And In That Corner … No. 16 BYU offers physical test for Notre Dame in Las Vegas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wyoming at BYU
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For perhaps the first time, Notre Dame’s season-long hopes are lower than its opponents in a Shamrock Series matchup. No. 16 BYU (4-1) can still reach just about every goal in front of it at the start of the season, though perhaps getting into the Playoff may be a bit much. At the very least, the Cougars can finish their final season as an independent in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But they’d most likely have to upset the Irish (2-2). To get an idea of BYU’s mindset heading into Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC), let’s chat with Jared Lloyd of The Daily Herald in central Utah.

DF: BYU remains intriguing from a national perspective, despite perhaps playing with its food a bit against Wyoming and Utah State. Neither game was genuinely in doubt in the second half, so a possible lack of focus certainly did not cost the Cougars. Have you caught a sense of such? Or were those games simply that much more competitive than expected?

JL: ​Both Utah State and Wyoming came in well-prepared and with really nothing to lose, pushing BYU harder than Cougar fans expected. BYU wasn’t exactly quick to make adjustments, but when it did it was able to pull away in the second half of both games. The reality is that this Cougar team hasn’t played at the level I expected to see for the last three weeks, blundering into a number of unforced and undisciplined errors. The BYU coaching staff is working to eliminate those but I think it is too much to expect them to be all gone for this week’s matchup.

My hope for this game in the preseason was that Notre Dame and BYU would enter with no more than two combined losses. The Irish fell short; the Cougars delivered on that front. But let’s focus on that loss, a 41-20 fall at Oregon. The Ducks got out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and a 38-7 cushion by the end of the third quarter. It was a shellacking. Oregon has a strong rushing attack, averaging 6.3 yards per carry outside of that game, but still gaining 212 yards on 44 carries may be a template for Notre Dame to follow. And this was not specific to the Ducks; Utah State gained 204 yards on 49 carries, a 4.16 yards per rush average, distinctly better than its average of 3.56 in its other four games.

Walk me through this dynamic, as I was very much expecting BYU to have a strong defensive front this season, a team excelling in the trenches during its recent years of success. Has that fallen short? Are offenses selling out for the run?

Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State all made adjustments to attack the Cougar run defense instead of relying on things they had done in previous games, with various levels of success. I have noticed that BYU seems to struggle to get off blocks early in games, then starts over-pursuing and missing assignments. That has opened up gaps and the last three opponents have taken advantage of those. I fully expect Notre Dame to follow the same formula, so it will be on the Cougar defensive players and coaches to prove they have come up with solutions. BYU’s secondary has generally played fairly well, so it appears that the main effort needs to be on getting the job done up front.

The Cougars’ offensive line is certainly delivering, ballasting a balanced offense to the tune of 34.4 points per game. The Irish defensive line was gaining momentum in the five quarters before the idle week. Where is BYU weakest up front, if anywhere?

​BYU has enjoyed significant success in past years with an outside zone run scheme, but that hasn’t been the case for much of 2022. Opposing defensive linemen and linebackers have been able to successfully read the plays and slant through, beating the Cougar linemen to the point of attack and hitting BYU running backs behind the line of scrimmage. While the Cougar linemen are big and agile for their size, they simply aren’t quicker than many of the defenders when they are trying to push to the outside. The scheme does set up a lot of other plays that BYU has used, so I don’t expect to see the Cougars abandon it completely. I believe the Notre Dame defenders will be as prepared as other teams have been to stop the basic run and that will be an advantage for the Irish.

Let’s zoom far out from the details of the lines and instead project forward on the Cougars season. They are not eligible for the designated Group of Five slot in the New Year’s Six bowls, but BYU could find itself in the mix for the top 12 and thus still make such an appearance. These next two weeks, vs. Notre Dame and hosting Arkansas, will obviously determine such. Is there any acknowledgment of these bigger-picture possibilities around Provo?

There is no doubt that BYU fans across the country and both local and national reporters acknowledge that a big-time bowl could still be on the table, but I think it is minimized inside the Cougar program. Sure, BYU players and coaches are aware that could be a big prize, but they also know how quickly such dreams will be shattered if they lose. Given the fact that the Cougars have played far below the level they believe they are capable of playing at, I’m certain BYU is focused right now on elevating its own performance far more than thinking about bowl opportunities.

For that matter, how much excitement is there at BYU for finally working its way into the Big 12? This had been a long-wanted goal, at least it seemed so from afar.

It’s an interesting mix of excitement and vindication for many in the Cougar community. On the one hand, many BYU supporters feel that politics — not football tradition or ability — resulted in the Cougars being overlooked in the round of expansion in 2010 that saw Utah and TCU move to Power 5 conferences and BYU go independent. While there are similarities to Notre Dame in the fact that the Cougars are a religious-based institution with a national following, BYU certainly doesn’t have the same cachet as the Irish. Thus, the Cougars certainly needed both the opportunities and resources that joining the Big 12 conference will make possible to continue to be considered an elite college football program (as well as elevate other BYU sports). There is certainly plenty of energy surrounding the scheduled move next year.

I’ve hit some of the game-specific items, some of the 30,000-foot pieces. What have I missed? Including, but not limited to, a current update on the health of a couple Cougars receivers?

​BYU has been banged up but the latest update from the coaching staff is that no one is completely ruled out for Saturday’s game. The Cougars did get to see one of its top returning receivers on the field in the last game, although Gunner Romney certainly wasn’t at 100 percent. Puka Nacua, who has earned the distinction of being the BYU receiver with the most game-breaking potential, appears to also have a good chance of playing. 

Another aspect of the game that I would keep a close eye on is special teams. Although BYU has traditionally done well in that area, missed field goals and poor kick/punt coverage at times have really hurt the Cougars. More BYU miscues in that area could give Notre Dame a momentum boost in Saturday’s contest.

With Notre Dame favored by 3.5 as of Tuesday afternoon, what do you expect to see Saturday evening at Allegiant Stadium? And what part of Las Vegas are you most looking forward to?

​I think I’m one of many who are still trying to figure out exactly what the 2022 Irish are. Notre Dame looked pretty good in the loss at Ohio State and the win over North Carolina, but not that good in the loss to Marshall and the win over Cal. This is also the first long-distance trip for the Irish (almost three times as far as the trip to North Carolina), and that can be a challenge each team has to figure out. That said, this is a Notre Dame team that is coming off a good showing and an idle week, so I expect it to have figured some things out. It’s going to have some success on the ground and give BYU problems with its defense, but the Cougars won’t back down. I expect a close, exciting game that will be decided in the fourth quarter.

What I’m most looking forward to in Las Vegas is seeing the representation of both BYU and Notre Dame fans. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the city, so I’m familiar with the lights and the atmosphere. I’m much more intrigued by the meeting of these two well-known schools and seeing the turnout. My experiences with most of the fans from both institutions have been overwhelmingly positive, so I anticipate a cordial yet competitive environment for the Shamrock Series battle.

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.