Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000

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When Notre Dame beat USC to seal the first losing Trojans season since before Pete Caroll was hired, many expected USC head coach Clay Helton’s tenure to be over. An airplane circling the Coliseum kindly suggested Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann make that decision. “Lynn Swann — Please Fire Clay Helton.”

Swann did not, instead issuing a statement announcing Helton’s retention. Declaring a lack of change is not usually something that needs to be done.

USC and Helton still made some moves, following the model created by Irish head coach Brian Kelly following his similar season in 2016 — retain the head coach, turn over most of the coaching staff, hope the stocked roster rebounds.

2018 REVIEW
In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising how quickly the Trojans’ season spiraled. They were 4-2, having beaten two division foes. A run at a national championship was off the table, but USC still very much controlled its own fate in the Pac 12. The Trojans proceeded to lose their next two conference games, all three of its remaining contests against South Division opponents, and could only claim a victory at cellar-dweller Oregon State.

In that 1-5 closing span, USC lost four times by one possession, after beginning the year 2-0 in such games. Of course, that included the 24-17 defeat to the Irish.

Perhaps even more incriminating, the Trojans also lost four times last season in games in which they at one point held double-digit leads, again including against Notre Dame.

WHAT USC LOST
Let’s focus on the players before delving into the key piece of coaching drama. The Trojans lost less talent than they would in most offseasons, sending only seven players to the NFL with only four drafted. That makes sense from a logical perspective: A bad team does not produce as much individual talent.

The secondary lost the most, with cornerback Iman Marshall getting drafted in the fourth round and safety Marvell Tell in the fifth. Linebacker Porter Gustin signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent, a fall at least somewhat precipitated by Gustin’s injury history; he managed to get into the starting lineup only five times last year.

Offensively, the biggest loss will be second-team All-Pac 12 right tackle Chuma Edoga, a third-round draft pick. He had spent years clearing the way for running back Aca’Cedric Ware, another undrafted free agent.

Graham Harrell, center. (Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

ABOUT THE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Did USC gain an offensive coordinator? Eventually. Did the Trojans lose one? No, they lost two, only one intentionally.

Two games into that late-season skid, Helton took over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin, putting the writing on the wall for Martin’s eventual departure.

Helton then targeted recently-fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as his new offensive coordinator. Best known as a leading Air Raid disciple, Kingsbury figured to slide in and return the Trojans to scoring averages in the mid-30s, as had been the case in the previous four years (35.8 in 2014 to 32.6 in 2017 as both the bookends and the peaks of that stretch). After agreeing to a deal in Los Angeles, Kingsbury then took the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals.

Scrambling, Helton stuck to the Air Raid thought process and hired Graham Harrell from the same position at North Texas. Harrell, to simplify his trajectory, is Kingsbury but a stage or two behind him on the career path.

WHAT USC GAINED
As far as transfers go, the Trojans pulled in only Tennessee graduate offensive lineman Drew Richmond. He started 25 games with the Volunteers and should help USC replace one of the three starters it lost.

No matter the on-field struggles, the Trojans can still recruit, another similarity to 2016 Notre Dame. Of the notable signees who may impact this season, the list does not begin with USC signee-turned Texas transfer-turned USC roster member five-star receiver Bru McCoy. McCoy’s appeal for immediate eligibility — he did technically transfer — has not been upheld or dismissed by the NCAA, but the expectation is he will not be eligible.

The Trojans did sign two other four-star receivers in Kyle Ford and Drake London; either or both could contribute this year, but that is not a position of immediate need.

Rather, two four-star defensive backs and four-star early enrollee defensive end Drake Jackson may be called upon. Jackson, in particular, earned rave reviews during the spring and has the markings of a three-year player.

HEAD COACH
For all that he has already done, both in winning and in losing, it is hard to remember Helton is entering only his fourth full season as USC’s head coach. That may be, in part, why Swann opted to retain him. Giving a coach only three years is an awfully-short leash and one that would not make the position look promising to other potential candidates.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton hopes to follow an example set by Irish head coach Brian Kelly two years ago in order to help USC rebound from its 5-7 finish last season. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Helton has won a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl, as well as appeared in a Cotton Bowl. He has won double-digit games twice. But he has also gone 1-2 against the Irish, 1-2 against Stanford and endured a spiral that became a national joke.

That joke led to Helton replacing five different assistant coaches and moving another, as well as hiring a new strength and conditioning coordinator. (Again, sound familiar Notre Dame fans?)

Lest anyone think these repeated parallels to the Irish of two seasons ago are forced to fit only this space, note a line from Swann’s statement announcing Helton would “continue” as the Trojans head coach.

“We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with [Notre Dame], but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly.”

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any offense transitioning from a first-round draft pick to a true freshman quarterback should be expected to regress. J.T. Daniels (pictured at top) played well last year, but not well enough to push forward the offense as the defense failed to shut down opponents. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes while throwing 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Nominally, Helton and Harrell insist there is an ongoing quarterback competition between Daniels and junior Jack Sears. That is a nice thought, but it will be shocking if Daniels does not start.

As the offensive line replaces three starters, Daniels will hope for enough time to utilize the skill position talent on the Trojans roster. It is there, it is apparent, and it is bountiful, particularly at receiver. USC returns its top three receivers in Michael Pittman (41 catches for 758 yards and six touchdowns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches for 750 yards and three scores) and Tyler Vaughns (58 catches for 674 yards and six touchdowns).

Harrell’s version of the Air Raid likes to distribute the ball around to as many playmakers as possible. Those three receivers, as well as some of the aforementioned freshmen, should continue to split touches, preventing a defense from focusing on any one of them.

Similarly, the Trojans will rely on a fewrunning backs, primarily junior Stephen Carr, if healthy after fighting back and ankle injuries. In limited action, Carr took 81 carries for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He will be supported by junior Vave Maleapeai (93 carries for 501 yards and eight touchdowns) and former Notre Dame commit Markese Stepp, a sophomore.

Their improvement may be most crucial to Harrell rallying from a 26.1 points per game average. In 2017, USC ran for 185 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush; last year those figures fell to 134 and 4.1.

USC may need senior defensive end Christian Rector to return to his 2017 form, when he notched 7.5 sacks, to lead its defensive line. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Despite injuries plaguing the unit, the Trojans defensive performance did not lag all that much, allowing 26.1 points per game in 2017 and then 27.0 last year. Only five starters return, but a number of others gained experience amid those moments of attrition last season.

The strength will be the defensive line, led by second-team All-Pac 12 junior defensive tackle Jay Tufele and buoyed by the return of senior end Christian Rector. While Rector had only 4.5 sacks in 2018, he had 7.5 in 2017. His pass-rushing abilities are genuine and troublesome for opponents. Add in the hype around Jackson, and USC’s front-four could quickly match the team total of 29 sacks last year.

The questions arise in the secondary, where no full-time starter returns, in part due to injuries bothering both the safeties expected to start in 2019.

SEASON OUTLOOK
A roster with this much talent rarely has a season win total over/under of merely seven, but that is where the Trojans land. Some of that ties to 2018’s struggles, some of it to the tumultuous offseason, and some of it to the schedule. USC’s North Division crossover opponents are Washington and Oregon this season.

More than that, though, the Trojans schedule is front-loaded. By the time they face the Irish in mid-October, they will have faced Fresno State, Stanford, BYU, Utah and Washington. To put that in other terms, USC will have played the Mountain West champion, the always-physical Cardinal, a promising BYU team, the Pac 12 champion, and the Pac 12 South champion.

If the Trojans stumble out of the gate, will Helton still be around after their bye week before heading to South Bend?

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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.

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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.