Notre Dame’s Opponents: Louisville, fresh off a needed coaching change

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If Notre Dame fans think they had it rough in 2016, they should have spent some time around Louisville faithful last year. If nothing else, the two groups could have bonded over the inadequacies of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

For the Irish three years ago, hope was tangible. The roster had clear talent and head coach Brian Kelly balanced reinvention with consistency. The Cardinals do not have any of those optimistic thoughts to lean on courtesy of since-deposed head coach Bobby Petrino.

2018 REVIEW
Louisville finished 2-10, and that does not come close to describing how bad things were. Petrino was fired with two games remaining in the season, and the only surprising thing about that was that it took so long.

Twofold reasoning supported the delay: One, the Cardinals collapse was abrupt. In 2017 they averaged 38.1 points per game — with 2016 Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the way — and gave up 27.4. The first of those numbers nearly halved, to 19.8, No. 122 in the country; while the latter leapt to 44.1.

Secondly, Petrino had a six-year contract and 2018 was his fifth season. A school already fighting Rick Pitino over severance was not eager to add to its buyout payroll.

In September, Petrino navigated two wins, over Indiana State and Western Kentucky. By November, a good day for Louisville’s defense included allowing only 52 points. The Cardinals gave up more than 50 points in their last five games, in six of their last seven, and in seven total. The most embarrassing moment came on a Friday night with little else to distract the college football viewing public when Georgia Tech ran for 542 yards. Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson had waited a long time to get his chance to humiliate VanGorder, and he made the most of it in his last year coaching.

How bad was Louisville’s defense? Consider the below chart, in which the best possible defense would be a large circle and the worst would be a dot in the middle.

WHAT LOUISVILLE LOST
Well, Petrino and his coaching staff, which included three of his family members. Other than that, the only name that stands out is leading receiver Jaylen Smith (36 receptions for 550 yards and a touchdown), now working alongside former Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Cardinals also lost a couple offensive line starters and their leading tackler, but from a team that had no semblance of an effective running game and a defensive scheme that encouraged opponents to score, those should not be prohibitive departures.

WHAT LOUISVILLE GAINED
For starters, head coach Scott Satterfield and his staff, which is to say, Louisville gained credibility, even if it could not lure Jeff Brohm from Louisville.

From a roster standpoint, the recruiting class included two three-star running backs, either of which could become the Cardinals leading rusher this year. They may be running behind Florida graduate transfer TJ McCoy, in competition to earn the starting gig at center.

Colgate graduate transfer T.J. Holl joins the interior linebackers and, as an FCS All-American and an established veteran, could quickly take a leading role.

First-year Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield has his work cut out for him in rehabbing the Cardinals’ roster. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Satterfield was not Louisville’s first choice, but he was always the most likely one if Brohm opted to spurn his alma mater. Satterfield’s six years at Appalachian State featured a 51-24 record, which at first blush may not seem all that impressive. But remember, the Mountaineers faced a Power Five foe or two each season, and despite taking Penn State to overtime last September and coming within one point of Wake Forest in 2017, those were all losses.

A better way to gauge Satterfield’s success is how he fared against Appalachian State’s peers. In the last four years, the Mountaineers never suffered more than one Sun Belt loss, averaging 10.25 wins per season in that span and going 4-0 in bowl games, the first bowl games in their history. The last two of those were won by a combined 66 points.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
There are two storylines to track here. If either was a non-issue, it could serve to support the other. Instead, quarterback questions are compounded by the lack of a running game, a facet Satterfield has always preferred to lean on.

Senior Jawon Pass returns as the presumptive starting quarterback, a standing that gained validity when sophomore Malik Cunningham suffered a knee injury over the weekend. The two split time last year, Pass looking like the more-polished product (and, really, his name is Pass) while Cunningham finished the season as the Cardinals’ leading rusher.

Perhaps Pass shrunk as the successor to Jackson, perhaps the wretched offensive line ruined his confidence, perhaps not all former U.S. Army All-Americans are made the same. Louisville is likely to find out in September, and if Pass again throws more interceptions than touchdowns, then the Cardinals may turn to Cunningham, as his injury is expected to be a minor “tweak.”

Satterfield would prefer to not lean on Pass’ passing. (I apologize for nothing.) Appalachian State ran on 67 percent of its plays in 2018, not an anomaly during Satterfield’s tenure. Attempting that at Louisville, however, would not lead to as much success, at least not immediately. The leading returning running back is sophomore Hassan Hall and his 303 yards on 70 rushes, a 4.3 yards per carry average.

Louisville junior left tackle Mekhi Becton, a possible first-round draft pick, will be a rare bright spot in the Cardinals offense this season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

One lineman will not be enough to solve these issues — and only six scholarship offensive linemen were available in the spring — but the Cardinals do have a possible first-round draft pick in junior left tackle Mekhi Becton, standing 6-foot-7 and listed at 369 pounds. As abysmal as this offense is, it will be a fan’s treat to watch any Irish defensive end try to get around Becton.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
VanGorder really worked to outdo his disastrous 2016, and he succeeded. Louisville gave up 44.1 points per game, No. 128 of 130 FBS programs. The rush defense ranked No. 127. (Good luck, Bowling Green.)

The Cardinals will now run a 3-4 base defense, rather than VanGorder’s convoluted 4-2-5. Partly due to that change, and partly due to roster mismanagement, a dozen defensive players have reportedly shifted positions this offseason.

If there is a defensive strength, it is in a secondary with decent experience, led by junior defensive back Russ Yeast, a former Notre Dame recruiting target. Yeast has appeared in 23 games and could slide in as the starting safety replacing leading tackler Dee Smith.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Throughout this writing, it has been tough to resist writing, “Things cannot get worse for Louisville.” Because with one upset, they could. 2-10 would become 1-11, but that should hardly matter in Satterfield’s first year.

It is that kind of schedule, though. After the Irish visit on Labor Day, the Cardinals host Eastern Kentucky and then face Western Kentucky in Nashville. They got by the Hilltoppers by a field goal last season.

Louisville will not be favored in another game, all ACC opponents until the season closes at Kentucky. The Cardinals best chance at a third win may be Oct. 5 vs. Boston College, but the idea of Eagles star running back A.J. Dillon against this defense is not a thought prompting confidence in Louisville’s chances, let alone its odds of topping a season win total over/under of 3.5.

 

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.