Notre Dame holds off USC, 30-27

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Once No. 9 Notre Dame went up by two scores in the second quarter against USC on Saturday, the Trojans never genuinely got within one possession. The final score may have read 30-27, but USC (3-3) never had the ball within a score of the Irish (5-1).

Every time the Trojans struck in the second half, a half in which they outscored Notre Dame 24-13, the Irish kept them at an arm’s length. When Notre Dame’s 20-3 lead became 20-13, junior kicker Jonathan Doerer converted from 43 yards. When a 23-13 advantage shrunk to only three points, senior quarterback Ian Book powered a nearly seven-minute drive for a touchdown. And when USC found the end zone with only 64 seconds left, Irish junior tight end Brock Wright went up top to recover the onside kick.

“We didn’t do enough in the first half to put ourselves in position (to win),” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “… There was enough times we had the opportunity to get a stop and we didn’t come up with it. We had an opportunity in the first half to finish drives and we didn’t do it.”

When USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis connected with sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter, it seemed the Trojans may have started to do enough. Notre Dame had very clearly tried to bend, but not break, against the USC passing attack. That score not only represented a tally on the scoreboard, but a crack in that approach.

“We were in the right coverage on [St. Brown’s] touchdown,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We needed to be in better leverage. That’s one where we needed to execute better in that situation.”

Yet, that was the only moment the defensive scheme outright broke. Only two Trojans plays gained more than 20 yards, that touchdown pass to St. Brown and a 25-yard rush from sophomore running back Markese Stepp in the fourth quarter. USC converted only 5-of-12 third downs. Star senior receiver Michael Pittman caught just four passes for 47 yards; Kelly made it clear afterward, stopping Pittman was the top priority for the Irish defense.

“In the first half we executed exactly the way I wanted to defensively,” Kelly said. “In the second half, we gave up the touchdown that we didn’t execute very well. The second drive, we got caught in some man situations where we’ve got to make a play in some man. Then the third drive, we were trying to take time off the clock. We were in a prevent situation to take clock and just get the onside kick and end the game.”

The Irish had done enough late in the second quarter and then in key moments late in the fourth quarter to allow the defense to shift into prevent mode — turning an urgent situation for the Trojans into a nine-play drive — and jump on the onside kick.

It took Book until halfway through the second quarter to target junior tight end Cole Kmet, but as soon as he did, it resulted in a touchdown. Doerer ended the half with a 45-yard field goal that may have been good from 55 yards, a thought he proved valid by easily drilling a 52-yarder in the second half’s opening moments. And whenever senior running back Tony Jones took a handoff, he fought forward for yards, fighting for every inch of 176 yards on 25 carries.

“We were excited as a staff to play the game, because it’s USC, but we were also — it was one of those things where what are we going to have to make adjustments to during the game,” Kelly said. “After the game in the locker room when you get a chance to debrief about it, you feel really good that what you put in was going to be effective. There were a couple of plays out there that we needed to make, but we put our kids in good position to succeed tonight, took USC’s best shot.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Book was supposed to throw. As he dropped back, five targets ran routes, but when pressure came from his right, Book stepped forward. Notre Dame needed 10 yards. A 3rd-and-10 from the 30-yard line might usually have an escape clause to preserve a field goal attempt, but in this case, that would have given the Trojans the ball back down only six points. A field goal would be giving USC a chance to win, so the Irish needed every one of those 10 yards.

“You don’t want to put the defense on the field to get another stop,” junior right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “Give us the ball. We know, we go dominate physically, do our jobs, run the plays called … we just knew if we kept going, we’d be fine.”

As Book moved up in the pocket, his attainable options were senior receiver Javon McKinley on a crossing route or Jones on a curling route. Neither was likely to gain that first down. So Book took off.

“I just saw the line open up pretty big with nobody there, and I knew exactly where I needed to go,” Book said. “Needed those 10 yards, biggest third down of the game. I was going to do whatever I can to get to that yard marker. I saw it open up. I might have been able to still probably go through my progression on that play, but it opened up. I knew I could get 10 yards.”

He got 17.

“[Offensive coordinator Chip Long] says if you see it open up, go take it. Let’s go get the first down and move on.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Two plays later, Book got the final eight yards of the drive, giving the Irish enough of a cushion to slip into that prevent defense and ride out the Trojans’ innate explosiveness. USC was very much threatening, but the final Notre Dame score of the night put the game out of reasonable reach.

Book’s eight-yard dash was somewhat set up by the third-down scramble just prior. That pressure off the edge had been a consistent theme for much of the night, something Long saw a chance to exploit.

“It was great play-calling,” Book said. “They were bringing pressure off the edge, so just wanted to go take it up the middle. …

“It worked out perfectly. I saw the end zone, and I knew I had to get it in there.”

HIGHLIGHT OF THE GAME
Another example of Long using the Trojans’ strengths against them, the second Irish touchdown resulted from simple misdirection. It was also one of the few moments when a risk taken by Notre Dame looked like it might backfire.

Minutes after Kmet’s score gave the Irish a 7-3 lead, sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy took a handoff for an end-around, but USC defensive end Christian Rector awaited him before he could get to the edge. Instead of losing a few yards, though, Lenzy shook right by Rector and raced 51 yards untouched to the end zone.

“We’re trying to find roles for Braden and breaking him into our lineup,” Kelly said. “As you can see, he’s got great speed.”

After Notre Dame’s loss at Georgia, Kelly said one of the hopes had been to use Lenzy around the end to manufacture a running game against the Bulldogs’ aggressive defense, but Lenzy suffered a concussion in practice that week and did not travel to Athens. Saturday finally showed exactly what Kelly had in mind.

Irish senior running back Tony Jones continued his breakout season with 175 yards on 25 carries in Notre Dame’s 30-27 victory against USC. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish rushed for 309 yards on 47 carries, averaging 6.57 yards per attempt (sack adjusted). Even if removing Lenzy’s 51-yard sprint, Notre Dame averaged 5.61 yards per rush. The Irish ran 10 times in the second quarter for 157 yards; that does include Lenzy’s dash.

“We always talk about doing our jobs to the best of our ability with our technique and fundamentals,” Hainsey said. “The first quarter, they were coming out there, firing all kinds of blitzes at us while we were getting our feet under us. The biggest thing for us is persistence and we keep doing our jobs no matter what.

“That shows after a while. You start wearing them out a little bit. You keep hitting them and hitting them and running the ball and running the ball, eventually you’re going to start breaking big runs, like we did. It’s just a persistence and physicality up front with the running backs, the tight ends and us.”

Notre Dame scored on each of its second-quarter possessions. The first covered 97 yards, with 58 of them coming on the ground. The second drive started at the 20-yard line, with rushes gaining 65 of the 80 yards. On the third, courtesy of penalties, the rushing output actually outpaced the drive as a whole, running for 33 yards on a 29-yard possession.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
When you win by three points, the logical inclination is to credit the kicker. That is certainly more so the case when he goes 3-for-3, all from at least 43 yards. Doerer never made anyone worry about any of his attempts.

“He went out there and just knew he needed to put up points for us,” Book said. “When we weren’t able to score a touchdown, we relied on him to do that. He’s another guy that I see working hard every single day. He’s come a long way. I talked to him after the game, I just said, really proud of you man, good job. You helped us win this game. I’ve seen a lot of growth in him.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“These types of games are the ones we get remembered for.” — Tony Jones

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
2:13 — USC field goal. Chase McGrath 40 yards. USC 3, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 28 yards, 2:56)

Second Quarter
8:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 10-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 3. (9 plays, 97 yards, 2:32)
4:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 51-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 3. (4 plays, 80 yards, 1:32)
0:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 45 yards. Notre Dame 17, USC 3. (9 plays, 29 yards, 2:49)

Third Quarter
12:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 52 yards. Notre Dame 20, USC 3. (9 plays, 30 yards, 2:26)
8:53 — USC field goal. McGrath 27 yards. Notre Dame 20, USC 6. (11 plays, 66 yards, 3:41)
2:34 — USC touchdown. Amon-Ra St. Brown 38-yard pass from Kedon Slovis. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 20, USC 13. (5 plays, 62 yards, 1:54)

Fourth Quarter
13:47 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 43 yards. Notre Dame 23, USC 13. (10 plays, 50 yards, 3:47)
10:27 — USC touchdown. Tyler Vaughns 5-yard pass from Slovis. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 23, USC 20. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:20)
3:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 8-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 30, USC 20. (14 plays, 75 yards, 6:54)
1:04 — USC touchdown. Markese Stepp 2-yard run. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 30, USC 27. (9 plays, 77 yards, 2:29)

 

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.