And In That Corner … The No. 18 Virginia Cavaliers stand as Notre Dame’s toughest home challenge

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Many Notre Dame fans may see No. 18 Virginia as a second-tier ACC opponent, but the No. 10 Irish (2-1) cannot afford to overlook the Cavaliers. Virginia (4-0) arrives with a preseason All-American at cornerback in senior Bryce Hall and a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in senior Bryce Perkins. It returned eight defensive starters from a unit that gave up just 20.1 points per game last year, and has already proven leaning on that defense can keep it in any game — the Cavaliers have had to come from behind in all three of their FBS games thus far this season.

This space bought in on Virginia in the preseason, but let’s get a better perspective on the Cavaliers from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

DF: I appreciate you taking the time to help preview a Notre Dame game for the second year in a row. The oddity here, of course, is that it is a different opponent after focusing on Virginia Tech last November. We can return to the Hokies in a month or so.

On that note, I do want to ask, I barely get through the football season while worrying about only one team. How do you manage to cover two teams, let alone two with the profiles of Virginia and Virginia Tech?

MB: I do wish my Notre Dame trips were a bit more spread out. One a year with either Tech or Virginia would be nice!

I won’t lie, it’s a load to cover both teams. The hardest part, obviously, is when they both play on the same day and I miss games. The week itself sets up pretty nicely for me. Mondays I go to UVA for a press conference with head coach Bronco Mendenhall and players. Tuesday, I go to Virginia Tech for interviews with players and assistant coaches. Wednesday, back at UVA for coordinator interviews. Then Thursday-Saturday, whatever game or games I’m covering.

The hardest part is just keeping things straight — I frequently mix up in my head, who plays AT Duke this year and who gets Duke at home. Before one became an All-American and the other transferred, I was always mixing up Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall and Tech corner Bryce Watts.

At some point this preseason, I summarized my notes on the Cavaliers into one line of, “Bronco Mendenhall defense returns eight starters + dangerous, dynamic, dual-threat QB + Coastal.” Yet, I got a sense I was higher on Virginia than many, especially as August conversations often mentioned Miami and Virginia Tech ahead of Virginia as Coastal contenders, even though the Cavaliers finished atop the division in the ACC preseason media poll. Both the Hurricanes and the Hokies had better odds of winning the division, per bookmakers.

What expectations were there before the season in that locker room? On that campus? From you?

The Cavaliers expected to “take the next step” this season. Now, what does that mean? The team is actually pretty blunt about their goals – win the Coastal Division, beat rival Virginia Tech and win a bowl game. Changing perceptions is hard and it’s taken people — fans, media and Vegas — awhile to get on board with the fact that, in a very short time, Mendenhall has completely turned this program around.

Four weeks in, with a pair of ACC wins under its belt, it’s clear Virginia is the best team in the Coastal Division and probably the second-best team in the league behind Clemson. But there is still such a massive gap between Clemson and the Cavaliers.

As for my expectations, if Bryce Perkins stays healthy, I expect UVA to achieve all its goals this year.

The 4-0 start has not come without its moments of drama, namely letting Old Dominion get out to an early lead last week and the entirety of that Florida State game two weeks ago. Did the relatively close affair with the Monarchs strike you as simply a sandwich spot between facing the Seminoles and the Irish?

The Old Dominion game was the classic trap game, sandwiched between a big home win over Florida State and this trip to Notre Dame. Mendenhall even admitted he didn’t think he or his team recovered emotionally from what they expended against FSU until the Thursday before the ODU game.

With that said, I’m not too worried about what I saw in the first half last week. I wasn’t all that surprised by the first-half letdown.

The major takeaways, however, were that the offensive line is still very much a work in progress. Not having starting center Olusegun Oluwatimi (hand) for that game seemed to really disrupt things. It’s unclear if Oluwatimi will be cleared to play this week.

The second thing is that Virginia’s defense can carry it when the offense isn’t clicking. The Cavaliers held Old Dominion to just 46 total yards in the second half and linebackers Charles Snowden and Jordan Mack were disruptive forces.

Cavaliers senior cornerback Bryce Hall has racked up five interceptions and 38 pass breakups across his career, numbers dampened by opposing quarterbacks simply avoiding throwing near him. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

It is a classic Mendenhall defense as far as I can tell, complete with a preseason All-American cornerback in Bryce Hall and a vaunted defensive line. Hall led the country in pass breakups last year, and that defensive line helps lead the country in sacks this season, already with 20. (Context: Notre Dame has just four sacks, all in the opener.)

The Irish are unlikely to try to run the ball, given their own struggles now meeting Virginia’s No. 12 rush defense, which allows only 2.17 yards per carry, No. 9 in the country. Thus, the wonder is, how are those pressures created? Blitzes? Coverage forcing the quarterback to hold the ball? Just that good of a defensive front?

Virginia’s No. 1 focus in the offseason was improving its run defense. The Cavaliers set a goal of holding teams to 3.5 yards per carry or fewer. They’ve far exceeded that so far, thanks to a much deeper defensive line and a ton of talent and depth at linebacker. The sacks and tackles for loss have also been an emphasis – creating havoc, is how the coaches describe it. That’s been achieved mainly via the blitz, as is often the case with 3-4 defenses. The confidence Virginia has in Hall to cover downfield has freed it up to be more aggressive using blitzes. 17.5 of the Cavaliers’ 20 sacks have come from linebackers and defensive backs.

Not that Mendenhall has been uncomplimentary of Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book. To pull from Mendenhall’s Monday press conference: “Not only mobile but quick decision-maker. When you’re playing Notre Dame, just jumps out really quickly how well-coached, well-schooled and not only in fundamentals, but decision-making, the majority of the team is.” What will be Mendenhall’s approach to slow Book and the Irish passing attack, its best (and sometimes only) offensive threat?

Stopping the run against Notre Dame will still be the team’s top priority. The way it’s been playing, it’s been able to play run defense, contain mobile quarterbacks with the speed of linebackers like Mack and Snowden and still cover downfield. That will be the gameplan against Notre Dame, even though the Irish have much better personnel to test that plan.

Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has already accounted for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns this season, most-notably including a pivotal two-point conversion run against Florida State and the first breakthrough last week against Old Dominion. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Flipping to the Cavaliers’ offense, it starts and ends with senior quarterback Bryce Perkins. I suspect many Notre Dame fans are largely unfamiliar with him, even if he accounted for 34 total touchdowns last year. How has he improved this season?

Offensively, Bryce Perkins is a true star. He’s a dazzling playmaker with a knack for making big plays in the biggest moments. His two-point conversion run against Florida State and his rushing touchdown against Old Dominion are great examples of that.

He’s taken another step in his passing this season. As Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder noted, Perkin is a true quarterback, not just a great athlete playing the position. Perkins has completed 65.3 percent of his passes so far this year.

Now the issue. Perkins gets hit … a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. The offensive line has been inconsistent, he gets hit on many of his runs and, sometimes, he just makes risky decisions. In the fourth quarter of the Old Dominion win, Perkins attempted to pick up an errant snap, instead of just falling on it. He thought he had time to pick the ball up and make a play. He didn’t. Instead, he took a big hit and had to come out of the game for a play. Virginia takes a major step back without him in the game, and Perkins needs to be extra cognizant of protecting himself.

To add to the problem, the Cavaliers’ backup quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, is on crutches and in a walking boot.

Can Perkins be enough to make Saturday afternoon genuinely competitive? With the Irish favored by 11.5, could he force a one-possession game?

With Perkins making plays and the defense playing up to its potential, I think Virginia can hang with Notre Dame. If Perkins struggles or gets hurt, or the defense misses tackles and gives up big plays, the Irish will cover easily. I think there’s still a big gap in terms of talent and depth between Virginia and Notre Dame, and in the end, I think that’s the difference Saturday. The ACC is 0-20 all-time against ranked Irish teams in South Bend, and I don’t expect that to change.

 

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.