Down a handful of players, Notre Dame bull rushes South Florida

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There was no rain delay, only sunshine and clear skies. No goal-line carry resulted in a dramatic end-to-end fumble return, only Notre Dame rushing touchdown after Notre Dame rushing touchdown. Surprise absences did not yield defensive lapses, only another vintage performance from Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit.

Calling No. 7 Notre Dame’s 52-0 win against South Florida a game leans too heavily on euphemism. More accurately, the mauling featured the Irish as the bulls and South Florida as the flailing matador failing miserably to execute a Veronica maneuver, instead getting run over again and again and again.

Notre Dame fifth-year quarterback Ian Book alternated rushing touchdowns with his running backs throughout the first half, giving the Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) a comfortable 35-0 lead. Down three starters and a few reserves, Lea’s defense matched the offense’s impressive start by holding the Bulls to 65 first-half yards, 42 of which came on one rush courtesy of a mishandled assignment by sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford.

Book finished with four rushes for all of nine yards, though that included three touchdowns, while adding 143 yards on 12-of-19 passing, connecting with junior receiver Braden Lenzy three times for 34 yards after the speedster missed the season opener with a balky hamstring and junior tight end Tommy Tremble three times for 60 yards, the second game in a row Tremble has led the Irish in receptions. Discounting Book’s oft-vultured touchdowns and one Lenzy end-around, Notre Dame’s running backs gained 261 yards on 39 carries, a 6.87 yards per rush average.

“Those one-yard rushes don’t count,” Book admirably acknowledged. “You have to give those touchdowns to the running backs who brought us all the way down there and to the o-line. I’m following all those guys up front, and they’re paving the way for me. I don’t want to take the credit for those.”

ABSENCES OF THE GAME
About 90 minutes before kickoff, Notre Dame announced eight players from its released depth chart would be “unavailable” against South Florida. Among them, only sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was somewhat expected, having suffered an ankle sprain in the season opener.

The other seven — sophomore cornerback Tariq Bracy, junior Buck linebacker Shayne Simon, sophomore Buck linebacker Marist Liufau, junior defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark, junior running back Jahmir Smith and junior receiver Lawrence Keys — were unexpected absences and thus now presumed out for next week’s trip to Wake Forest, as well.

Per sophomore linebacker and spot starter Jack Kiser, some of those absences become official Saturday morning, at which point he went from scout team to first-team.

“You always have to be ready,” he said after leading the Irish with eight tackles, including two for loss. “On scout team, your goal is always to make it up and get to the next level, so when found out, it was just a mentality, let’s go.”

Let’s go. This is college football in 2020. This is why college football in 2020 is risky in every sense and deeming this season already a success is a take so far out over its skis that Eddie the Eagle could critique the form.

But thanks to players like Kiser, junior safety Houston Griffith and freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis — all impromptu starters — that listing of absent players is far from cataclysmic, as evidenced by the final score. To pull from pregame press box conversations among suitably-distanced media members, a scenario in which Kiser led the way at Buck linebacker was a feasible one just a few weeks ago, and the Irish coaching staff has been hoping to find moments to get junior Bo Bauer on the field more often. This was not as if Notre Dame had lost both its long snappers due to contact tracing, a thought experiment that would have made this rout much more entertaining, as displayed by South Florida’s misguided snaps on punts, one granting the Irish excellent field position and another gifting freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho his first career touchdown.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
When Pro Football Focus rated Notre Dame’s offensive line the best in the country last weekend, it could reasonably be diminished by pointing out how few games there were, a weekend with only four between Power Five teams. All the same, the line played better against Duke than it seemed on the surface, especially once it got past the first quarter.

“I thought [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] did a great job of being patient and sticking with the running game after not having the success early on,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We had great success in the second half.”

That success very much carried over, and given every back available found success, the credit should land with the offensive line, as well as Rees. Freshman Chris Tyree took eight carries for 65 yards and his first career score. Sophomore Kyren Williams ran 10 times for 62 yards, twice getting within the 5-yard-line only for Book to get the subsequent scoring chance. Sophomore C’Bo Flemister ran wild in the second half, finishing with 13 rushes for 127  yards and the above score. At the end of the festivities, senior Jafar Armstrong got in on the fun, finding the end zone on a 5-yard, fourth-down attempt.

The common denominator? The offensive line.

“They were really good today, and they continued where they left off in the third and fourth quarter last week, picking up movement” Kelly said after the first truly non-conference game in Notre Dame history. “We are starting to get our aiming points down pretty good on the outside zone and our inside punch play, and then once teams start over-committing to that, then you can see how clean the counters look.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When the Irish quickly moved 54 yards in less than three minutes to take the lead it would only build on, they removed the need for any real turning points.

“Really proud of our football team and the way they responded this week in terms of getting off to a quick start,” Kelly said. “That was our point of emphasis, and doing so really put South Florida on their heels.”

Yet, the Bulls were trailing only 14-0 when running back Johnny Ford slipped past Crawford for a 42-yard gain. South Florida didn’t do itself any favors with a holding penalty a play later, but a 3rd-and-9 from Notre Dame’s 37-yard line was still its best chance to threaten and perhaps keep the destruction to a more manageable level.

Instead, Kiser made his second tackle and first real impression, tracking down quarterback Jordan McCloud on a four-yard rush.

Bulls head coach Jeff Scott and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. opted to fake a punt, correctly recognizing they were on the verge of suffering a fatal goring, to revert to the earlier metaphor. The problem was, they forgot to block Irish sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey, something that somehow occurs more often than fathomable. When he notched his first career sack a week ago, Duke left him unblocked, something Lea and defensive line coach Mike Elston prepared him for and Foskey has remembered.

“They told me not to hesitate, just go straight for the beeline right to the quarterback,” Foskey said. “… I don’t expect anyone to try that again.”

South Florida did try it, and it cost the Bulls nine yards, possession and their only trip into Notre Dame territory of the first half.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish found early success not only in the game, but in drives, too. On third downs, they needed to gain an average of 3.9 yards. Compare that to a week ago, when third downs averaged 6.9 yards to go. That very much traces to the offensive line success, the bulls, if you will, making a mockery of South Florida’s attempts to avoid the inevitable.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 4-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, South Florida 0. (7 plays, 54 yards, 2:50)
7:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, South Florida 0. (7 plays, 43 yards, 3:24)

Second Quarter
14:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, South Florida 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 5:07)
11:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 26-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, South Florida 0. (5 plays, 53 yards, 1:57)
1:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, South Florida 0. (4 plays, 25 yards, 0:54)

Third Quarter
6:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 22 yards. Notre Dame 38, South Florida 0. (10 plays, 60 yards, 3:21)
3:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jordan Botelho 0-yard blocked punt recovery. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, South Florida 0.

Fourth Quarter
2:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 5-yard run. Dawson Goepferich PAT good. Notre Dame 52, South Florida 0. (10 plays, 66 yards, 7:00)

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.