Late score saves Notre Dame victory against Virginia Tech

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense could not move the ball against Virginia Tech, until it could. On a Saturday rife with 3-and-outs, three turnovers and an average of fewer than five yards per play, the No. 16 Irish needed a last-minute touchdown to top the Hokies, 21-20.

Senior quarterback Ian Book capped a prolific, up-and-down day by taking a designed quarterback run around the outside for seven yards and Notre Dame’s only lead of the second half with just 29 seconds remaining.

Up until then, the Irish (6-2) had gained 182 yards on 28 plays in the second half, a 4.7 yards per play average. The offense had not found momentum at any point, failing in the red zone three times, its running backs managing all of 58 yards on 23 carries. That 87-yard, 18-play drive was not entirely out of nowhere, but it did not fit with the offensive performance showcased throughout most of the day.

“They again found a way to win a football game, which is very difficult, especially the way they did it,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… Obviously, we didn’t execute offensively as well as we would have liked, but I saw the passion, the desire.”

That passion and desire barely made up for a day of inefficient play. The winning drive needed two third-down and two fourth-down conversions. Three of those were of seven yards or more. Senior receiver Chase Claypool caught two passes for 39 yards to spur the drive, finishing with 118 yards on eight receptions. Book’s score may have come with half a minute left on the clock, but the Irish were nearly out of last chances.

“We were able to move the ball a lot (earlier) and we had some mistakes in the red zone,” Book said. “So we knew we could go down there and do it and really put up points on this drive. It was really just to trust in each other, keep doing what we were doing.”

Those mistakes Book referenced kept the Hokies (5-3) in the game. Despite Notre Dame gaining 253 yards and 11 first downs in the first half, compared to 85 and five from Virginia Tech, the break featured a 14-14 tie. In the first seven games of the year, the Irish scored on 24-of-24 red-zone possessions with 21 touchdowns. Against the Hokies, Book threw an interception on Notre Dame’s first trip near the end zone and just before the half a Jafar Armstrong goal-line carry became a 14-point swing.

As the junior running back plowed into the line with seconds remaining before halftime, a Virginia Tech helmet met him. To be more exact, it met the ball, which then bounced loose and high enough for Hokies senior safety Divine Deablo to snag it without pausing. Only Book stood between Deablo and the opposite end zone. A full 98 yards later and what could have been a 21-7 Irish lead at halftime was instead a 14-14 tie.

“Going in right before the half to seemingly take, I don’t want to say control of the game, but have it well in hand in the sense that it’s going to be difficult for them to mount an offensive charge the way we’re playing defensively,” Kelly said. “Of course, they go 90-something yards on a fumble return.

“That’s difficult, but our guys responded. We got them back together at halftime, told them they got to continue to fight, continue to persevere.”

That perseverance kept Notre Dame just close enough to Virginia Tech to survive a litany of mistakes including the fumble return, another Book interception and a missed field goal rendering another red-zone drive scoreless, not to mention the most mindless kickoff return conceivable. That fight included Claypool making spectacular catches, and it needed every ounce of Book, the good outweighing the bad.

“Those are all character traits that we’re looking for that we needed to see on display,” Kelly said.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book had a tumultuous week. Coming off an atrocious 8-of-25 passing for 73 yards at Michigan last week, the doubt about his ability from the outside at least reached the Irish locker room door. That much was confirmed by his teammates and head coach not feigning ignorance of the public hand-wringing.

They did not worry in the same way. Even when Notre Dame had to score or end up with a second straight loss, they did not worry with Book in the huddle.

“He’s just the leader that he is,” Irish junior tight end Cole Kmet said. “No matter what happens in the game, good or bad, he comes back as a positive dude. He was going to lead us down the field and he did just that.”

Book finished with 341 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-53 passing, also throwing two interceptions, one the result of him risking a deep ball, far from the best part of his game if not also a needed aspect to any offense. A third interception, on another deep shot, was wiped off the board by a roughing the passer penalty not demanding to be called but one common to today’s game. He added 50 yards and the winning touchdown on 13 rushes.

In other words, Book had a hand in 391 of Notre Dame’s 447 total yards. On that final 87-yard drive he threw for 63 yards and ran for 21 more. He was, to put it simply, the Irish offense.

“Ian Book can have a lot of great things happen for him,” Kelly said. “He was back to throwing the football with much more authority, confidence. … When you’re dropping eight and there’s eight guys in coverage, (he) did a great job.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
The winning drive was far from efficient, but moments of it were pretty. In particular, both of Claypool’s catches. The first, above, needed review to confirm it as a catch, but that pause allowed for appreciation of every inch of Claypool’s 6-foot-4 ⅜ frame.

His second catch of the drive was even more pivotal, though far from as impressive. While Notre Dame needed a few on-point curl routes to move the chains to start the drive, Book managed to hit Claypool in stride on a deep slant for 26 yards to set up the winning dash.

That chunk gain came on a 4th-and-10, a time when the Irish may not have inherently been looking to get into first-and-goal territory.

“Chase was a dude on the drive,” Kmet said. “He was just demanding the ball and Ian was putting it where Chase could get it, and Chase was making those plays.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Without that fumble, Notre Dame may have cruised to victory. That seems implausible coming off a one-point game only victorious because of that last-minute drive, but consider an alternate reality where Armstrong is merely tackled and the Irish punch it into the end zone on the next play, taking a 21-7 lead into halftime.

In the real world, the Hokies never had reason to ease their foot off the gas, never ahead by more than one score, so there is no reason to not simply transfer their second-half stats into the alternate reality. They gained 155 yards on 30 plays. Twice, they reached the red zone, settling for field goals both times.

Even if Virginia Tech had been more aggressive and turned those field goals into touchdowns, it would have needed the Irish to not produce at all in the second half in order to have a chance. For that matter, up two touchdowns, Notre Dame would have ground the game down as much as it could and been more ready to accept a field goal rather than take a shot downfield (resulting in an interception) or backpedaling from the goal line (turning into a missed field goal).

“We started tight,” Kelly said. “The turnovers kind of contributed to that. Everybody now is kind of, I don’t want to make a mistake, instead of just be who you are, keep playing, be aggressive.”

That fumble, more than anything else, changed the tone of this contest. It, in fact, made it a contest.

STAT OF THE GAME
1,273. That is how many carries Irish running backs had between fumbles before Armstrong’s. That streak traced all the way back to Nov. 21, 2015, against Boston College at Fenway Park.

To put that length of time in a different context, the No. 1 song on the charts in those days was “Hello” by Adele. Either that song is not as old as it seems, or Notre Dame backs managed ball security for longer than realized.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 8-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia Tech 0. (2 plays, 26 yards, 0:26)
1:15 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Damon Hazelton 8-yard pass from Quincy Patterson. Brian Johnson PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia Tech 7. (8 plays, 45 yards, 2:25)

Second Quarter
11:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tommy Tremble 4-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 7. (11 plays, 77 yards, 4:25)
00:09 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Divine Deablo 98-yard fumble return. Johnson PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 14.

Third Quarter
11:00 — Virginia Tech field goal. Johnson 44 yards. Virginia Tech 17, Notre Dame 14. (7 plays, 49 yards, 4:00)

Fourth Quarter
13:25 — Virginia Tech field goal. Johnson 25 yards. Virginia Tech 20. Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 76 yards, 4:49)
00:29 – Notre Dame touchdown. Book 7-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Virginia Tech 20. (18 plays, 87 yards, 2:53)

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.