Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford, facing a daunting schedule with a reloading offense

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This will be harped on most of the season, so let’s not waver now: Notre Dame has not won at Stanford since 2007. Until the Irish do so, The Farm will continue to be discussed as a house of horrors, ironic considering it is hardly an intimidating environment. Last year the Cardinal drew only 75 percent capacity to a stadium that can barely hold 50,000.

Lest anyone think that 12-year stretch is an anomaly, Notre Dame has gone a mere 3-8 at Stanford since the series became an annual event in 1997.

2018 REVIEW
The Cardinal generally do only alright at home, including going 4-2 last season, the losses coming 41-20 to Utah and 41-38 to Washington State. The loss to the Utes came a week after Stanford lost in South Bend.

In retrospect, that game has lost its allure, but in the moment, it was the biggest game at Notre Dame Stadium since … facing USC in 2005? That was the last time two top-10 teams met in an Irish home game. Notre Dame dusted any prestige off the Stanford challenge last year with a 38-17 rout that was hardly that close. The Irish rushed for 272 yards on 55 carries, part of a 550-yard evening.

Before that, the Cardinal was 4-0. It dropped to 5-4 before rebounding with four wins to end the year.

Those troubles primarily traced to Stanford’s defense. As injuries ravaged the Cardinal running game, its aerial attack kept the offense afloat to the tune of 28.4 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense gave up 22.9 points per game, a high during head coach David Shaw’s eight seasons. The 410 yards allowed per game was also a Shaw-era high, as was the 264 passing yards allowed per game. As much a result of teams trying to outscore Stanford, those passing yards were a byproduct of a lack of a pass rush. The Cardinal managed only 36 sacks, not the lowest figure in Shaw’s time (32 in 2017), but a far cry from the 57 in 2012 or even the 46 in 2014.

WHAT STANFORD LOST
Most of the Cardinal losses came on the offensive side of the ball, led by running back Bryce Love. He may not have had the senior year he returned for, hampered by ankle issues before an ACL tear ended his season, but Love (739 yards and six touchdowns on 166 carries) was still a focal point for opposing defensive coordinators.

As Love struggled, Stanford’s receivers excelled, and now they are gone. JJ Arcega-Whiteside (63 receptions for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns) turned a breakout season into hearing his name in the NFL draft’s second round. The second-leading receiver, Trenton Irwin (60 receptions for 685 yards and two scores), graduated, and tight end Kaden Smith (47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns), the third-favorite target, was drafted in the sixth round.

The Cardinal are also down four starting offensive linemen, albeit linemen who could hardly stay healthy last year.

Defensively, both leading tacklers have moved on, most notably linebacker Bobby Okerke (96 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 3.5 sacks), as has cornerback Alijah Holder (59 tackles with 10 pass breakups).

WHAT STANFORD GAINED
Recruiting to Palo Alto is, in many ways, tougher than it is for Notre Dame. Thus, pulling in the No. 23 class, per rivals.com, is not unimpressive. The headliners in that class are four-star running back Austin Jones and four-star receiver Elijah Higgins.

Given the turnover throughout the Cardinal offensive skill positions, both freshmen could end up contributing, certainly by the time the Irish arrive to end the regular season.

Junior Foster Sarell will without a doubt be contributing, providing health. He was expected to start along the offensive line last year before a knee injury forced him out of action after three games. Sarell would have been on the interior of the line last season, but now should start at right tackle. As far as obvious talent goes, Sarell should be considered the equivalent of a returning full-time starter.

HEAD COACH
David Shaw enters his ninth season leading his alma mater with 82 wins to his name, averaging a 10-3 record across nearly a decade. Going 9-5 and 9-4 the last two years is considered a downturn. That is a hefty standard to have established.

Stanford set that standard by not losing to a team that finished with a losing record since 2013 (Utah). For that matter, Notre Dame has helped the Cardinal cause, going 3-5 against Shaw.

Cardinal senior quarterback KJ Costello stands second in Stanford history with 272 passing yards per game in a season, set last year. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In discussing Stanford, there is much consternation about its offense. Losing a star like Love and three talented passing targets, along with four starting offensive linemen, leaves little to believe in upon return.

The contrary view would argue a senior quarterback returns in KJ Costello, second-team All-Pac 12 last season. He may have benefited from having excellent hands on the other end of his passes, but he still completed 65.1 percent of those throws for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

And Costello will once again have worthwhile targets to rely upon. 6-foot-7, 240-pound junior tight end Colby Parkinson (29 catches for 485 yards and seven touchdowns) will be a matchup nightmare, and it will be difficult to double-team both him and junior receiver Osiris St. Brown.

All the while Sarell and preseason first-team All-American left tackle Walker Little will be protecting Costello and opening holes for fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett (330 yards and eight touchdowns on 79 carries, a 4.2 yards per rush average). The rest of the offensive line will be filled by those who stepped in for the injured last year, hardly green behind the ears.

This is not all intended to paint a rosy picture, but to show the Cardinal may be better than a draft-depleted offense usually would be. Stanford may not get back to 2017’s levels of 202 rushing yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry, but it should fare much better than last season’s 107.9 and 3.7, averages that ranked No. 123 and No. 112 in the country, respectively.

All the while, Costello will be at the helm, presenting a danger through the air just as he did last year.

Cardinal junior cornerback Paulson Adebo made his presence known last year with 19 pass breakups, not even counting his four interceptions and 64 tackles. That performance put him on most preseason first-team All-American listings this summer. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
If the offense can provide that, the Cardinal defense will have to rebound from the crater of 2018. That was a young defense, which should lead to a better one this season.

Preseason first-team All-American junior cornerback Paulson Adebo will lead the way for a solid secondary, after breaking up 23 passes (including four interceptions) in his first action last year, No. 2 in the country (behind Virginia’s Bryce Hall). A shutdown cornerback is a luxury for every defense, and he will be supported by junior Obi Eboh, who performed well last season in a situational role.

Fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill will lessen the loss of those two leading tacklers, himself tallying 29 in only seven games before injuries cut short his 2018, and sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker (No. 34, pictured at top) was touted before he made 3.5 sacks as a freshman.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The concern around Stanford seems overblown. It is not on the verge of the Playoff by any means, and it may not even contend for the Pac 12 this season — preseason media polls put the Cardinal a decisive third in the North behind Oregon and Washington — but Shaw’s program is not on the verge of collapse. It has a star quarterback, arguably the country’s best left tackle and a proven system.

The issue ahead of Stanford is not internal, but rather its schedule. The Cardinal face 11 Power Five teams and Central Florida, better than many Power Five teams. The calendar opens against Northwestern, at USC, at Central Florida and against Oregon before a reprieve of a trip to Oregon State. That opening quartet alone explains the sheet’s season win total over/under of seven.

Presume Stanford splits them, just for this conversation’s sake. Washington and Notre Dame will still need to make trips to Palo Alto. Lose both of those and suddenly the Cardinal cannot top that win total.

An upset of the Huskies or the Irish may prove 2018’s Stanford firepower was more because of Costello’s ability than it was because of his talented receivers benefiting from run-focused defensive schemes.

RELATED READING: Louisville, fresh off a needed coaching change
New Mexico and former Irish head coach Bob Davie
Georgia, undeniably the season’s greatest challenge
Virginia and Bryce Perkins, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback
Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator
USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000
Michigan, a preseason title contender
Virginia Tech, rebounding from a year of dismal defense
Duke, a symbol of past Irish troubles
Navy, doubling down on its renowned triple-option
Boston College, overly-reliant on star RB, AJ Dillon

 

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.