Highlights: No. 8 Notre Dame 32, Toledo 29 — Featuring Jack Coan & Tyler Buchner

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0) had an inordinate number of highlights for a game in which it escaped with a win only in the closing minutes. The Irish broke a 43-yard run for a touchdown, as well as a 55-yard catch-and-scamper for a score. Their offense showed some other moments of sustained explosiveness, namely the opening and closing drives led by quarterback Jack Coan and finishing with touchdown passes to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer.

So how did Notre Dame end up in yet another tense game with more points scored than expected? Toledo had an interception return for a touchdown, courtesy of Coan just before halftime, along with a 26-yard designed quarterback run reaching the end zone with only 95 seconds remaining.

The Irish defense remains an experiment in break-or-be-broken, a drastic change from the sure-tackling, suffocating units the last three years coordinated by Clark Lea.

“We know why it’s happening,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re transitioning defenses.

“Again, I will tell you that we have new players on the field, younger players, inexperienced players that are going through some growing pains. In the long run, we still have to get the ball on the ground. We have a chance to do things, and we’re making them worse by not doing the fundamental things, turning plays that are 10, 12, 15 yards — you might have those occasionally — we’re letting them turn into 60-yard runs.”

Assuredly, even Coan would rather not have led a two-minute drill to win Saturday, an opportunity provided only by the defense’s lapses.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Kelly gave the game ball to junior linebacker JD Bertrand, finishing with a game-high 11 tackles, including three for loss with one sack. He recovered the game-sealing fumble, forced by fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

While Buchner and Coan split the moments of note and the running back duo of sophomore Chris Tyree and junior Kyren Williams totaled 178 yards from scrimmage, perhaps the player of the game should be Tagovailoa-Amosa, and not only for the strip-sack, though that is certainly a part of it.

“I don’t even know who made the strip at it, but that’s credit to — Myron? — credit to Myron,” Bertrand said. “I was just making sure I got to the ball. At the end of the day, guys were covered, it was a scramble, Myron’s there to strip it, so obviously it’s a team sport.”

No one would have faulted Tagovailoa-Amosa if he had headed back to Hawaii for the weekend. After his sudden and unexpected death in August, Tagovailoa-Amosa’s father’s funeral was Saturday afternoon — Saturday evening in the Eastern time zone.

Instead, Tagovailoa-Amosa led his team, finishing with two sacks, one in the first quarter and one to end the game, with a quarterback hurry in between.

On an afternoon decided by the slimmest of margins, missing Tagovailoa-Amosa coming off the edge may have provided Toledo with that slight momentary advantage needed to extend one more drive into the end zone. No one would have faulted Tagovailoa-Amosa if that were the case. But he did not let it even come up in conversation — some Notre Dame staffers only learned of the timing of Tuli’s funeral when Tagovailoa-Amosa was logging onto a video call to remotely attend the funeral barely an hour after the Irish victory.

Showing up for your team on such a day is more than a captain’s duty. It is more than “for the brotherhood.” It is more than anyone could ever ask of Tagovailoa-Amosa.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Coan’s game-winning 18-yard touchdown pass to Mayer will be remembered, perhaps as much for trainer Mike Bean’s quick resetting of Coan’s right middle finger as for the actual route, a play call that Notre Dame had set up throughout the drive.

“We ran that play a couple times on that series,” said Mayer after finishing with seven catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns. “We knew he was playing a little bit outside, and he kept biting and he kept biting, and we ran it and I was open.

“We ran it again, the first time, he didn’t give me the ball. [Coan] was looking the other side of the field (to senior receiver Kevin Austin). The second time, we knew he was going to do the same exact thing, so kind of gave him a nod to the outside, he was playing outside leverage, and up the middle was wide open.”

Mayer missed Coan’s finger drama, but the moment was not lost on the Irish offense.

“It was kind of crazy,” Tyree said. “… That just shows his grit, his intensity, his mentality. I think he knew to show that grit was really important for our offense. It was a great performance from him.”

Kelly said it was Coan’s experience that made him the choice to quarterback the final drive, but his better deep ball inevitably played a role, too, considering how many times Notre Dame ran four verticals to repeatedly get Mayer open. Coan’s grittiness was simply an unexpected and visceral bonus.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
After cruising down the field on the opening possession, the next three Irish drives totaled 27 yards on 14 plays. Notre Dame still led, but that was a testament to its defense.

Then, with the ball on its own 4-yard-line, the Irish called on Buchner. His very first snap resulted in him running 26 yards.

“It’s pretty obvious to see when he comes into the game, but I think it’s important to know that we were actually implementing that into the game plan,” Tyree said. “We had practiced a few of those packages throughout the week, so we knew it was coming.”

Notre Dame intended to play Buchner on Saturday, but it did not know it would so badly need a spark when it deployed him or to need to force the defense to account for another wrinkle.

In the end, Buchner appeared in five Irish drives, not taking every snap, just appearing in. They resulted in:
— 5 plays, 96 yards, 43-yard Williams touchdown run.
— 6 plays, 5 yards.
— 13 plays, 55 yards, Jonathan Doerer 48-yard field goal.
— 1 play, 55 yards, 55-yard Tyree touchdown catch.
— 9 plays, 48 yards, Williams fumble.

In total, that was 34 plays for 249 yards, a 7.3 yards per play average, and 17 points. Ignoring end of half moments, Notre Dame had eight other drives that totaled 35 plays for 174 yards, a 5.0 yards per play average, and 15 points.

STATISTIC OF THE GAME
Aside from that clear display of Buchner’s catalyst effect … attendance was only 62,009 at Notre Dame Stadium, 16,000 fans short of a sellout.

Yet, that crowd still forced multiple presnap penalties on Toledo in the game’s closing moments.

“Awesome experience,” Mayer said. “I was really pumped for it. Everyone showed out. They were loud on third down. I’m excited to play in front of those fans for the next two or three years.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Bertrand was asked about the Irish continuing to give up big plays, specifically big rushing plays. He did not realize he used a buzzword to start his answer.

“It’s execution.

“We have to make sure everyone is doing their job. We’ll look at it, get it cleaned up, from there we’ll learn.”

It’s execution.

SCRAPPED LEDE OF THE NIGHT
Maybe it was a joke only this writer could appreciate, but a pregame draft of the game wrap — a draft expecting Notre Dame to win easily, if not handily in its first game back with fans at home — led with …

“Notre Dame football was filmed before a live audience.”

Instead, the drama of the day, the quarterback duo and the hanging digit took precedent over one final “Cheers” reference to conclude Peacock week.

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.