Numbers to know before No. 9 Notre Dame kicks off at Florida State

Jack Coan 2021
Notre Dame Athletics
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You know No. 9 Notre Dame and Florida State kick off at 7:30 ET on ABC tonight. You know the Irish are favored by 7 points with a combined point total over/under of 53.5, as of midday Sunday, the latter number down from 55.5 in the morning’s earliest hours, per PointsBet. And you can do the math that suggests, based off those numbers, Notre Dame will win 30-24 tonight.

But did you know …

19: This will be Irish quarterback Jack Coan’s 19th career start, having led Wisconsin to the 2019 Big Ten championship game and then the Rose Bowl, but obviously his first in a gold helmet. Coan completed 69.6 percent of his passes in his one full season as a starter with the Badgers, and while Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees insists he intends to open up the offense more this year, that mark would top Ian Book’s 2018 Irish completion percentage record of 68.2.

“We’re starting a guy that’s played this game,” head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “We want him to be poised, but we want him to be decisive. He’s been in this, he’s seen it and knows what it looks like.

“To be decisive, you have to be confident in your ability and we know Jack is, so go out there and be decisive. … One of the things we’re looking for in this quarterback position is being aggressive. Push the ball. If you got opportunities to push the ball down the field, let’s go.”

32: The Irish have won 32 consecutive games against unranked opponents. Polls may be largely meaningless, and the cutoff of 25 teams being ranked is a very arbitrary delineation line, but the streak makes a point, nonetheless: In the last four years, Notre Dame has beaten the teams it should unquestionably beat.

43: For that matter, the Irish have won 43 games in the last four seasons, while the Seminoles have won 21.

50: Notre Dame lost exactly 50 percent of its sacks from 2020, the half-sack credited to now-injured linebacker Marist Liufau bumping that total to 15.5 of last year’s 31. Admittedly, that percentage is a forced number to get this bit in here, but its real intention is to create an excuse to mention sophomore end Jordan Botelho, junior end NaNa Osafo-Mensah and senior end Justin Ademilola.

Coming into the preseason, the expectation was Botelho would back up junior Isaiah Foskey as the “Vyper” end, a key to new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme, and Ademilola would back up fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa as the “big” end, but Osafo-Mensah’s emergence changed that thought process. Botelho is now nominally the third-string Vyper, with Ademilola switching sides though certainly capable of playing both positions.

That rotation could quickly make up for the lost 50 percent of sacks. More notable than that, though, Osafo-Mensah’s sudden progress — after losing 2020 to injury — is another testament to the player development that Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston has become known for.

This may move Botelho into a more situational Vyper role, but one that could have a distinct impact, considering those situations will most likely be the high-leverage moments of third-and-longs. His athleticism will allow Freeman to further disguise defensive pressure, a hallmark of his four years at Cincinnati.

102.5: The market has set the over/under for Kyren Williams rushing yards at 102.5. That fittingly matches his general Heisman Trophy odds, somewhere between 100-to-1 and 120-to-1, depending where you work and when you play.

The instinct might be to assume Williams will fly past that 102.5 mark, especially given the time this space has taken to point out the weakness that is Florida State’s defensive line and the strength that is Notre Dame’s offensive line, but that number is deflated for three reasons …

— Williams will line up as a receiver, with sophomore running back Chris Tyree in the backfield, a certain amount of time. How often is to be determined and one of the most intriguing aspects of the night, but Rees has been working on this alignment since the spring, one that allows him to get his best playmakers on the field together.

“We’re going to have so many backs that we’re able to do so many things,” Williams said. “You’re going to see me out in the slot so that we can get an inside zone with Chris running the ball, and I’m running the bubble. There’s going to be so many different ways that we’re going to be able to get onto the field this year as backs.”

— If the Irish get out to an early lead — it will certainly be in part due to Williams — he will be the first player deserving a lightened workload, considering the long season of hundreds of carries undoubtedly ahead of him, health permitting.

— For that matter, Notre Dame trusts senior C’Bo Flemmister to chew up the clock with a 17- to 21-point lead. For most top-tier programs, their bellcow would still be the one doing that work in the fourth quarter, but not for the Irish.

A PERTINENT UPDATE 90 MINUTES BEFORE KICKOFF

108: Senior receiver Kevin Austin has a career total of 108 receiving yards on six catches. He may well match that tonight. Given the hype around Austin for four years now, that may be the expectation, and Notre Dame has not tempered that this week.

“I’m so excited, because nobody really knows what Kevin can do,” Williams said. “The only people that know what Kevin can do are the people that see practice and what we do at practice. That’s really just our team. We all know what Kevin has in store. We’ve all been bragging about it. I know I’ve been bragging about it since I got here. Ever since I saw Kevin play football, I was like, ‘He really has it.’ I’m just excited. I’m ready for Kevin to show his raw, natural ability to the whole world.”

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This space has already issued its 40 preseason predictions, so let’s not mess with that arbitrary round number, but instead quietly point out extrapolating Javon McKinley’s 2020 season across 13 games would equal 50 catches for 847 yards and four touchdowns.

377: Bobby Bowden won 377 career games at Florida State across 34 years. The obvious mental math there is that he averaged an absurd 10-plus wins per season (11.1, actually) for three decades. Bowden passed away this summer, and Doak Campbell Stadium will honor him before kickoff.

“I never had the privilege of meeting coach Bowden, but I can tell you that his influence on coaching was real,” Kelly said. “I think every coach would tell you that. The thing that stood out to me, first and foremost, was the longevity at one school. Being committed to that school and building a winning program, a program that won every single year, that’s so impressive to do it year in and year out.

“The second thing is for me, he started at a small school and moved Florida State into national prominence. Then his relationships with his players. I think he goes down as one of those icons in coaching as having that fatherly mentor relationship with his players that many, many coaches would love to have with their players.”

2006: The only other time a freshman has started the opener on Notre Dame’s offensive line, as left tackle Blake Fisher is expected to tonight. That was Sam Young at right tackle.

∞: The number of times you will hear the Chop tonight. On this one occasion, welcome its annoyance. It means fans are back in the stands.

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.