Michael Mayer, Notre Dame hold on in Las Vegas amid second-half BYU surge

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LAS VEGAS — When Notre Dame revealed its white-and-gold uniforms back in July for Saturday’s Shamrock Series against BYU, “All-American tight end fell down” was the first mention of Michael Mayer, courtesy of former Irish offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. doing his best Zach Galifianakis impersonation. Officially wearing that uniform this weekend, Mayer did anything but fall down in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory against the No. 16 Cougars.

He did, however, firmly establish his All-American candidacy while breaking some Irish records.

At first, Notre Dame (3-2) leaned on Mayer to convert third downs, moving the chains on five separate third downs by the end of the game. Then, the Irish sought him out in the end zone, junior quarterback Drew Pyne twice connecting with his favorite target for scores.

For precision’s sake, it should be acknowledged Mayer fell to the grass on both of his touchdown catches, but obviously at that point, he had inflicted the necessary damage on BYU (4-2).

“We knew BYU was going to be a tough team,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “I told them at halftime (leading 18-6), this team wasn’t going to quit. I challenged our guys, we have to match their intensity.”

Mayer broke his own school record for catches in a game by a tight end, 11 exceeding a mark of nine he had previously reached twice. He set the program record for catches by a tight end in a career. And he provided the consistency needed even when the Cougars defensive front stopped Notre Dame in its tracks.

Yet he did not have the best catch of the game. That came from sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas on his first career touchdown catch, climbing up and above a BYU defender to pull in the 30-yard score.

“JT has worked really hard,” Pyne said after throwing for 262 yards and three scores on 22-of-28 passing. “He has all summer, he did in the spring. He deserves that. Just like [sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles] did last week with the post, Jayden Thomas went up there and made a play. I underthrew it and he went up there and made an unbelievable play. I’m so proud of him. We’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s going to be a big role for us in the future.”

Thomas finished with three catches on three targets for 74 yards, while Styles caught all three passes thrown to him for 39 yards. Most of Pyne’s incompletions, in fact, went toward Mayer, completing 11 passes on 15 targets for 118 yards.

Despite that efficiency, a second-half surge from the Cougars put the game very much in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had stymied BYU throughout the first half, to the tune of 67 total yards and 3.2 yards per play. But the Cougars’ first drive after halftime gained 75 yards, punctuated by a 53-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kody Epps, his second of the evening. Their next drive scored, as well. Those two drives, along with the corresponding Irish failures, were the only sustained moments of success for BYU, analytically speaking.

Veteran BYU quarterback Jaren Hall struggled in the first half, showing signs of a shoulder worry, before opening the second half by leading those two touchdown drives. Hall said the shoulder bothered him earlier in the week but insisted it was fine on Saturday. Even with that shoulder nonetheless seemingly affecting his throws early, Hall made only two mistakes, both very costly.

On his very first pass attempt, the very first play from scrimmage, he underthrew his target by at least five yards, allowing Irish fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracy the time and space to settle under the pass like an outfielder under a lazy fly ball. Notre Dame turned that gift into a field goal.

“First play of the game, throw an interception, that’s on the quarterback,” Hall said after finishing with just 120 yards on 9-of-17 passing. “That’s on me. … All of that stuff is on me, the quarterback, with the ball in my hands.”

Toward the end of the first half, Hall was sacked in the end zone by Irish senior linebacker Jack Kiser, failing to get rid of the ball when his first read was not open on a play-action pass in dangerous territory. Along with missing a point after attempt following Epps’ first touchdown, those points very much decided the game. Flip those six points appropriately and the Cougars would have been trailing by one late in the fourth quarter when they were in field-goal range. They could have taken the lead then rather than be stuffed by fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Admeilola and senior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah on a fourth-and-one.

Instead, Mayer’s heroics were enough, his 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns even more impressive than his July film turn.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Freeman found words to describe Mayer, the superlatives that are not rote when they apply to a player this dominant, and then he unveiled a scary thought for Notre Dame’s seven remaining opponents.

“[Tight ends coach Gerad] Parker and [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees have done a great job of still developing Mike,” Freeman said. “He’s not a finished product. That’s tough to say for the guy that holds probably every record at Notre Dame for tight ends. He wants to be pushed. That’s the thing about Michael Mayer. He’s one of those great ones that don’t want to be told what he does well. Tell me how to improve. That’s what makes him special.”

Mayer does not yet hold every record, but he should soon. Last season he set every tight-end-specific receiving record with 71 catches for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. His career totals, including Saturday, of 146 catches for 1,641 yards and 14 touchdowns are a record (set Saturday), 199 yards short of Tyler Eifert‘s mark and one touchdown short of Ken MacAfee’s, respectively.

His 11 catches in Allegiant Stadium set a new program mark, and his two touchdowns can unofficially be considered a new program mark. There may be only one tight-ends record at Notre Dame outside of Mayer’s grasp, and that is Kyle Rudolph’s single-game yards mark of 164, set when he galloped 95 yards for a game-winning touchdown against Michigan in 2010.

Mayer did not know he was on the verge of breaking Eifert’s receptions mark, but when it was announced to the stadium with the video board showing him, Eifert acknowledged the crowd in a unique moment not usually seen during a game.

“I went back, sat on the bench, saw me up on the screen, and I heard they kind of announced it,” Mayer said. “Very grateful. I’ve been around a ton of good football coaches, a ton of good football players that have gotten me to this point, starting in fifth grade, really. I’m just very grateful. Tremendous people here at the University of Notre Dame have gotten me to this point, and I’m grateful.”

It does not seem bold to think there is a good chance Mayer breaks that career yards mark on Oct. 22 against UNLV at Notre Dame Stadium, at which point another home crowd can give him that recognition. For that matter, two more touchdown catches will create another such opportunity.

STAT OF THE GAME
As BYU made things interesting in the second half, jeopardizing the lede of this story that would only ever be applicable tonight, it still never took control of the game.

If a possession is graded as quality for either scoring or getting a first down within the 40-yard line (at which point, it is more likely you will score than not), then eight of Notre Dame’s 10 possessions were quality, while only three of the Cougars’ 10 possessions were.

Look at it this way, the Irish controlled 75.0 percent of the possessions in this game.

Editor’s Note: This statistic was originally incorrectly calculated. The 75 percent now published is the accurate figure. The mistake came from overlooking that Notre Dame’s sole turnover came within BYU’s 40-yard line, making that a quality possession for these purposes. The Irish were likely to score when they made that mistake, and the metric here is, is a team likely to score?

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
11:25 — Notre Dame field goal. Blake Grupe 26 yards. Notre Dame 3, BYU 0. (8 plays, 36 yards, 3:26)
4:32 — BYU touchdown. Kody Epps 2-yard pass from Jaren Hall. Justen Smith PAT missed. BYU 6, Notre Dame 3. (7 plays, 26 yards, 3:49)

Second Quarter
14:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 24-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 10, BYU 6. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:13)
6:50 — Notre Dame safety. Jack Kiser sacks Jaren Hall. Notre Dame 12, BYU 6.
1:03 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jayden Thomas 30-yard pass from Pyne. 2-point conversion no good. Notre Dame 18, BYU 6. (10 plays, 79 yards, 5:42)

Third Quarter
8:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 19-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 6. (11 plays, 75 yards, 6:55)
5:27 — BYU touchdown. Epps 53-yard pass from Hall. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 13. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:38)

Fourth Quarter
14:18 — BYU touchdown. Chris Brooks 28-yard rush. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 20. (10 plays, 87 yards, 4:41)
6:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 20 yards. Notre Dame 28, BYU 20. (8 plays, 62 yards, 4:47)

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.