Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense should match Northwestern’s tendencies

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Three different positions across five years with a total of 37 starts to date, spanning all five seasons. More than 250 career tackles. Two-time captain. Let’s make one thing clear: No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) does not simply replace fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill if he cannot go at Northwestern this weekend (7:15 ET; ESPN). His exact status is unlikely to be known until shortly before kickoff, if not after.

“Drue practiced today,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday of Tranquill’s recovery from a five-day-old high ankle sprain. “Got him in some 7-on-7, got him in some team stuff today. We’ll see how he feels [Friday]. He was padded out, got in there and moved around pretty good.”

The Wildcats (5-3) are good enough Tranquill will play if at all able. That is also akin to his nature. Nonetheless, who fills in for or complements Tranquill will shed light on Notre Dame’s long-term defensive views.

If Tranquill can’t go, then what lineup changes get made? … Perhaps Bilal would move inside allowing Simon to start at rover, but as I think it through, with [Northwestern] employing a pass-heavy attack, maybe it would be best for Bilal to stay put and Genmark Heath or Bauer to step straight into Tranquill’s spot. — Dan H.

Let’s start by eliminating freshman linebacker Bo Bauer. He has not been mentioned by Kelly this week, and his role this season has largely been on the inside, backing up senior Te’von Coney. Kelly would not go too deep into the possibilities, but he did mention both sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and senior Asmar Bilal.

“There will be a host of guys getting some work there,” Kelly said Tuesday.

The discussion on the Wildcats’ offense can wait a moment. This personnel decision will not be dictated too heavily by that in particular. Whether Bilal moves over from rover or Genmark Heath steps up from a reserve role will give a clue to 2019’s thinking. Both Tranquill and Coney will be gone then. Bilal could readily move inside, but it would most likely be to Tranquill’s buck position with the emergence of Bauer already assuaging most Mike concerns.

Bilal has played well at rover, though. It has been a rather natural fit. Genmark Heath, meanwhile, has now had seven full months of work at buck. He might finally be ready to handle the position after his move from safety in the late spring.

The best bet for both the Irish and for predicting the future is Tranquill plays. He has come back from two major knee injuries. It seems unlikely an ankle sprain sidelines him with a chance at the College Football Playoff on the line.

Northwestern senior quarterback Clayton Thorson averages 40 pass attempts per game this season, including this one of 65 against Nebraska three weeks ago. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Now, about Northwestern’s offense, the quick assumption is it will rely on the pass. For example, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 65 passes against Nebraska on Oct. 13. That came after back-to-back weeks of 56 and 58 attempts in September in the Wildcats’ two regrettable losses to Duke and Akron.

This offense heaves.

Notre Dame’s defense, meanwhile, has made a habit of taking away the run from the opposition. Only two of eight Irish opponents have exceeded their attempts per game against Clark Lea’s defense: Ball State and Wake Forest. The other six have averaged nearly eight fewer attempts per game than they usually manage. It seems worth mentioning, the Deacons run the ball sixth most often in the country, and the Cardinals were clearly trying to shorten the game overall to sneak off with an upset.

Northwestern averages 35.4 rush attempts per game. If that falls to 27 or so, that could leave about 53 dropbacks for Thorson. That begs a question …

What is the Irish record for sacks in a game?

Senior tackle Jerry Tillery matched the individual record of four earlier this season against Stanford. The team record in the Kelly era is six, notched against Arizona State in 2013 and at Pittsburgh in 2011. (Ahhhh, the 15-12 Jonas Gray Fame.) The program record is believed to be nine sacks, most-recently reached in Lou Holtz’s last game at Notre Dame Stadium against Rutgers in 1996.

Tillery & Co. probably will not get to that number, but if Thorson and his reduced mobility drop back 55 times, the Kelly era mark might have a chance of falling.

There are, however, two reasons to doubt such success. The first is that Northwestern has given up only 19 sacks this year. The second is the Wildcats have begun relying on the run of late, at least in quantity, if not quality.

“They started to establish a pretty good running game last week,” Kelly said Thursday. “If you look at what they did against Wisconsin — the big play, throwing the ball down the field is absolutely part of what they do, but they put together a really strong running attack that balanced that out last week.”

Indeed, Northwestern ran 49 times for 182 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 against the No. 20 Badgers, but that is an average of only 3.71 yards per rush. Freshman Isaiah Bowser led the way with 117 yards on 34 carries, a 3.44 average. The Wildcats are running more often, but not necessarily well enough while doing so.

Hence the expectation of long scores.

“We’re not seeing anything there other than they have to push the ball down the field,” Kelly said. “If you look at the Michigan State game, if you look at every game where they’ve scored points, it’s big plays. Shots. So we have to be prepared for that.”

Kelly is correct, Northwestern scored touchdowns of 77, 48 and 21 yards against the Spartans, but in the five games the Wildcats have matched or exceeded that 29-point day, they have a total of three scores from further than 25 yards. Obviously, two came on that one afternoon.

Advanced numbers rate Northwestern’s passing explosiveness as No. 69 in the country and its big-play rate (20+ yards) as No. 124. Good luck with that against a bend-don’t-break defense like Lea’s.

Switching sides of the ball, will sophomore Jafar Armstrong see more work than his 14 total touches last week in his return from a month-long absence (knee infection)?

Even if he was slightly overworked, Notre Dame sophomore running back fared well in his return to action last week, taking 14 total touches for more than 100 yards. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

Watching the development of Armstrong’s partnership with senior running back Dexter Williams will be an enjoyable story line over the next month from a football perspective. The possibilities available for Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long are varied and many. He still needs to be careful with his toys.

“We probably played [Armstrong] too much,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I grabbed [running backs coach Autry Denson] a couple times, said, ‘Listen, get him out. We’re working him a little bit harder than I had expected.’ But [Armstrong] doesn’t say a word. He just keeps rolling.

“He should have been on a pitch count, probably should have paid attention to that a little bit better. He’s just a guy that keeps going. He was fatigued. We pushed him through that.”

Unfortunately, the absence of senior tight end Alizé Mack (concussion) may force Armstrong back past a pitch count again this week. Notre Dame has other tight ends — cue another red-zone touchdown for fifth-year Nic Weishar — but there will still be fewer multiple tight end packages, and that may mean more two running back sets.

A better indication of the Armstrong-Williams balance should come next week against Florida State.

I initially was frustrated at the rankings, but you are so right that if ND finishes undefeated, they are in. No longer talking specifically about Notre Dame here, but if LSU beats Alabama this weekend, any chance they just flip spots at 1 and 3? — Thomas W.

If the Irish get out to an early lead Saturday night, you should feel free to watch the SEC tilt (8 ET; CBS). If the Tide win, the country is halfway toward forgetting the drama of two SEC teams making the College Football Playoff. If the Tigers pull off the two-touchdown upset, though, Thomas may be on to something. Whether or not they flip spots is a moot point. The real question will be if Alabama would stay in the top four. Spoiler alert: Probably.

Questions? There is a reason insidetheirish@gmail.com exists.

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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.