No. 4 Notre Dame, Ian Book hold on at Northwestern, reach 9-0

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Once again it took awhile, and once again Notre Dame rendered that angst unnecessary. The No. 4 Irish topped Northwestern 31-21 on Saturday thanks largely to two third-quarter touchdowns.

Those scores turned a 7-7 tie into a presumed 21-7 Notre Dame rout, even if a delayed one, but an Irish special teams gaffe gave the Wildcats late life until a perfectly-executed read-option fake by junior quarterback Ian Book yielded him a clear 23-yard path for a touchdown and the final score, his third on the day.

“We definitely wanted to put the ball out to the perimeter to our playmakers, and we wanted to take some shots,” Book said of the halftime adjustments. “We were able to hit some of those and help spring our offense.”

Northwestern (5-4) kept the Irish in check in the first half in nearly every regard, giving up only 55 rushing yards and 4.63 yards per play. Book, he of the completion percentage rates usually defying belief, had completed only 7 of 15 passes for 107 yards at halftime. He then nearly matched those numbers on a touchdown drive early in the third quarter, completing 7-of-9 passes for 77 yards, eventually finding senior receiver Miles Boykin for a 20-yard score.

In that period alone, Book went 11-of-14 for 195 yards and two touchdowns, also connecting with sophomore Michael Young from 47 yards. Book finished the game 22-of-34 for 343 yards and two passing touchdowns plus another 56 yards on 11 rushes.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin’s twisting third-quarter 20-yard touchdown catch was part of his four receptions for 56 yards in the Saturday night win at Northwestern. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

“I didn’t sense a tightness with the [offense],” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said beneath Ryan Field. “… They played fast and free in the second half and that’s really the most important thing.”

Yet, a blocked punt early in the fourth quarter kept Northwestern around just long enough to keep things interesting. Only Book’s legs made his arm’s contributions enough.

While Notre Dame’s defense allowed a touchdown after the blocked punt — though the Wildcats needed five plays to cover the 17 yards and even then barely breached the goal line — it did not give up any points when the Irish offense fumbled on the first drive for the second consecutive week.

Immediately prior to the blocked punt, the Wildcats scored on a 27-yard touchdown pass, but that was their only play of more than 20 yards, gaining a total of 249 yards and averaging 3.6 per play.

“That’s the way we’ve won this year,” Kelly said. “We haven’t given up the big plays. We’ve been really effective and efficient. We played some different coverages that they hadn’t seen before, … which was obviously effective for us in some certain situations.”

Indeed, Northwestern senior quarterback Clayton Thorson completed only 16 of his 29 attempts for just 141 yards while getting sacked five times, including twice each by senior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior end Daelin Hayes.

“The key this week was to get pressure on [Thorson],” said Coney, who also had 10 tackles. “He’s a great quarterback who we knew we had to move him off his mark, get him out of the pocket and get him moving so he wouldn’t make accurate throws.”

As much as that is the way Notre Dame has won this year, both the bend-don’t-break strategy and the reliance on a pass rush, it was also the distinct game plan from defensive coordinator Clark Lea this week. Thorson typically relies on receiver Flynn Nagel. With Irish junior cornerback Julian Love focused on Nagel — former high school adversaries, in fact, both being from the Chicago area — Thorson needed to take to deep shots, unsuccessfully but for the one.

“We wanted to eliminate Flynn Nagel,” Love said. “… After that, if you do that correctly, they’re going to just take shots. We were prepared for that. They got that one on us, but I think we did a good job of handling deeper throws and getting off their rhythm. You could see they struggled because we game planned well.”

Up until the final minutes, every piece of that game plan was needed, but as Love said, the defense knew what the score was and knew what to do when the Wildcats got within three points halfway through the fourth quarter.

“Our defense is something like waking a sleeping beast really when games are close,” Love said. “… We knew if they didn’t score any more points, game over. And that’s what we did.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Not only did Book’s late touchdown run give Notre Dame a two-possession lead with only two-plus minutes remaining, it also converted a third down. If not for it, the Irish may have attempted a field goal and given Northwestern a chance at a victory.

The first down, not the touchdown, was the intention.

“We certainly had held that play for an opportunity to end the game,” Kelly said. “It was an unbalanced situation. We got the numbers the way we wanted it.”

Like every read-option, Book had the choice of handing it off inside, but his one read indicated he should pull the ball and head around the edge, following sophomore tight end Cole Kmet. Book’s description made it clear the read was quite plain, and Kmet hardly had to do a thing as the lead blocker.

“We felt like we would be able to pick up the first down,” Kelly said. “We were going to run the football in that situation regardless. Just something we held onto and executed it well.”

If you are going to hold a play that can rip off a chunk gain, deploying it when a first down can ice the game makes plenty of sense. For Book, it may have been the best part of the game.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
That is saying something, considering Book completed 64.71 percent of his passes, averaged 10.1 yards per attempt and totaled 399 yards and three touchdowns.

That’s a day. Or, more precisely, a night.

Yet, this honor could also be claimed by junior receiver Chase Claypool. In fact, Kelly gave Claypool the game ball Saturday. He finished with eight catches for 130 yards.

Notre Dame junior receiver Chase Claypool said it has become a point of emphasis for him to gain yards after the catch after not doing so much in the season’s first eight games. (AP Photo/Jim Young)

Claypool set the table for others’ success. The drive that ended with the Boykin touchdown began with a 13-yard completion to Claypool. The one that culminated with the deep ball to Young started with a 31-yard catch by Claypool to get the Irish out of the shadow of their own goalposts.

“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said. “… His maturity has allowed that growth. In everything that he has done. His work ethic, the way he practices. Anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”

Claypool said it was a point of emphasis for him to gain yards after the catch, and he did, inflating both his and Book’s stats. Those yards turned into Notre Dame success, even if Claypool himself did not reach the end zone.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Fourth-and-2 and it would be a 47-yard field goal. The Irish had yet to find offensive success, and the game remained tied. Taking the likely three points would have made plenty of sense. Instead, Kelly went for it.

But offensive coordinator Chip Long did not call for a run up the middle. To that point, Notre Dame had rushed 22 times for 63 yards, an average of 2.9 per carry, including a return to the line of scrimmage by senior running back Dexter Williams on the previous snap. Instead, Long called for a quick screen to Boykin on the perimeter.

“We made a couple adjustments at halftime,” Kelly said. “[Book] picked up on them extremely well. We worked the ball back to the field and got some good looks.”

Boykin made the difficult touchdown catch three plays later. That did not end up being the winning score, but it was the one that finally got the Irish offense on track and rolling toward 24 second-half points.

STAT OF THE GAME
Those Notre Dame halftime adjustments were real:
First-half yards per play: 4.63
Second-half yards per play: 7.74

Much of that change came through the air, but the Irish run game did slowly find its effectiveness:
First-half rushing: 20 carries for 55 yards, 2.75 yards per attempt.
Second-half rushing: 17 carries for 77 yards, 4.53 yards per attempt.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Usually a question like this would be met with an eye roll by a the discerning listener. It is fluff, little more. But sometimes, it is necessary fluff.

“How does it feel to be 9-0?”

Coney: “It feels great. We know we have a lot more in the tank, we have a lot ore that we have to do. We have accomplishments that we want to accomplish this year. It’s going to take a lot.”

A year ago, there was not a lot more in the tank at this point on the calendar.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
6:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 1-yard run. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Northwestern 0. (14 plays, 79 yards, 5:33)

Second Quarter
8:04 — Northwestern touchdown. Clayton Thorson 1-yard run. Charlie Kuhbander PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Northwestern 7. (18 plays, 73 yards, 8:36)

Third Quarter
7:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 20-yard pass from Ian Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Northwestern 7. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:51)
2:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Young 47-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Northwestern 7. (6 plays, 98 yards, 2:09)

Fourth Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 43 yards. Notre Dame 24, Northwestern 7. (5 plays, 29 yards, 2:17)
11:16 — Northwestern touchdown. Riley Lees 27 yards from Thorson. Kuhbander PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Northwestern 14. (6 plays, 75 yards, 1:49)
7:05 — Northwestern touchdown. Thorson 1-yard run. Kuhbander PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Northwestern 21. (5 plays, 17 yards, 1:51)
2:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 23-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 21. (10 plays, 89 yards, 4:16)

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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
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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