluate every single play and make sure we’re executing.”

The final score matters most, just like the chips in your hand when you get up from the table. But Notre Dame needs to focus on the early hands in Las Vegas to better position itself for late in the game. That has been missing this season, and after two weeks of focusing on it, there is little excuse left for the Irish to drag their feet early at Allegiant Stadium.

How to watch Notre Dame vs BYU tomorrow and the Irish all season; TV, Peacock info for 2022

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The 11th rendition of Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series will feature the Irish against the No. 16 BYU Cougars on Saturday, October 8, at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. Live coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock. See below for additional information and how to watch/stream the Notre Dame vs BYU game.

Notre Dame has never lost in the Shamrock Series, its not-quite-annual trip to a neutral site. The university hosts the game and makes an event of the weekend, and the football program has delivered each and every time, be it against a ranked Arizona State in Dallas or against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The Irish (2-2) are now not only coming off an idle week, but are also just two weeks removed from beating North Carolina 45-32. Notre Dame set season highs in points, rushing yards (287), total yards (576), and first downs (35). Junior quarterback Drew Pyne finished with a career-best 24-for-34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns. After an ugly start to the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line allowed just one sack, which enabled running backs Audric Estimé and Chris Tyree to have their best performances of the season. Estimé finished with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns while Tyree added 80 rushing yards and a touchdown and RB Logan Diggs ran for 50 yards. Head coach Marcus Freeman credited the victory to the offensive line’s performance.

“I think it’s a testament to our offensive line,” Freeman said. “It starts with them. I don’t care what running back you have back there, if your offensive line isn’t executing, blocking, to the way it has to, nobody’s gonna be able to run the ball. Our offensive line continues to get better and better and better, which is really helping out our run game.”

The BYU Cougars (4-1) are coming off a 38-26 victory over Utah State last Thursday night. Led by quarterback Jaren Hall, who has thrown 142 straight passes without an interception, BYU is making gradual progress toward a possible New Year’s Six bowl in its last season as a football independent before joining the Big 12.

 According to Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake, Hall is an exemplary leader both on and off the field.

“He is a perfect example of what it means to be a BYU football player,” Sitake said.
The quarterback position at BYU always gets a lot of public attention, and Jaren does a tremendous job handling both that spotlight on him from outside the program and the important role he plays within our program as a leader on our team. But he really settled into his role.”

How to watch Notre Dame vs BYU:

  • Where: Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas
  • When: Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Live Stream: NBC and Peacock

2022 Notre Dame Football Schedule:

  • Notre Dame at Ohio State – Saturday, Sept. 3  – 7:30 PM on ABC
  • Notre Dame vs. Marshall – Saturday, Sept. 10 –  2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. California – Saturday, Sept. 17 – 2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame at North Carolina – Saturday, Sept. 24 – TBD
  • Notre Dame vs. BYU (Las Vegas, NV) – Saturday, Oct. 8  – 7:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. Stanford – Saturday, Oct. 15 – 7:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. UNLV – Saturday, Oct. 22 – 2:30 PM on Peacock
  • Notre Dame at Syracuse – Saturday, Oct. 29 – TBD
  • Notre Dame vs. Clemson – Saturday, Nov. 5 – 7:30 PM  on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. Navy (Baltimore, MD) – Saturday, Nov. 12 -12:00 PM on  ABC/ESPN
  • Notre Dame vs. Boston College – Saturday, Nov. 19 – 2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame at USC – Saturday, Nov. 26 – TBD

How to watch Notre Dame Football on Peacock:
Become a monthly or annual subscriber to Peacock Premium to watch all of our Premium sports, including Notre Dame football. Once you’re signed up, you can find LIVE coverage in the Browse section of the Peacock app and on PeacockTV.com

Please note that selection of a Premium plan will result in a charge which will recur on a monthly or annual basis, depending on your plan. You can cancel your Premium plan at any time in your Account.

What devices does Peacock support?
You can enjoy Peacock on a variety of devices. View a list of supported devices here.

Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey ends season, to enter the transfer portal; secondary injury updates

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Notre Dame lost some defensive line depth during its idle week when senior tackle Jacob Lacey chose to end his Irish career, confirmed by head coach Marcus Freeman on Thursday. Lacey will enter the transfer portal after the season when the portal window opens, but to preserve a year of eligibility, he has ended his season now.

“Lacey was a great player,” Freeman said. “Lacey did a lot of great things for us, but it’s a deep position. He made a decision that ultimately he felt was best for him and we respect it. We love Jacob, and the best thing about it is he leaves with a degree in his hand.”

Thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver glossing over his 11 games in 2020, Lacey has two seasons of eligibility remaining and will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up in 2023. He ends this season with five tackles, all made against Cal, including two sacks. He finishes his career with 35 tackles in 37 games with 6.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks.

To some degree, defensive line depth made Lacey’s job that day easier but also made his season prognosis more dubious.

“It’s the greatest feeling ever, just knowing we probably have 11, 12 guys that can run out there and be as good, if not better, than the guy that was just in front of them, depends who’s hot that day,” Lacey said following Notre Dame’s first win of the season. “It’s fun to see the way we all execute no matter who’s on the field.”

That just will not be Lacey moving forward.

Fifth-year Jayson Ademilola and senior Howard Cross have led that charge from the interior this season, with Cross second on the team with 23 tackles. Harvard graduate transfer Chris Smith made three tackles against Ohio State, part of his five on the season, and his name was the first one Freeman mentioned on who will play more without Lacey around.

“It’s just a position that’s extremely deep,” Freeman said. “The defensive tackle position right now is one of the deepest positions we have on our team. Chris Smith will play a little bit more. (Sophomore) Gabe Rubio will play a little bit more. (Sophomore) Jason Onye has moved from scout team to getting reps with the defense.”

But Notre Dame also does not always need two defensive tackles, instead relying on a three-man front, not to mention ends Isaiah Foskey and Rylie Mills both have the size to play on the inside on clear passing downs.

A consensus four-star prospect in the class of 2019, Lacey was Notre Dame’s first commit of the class, pledging in July of 2017. The Kentucky native chose the Irish over finalists Clemson, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee.

While he played in 11 games during the pandemic season of 2020, he was fighting a balky shoulder the whole time, and he struggled a bit with coronavirus in the preseason. By playing in 11 of 12 games, Lacey camouflaged how much those items hampered him.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t very frustrated going through that year, battling through that injury,” Lacey said in November. “I’m glad I didn’t just stop playing. I’ve definitely grown a tremendous amount from that. It allowed me to drop weight and focus on gaining muscle, things I needed to do from the beginning, just really rehabbing, focused on things I should have done before coming to college.”

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter

SAFETY DEPTH
Freeman expects both fifth-year safety DJ Brown (hamstring) and junior safety Ramon Henderson (ankle) to be active on Saturday against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC) after being hampered two weeks ago at North Carolina.

Freshman specialist Bryce McFerson has also finally overcome a groin strain that has bothered him since the week before the opener, but walk-on Zac Yoakam has so ably handled kickoff duties, that Notre Dame is going to let McFerson focus on improving his punting. He will not usurp Harvard transfer Jon Sot there, by any means, so it distinctly sounds like McFerson may preserve a year of eligibility this season.