And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers and a backup QB await Notre Dame

Joey Yellen Pittsburgh
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Not only is No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) unsure what Pittsburgh quarterback it will face, the Irish have to wonder which version of the Panthers (3-3, 2-3) will even show up Saturday. Pittsburgh has already oscillated from intriguing ACC dark-horse to growing turmoil around a sixth-year head coach.

What can Notre Dame expect on its first road trip, aside from an increased focus on pandemic protocols? John McGonigal of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers some answers. On a very sincere note, this story could have been written without bothering John much, his coverage this week has been that thorough. If a story is linked below, it is because it is worth a quick read for Irish fans before Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

DF: This has been an up-then-down season for the Panthers. To underscore that, let’s try a chronological approach. Pittsburgh started out 3-0, garnering talk of an ACC title game run. At the least, the Panthers might pull off a notable upset or two, particularly with Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson all on the schedule. The strength of that rise was the defensive line, correct? It had 17 sacks through three games and it’s up to a nation’s best 29 through six. Is that front simply overrun with raw talent? Last I knew, defensive tackles Keyshon Camp and David Green were injured. Their statuses?

JM: Pitt’s pass-rush keyed the defense those first few weeks, as everyone expected it to before the season. Patrick Jones II skipped a potential Day 2 selection in the 2020 NFL draft to come back. Rashad Weaver, Pitt’s 2018 sacks and tackles for loss leader, returned from an ACL tear. And the depth behind them — Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan, you name it — showed up. The Panthers had seven sacks in each of their first two ACC games against Syracuse and Louisville, and they’ve still gotten after the quarterback the last couple games. But the loss of Camp, who’s “day-to-day” entering this weekend, has been significant. Like Camp, Green didn’t travel to Miami, and neither did defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, who contributed four sacks last season and hasn’t played since Week 1. Those potential absences would hurt.

That defensive line sets up a delightful strength vs. strength matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line. I don’t know that I have a question here, so much as pointing out they are each arguably the best in the country. How much are you looking forward to that measuring tape?

As a former high school lineman myself (though an untalented one), I’m excited to see the chess match that happens up front. One thing I’m curious to watch unfold is how many opportunities Pitt has to pin its ears back on third down. The way the Irish run the ball could keep them out of third-and-long, which is when Pitt’s front four, like any good pass-rush, tees off. The Panthers don’t need it to be third-and-long to get home, but Jones’ speed rush is so dangerous in those situations that staying out of them should be a real point of emphasis for Notre Dame on Saturday.

If the Irish offensive line holds up and gives fifth-year quarterback Ian Book time, he’ll be throwing against a secondary led by third-team All-American safety Paris Ford. Book and Notre Dame have struggled to push the ball downfield. How susceptible is this secondary to the vertical game?

I’d say this defense has been susceptible to defensive lapses downfield. Aside from penalties, that’s been the Achilles’ heel of this group during Pitt’s losing streak. The Panthers’ linebackers haven’t covered tight ends well, with Pitt allowing 204 yards and four touchdowns to that position group over the last three weeks. And at times, the corners have been bodied by bigger receivers, especially 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Marquis Williams. However, I wasn’t impressed with the separation Notre Dame’s receivers got last weekend against Louisville, which doesn’t bode well for the Irish against Pitt’s press quarters coverage. 

Then Pittsburgh loses three games, including in overtime at Boston College. The defense was not inherently exposed — 30.7 points per game may not be great, but it is more and more the tune of college football, one amplified in 2020 — but its offense did not do any favors. The Panthers averaged 21.2 points per game last year, and this season’s improvement to 24.4 against FBS competition has not been nearly enough. What lies at the core of Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles?

Three main things have held Pitt’s offense back this year (and really last year, too): A non-existent run game, a poor red-zone offense and dropped passes. The Panthers don’t have Tony Dorsett, LeSean McCoy or James Conner carrying the ball — and in some games, it wouldn’t matter if they were. Pitt’s offensive line has done a fine job protecting the quarterback but a lousy job getting any kind of push up front. That’s led to Pitt relying on the passing game, which isn’t perfect, either. Like they did last season, Pittsburgh’s receivers lead the country in drops. Add all that up and you’ve got an offense that can’t run the ball when it needs to, can’t trust its receivers 100 percent of the time and struggles to finish off drives. 

Does Pat Narduzzi have an aversion to scoring? Okay, that’s not fair, but it is a nod to increasing public criticisms of some of his clock and game management. In broad strokes, how would you describe Narduzzi’s decision making and the stress that may or may not be growing around the program? From here, Narduzzi responding to a question with “I don’t make calls on offense” made it clear those troubles are palpable, and it wasn’t exactly an endorsement of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.

I didn’t necessarily view the “I don’t make calls on offense” comment as a slight given the context. Narduzzi was asked about why running back Todd Sibley didn’t get more carries against Miami, and that was his response, just noting that it’s not his decision on which running backs are in and which aren’t. But of course, it is the job of his running backs coach and offensive coordinator, both of whom he hired.

As for the game management, there have been several instances over the years that have caused Pitt fans to yell at their TVs, the worst being his decision to kick a 19-yard field goal down by seven points in the fourth quarter of last year’s Penn State game. He made a similar decision at Miami last week, kicking on fourth-and-3 from Miami’s 12, down 12 points with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Narduzzi always says Pitt can’t settle for field goals … but sometimes they’re settling because he’s choosing to.

Now we get to the micro, the imminently pertinent is the quarterback situation. What are the chances senior Kenny Pickett (left ankle) plays?

Not quite 0 percent, but close to it. I don’t see how he plays after not being able to travel last weekend to Miami, with Narduzzi fearing that the swelling might get too bad after a pair of two-hour flights.

Without him, the Panthers will lean on Arizona State transfer sophomore Joey Yellen. Narduzzi espoused happiness “with the way he performed overall,” and going 22-of-46 for 277 yards is nothing to dismiss, particularly with six completions 19 yards or longer by your count. What one-week growth can Pittsburgh somehow realistically expect from Yellen to compete against a Clark Lea defense?

I’m not even sure the Panthers would need much of an improvement from him specifically. It’s more about the pieces around him. Yellen took a bad sack here and there, but Pittsburgh’s receivers had four drops at Miami, and the running game did him no favors. I don’t expect the latter to miraculously spark against this Notre Dame defense, so it’ll be up to Pitt’s blockers to protect Yellen and for him to connect on a few deep balls. Maybe the Panthers can do that early and force Notre Dame’s offense out of its comfort zone. 

Can we realistically expect Yellen & Co. to keep things closer than 10.5 points against the Irish? Is this the weekend  Narduzzi reverses the narrative?

For those interested in the spread this weekend, I do think Pittsburgh covers. I’ve even considered its chances of pulling off the upset. I’m not quite there yet, but Pitt is a talented team that needs this one desperately, and Narduzzi’s Panthers have shown in the past — at Clemson in 2016 and vs. Miami in 2017 — the ability to win games they have no business winning. Perhaps they’ll do it again Saturday.

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.