Notre Dame’s Opponents: Two future top-10 opponents face stiff tests for a change

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As of this week, Notre Dame has faced the toughest schedule in the country, per Phil Steele. Given the Irish (3-2) played Marshall and Cal, that might be a surprise, but it is inherent to independent scheduling. While Notre Dame is playing North Carolina and then-No. 16 BYU, most other teams add in an extra Sun Belt foe and perhaps an FCS dalliance.

The Irish are unlikely to remain atop Steele’s scheduling rankings, given the next teams on the list are all about to face teams tougher than Stanford (7:30 ET; NBC), with Colorado playing Cal, Arkansas at BYU and Michigan State hosting Wisconsin.

The real shock of this ranking is that Notre Dame still has two top-10 opponents to face. No. 4 Clemson has two challenging games coming up, but it would have to lose both to fall out of the top 10 before it arrives in South Bend on Nov. 5. No. 7 USC is an underdog at No. 20 Utah this weekend, but if it can navigate that hurdle before facing No. 11 UCLA in November, then the Trojans should also be a top-10 foe, if not more than that, when the Irish head west.

Those are future concerns, though.

Stanford (1-4): The Cardinal lost its 11th straight FBS game, through no one’s fault but its own. Stanford led Oregon State 24-10 entering the fourth quarter and kicked a field goal to go up 27-22 with less than a minute left.

Then, the Cardinal snagged defeat from the jaws of victory, not only allowing a completion but also blowing multiple tackles to give up a game-winning touchdown to the Beavers.

As of Thursday late morning, the Irish remain 17-point favorites against Stanford this weekend, per PointsBet, with a combined points total Over/Under of 53.5. Do that quick math and Notre Dame is projected to win 35-18. The Cardinal have not yet played a defense as considerable as the Irish, but Notre Dame has faced a defense comparable to Stanford’s. SP+ ranks the Cardinal at No. 97 among defenses, just four slots ahead of North Carolina, on whom the Irish scored 45 points.

UNLV (4-2): The Rebels were raced off the field by San José State on Friday, and while the Spartans were favored, a 40-7 win was never expected. This was the UNLV long foreseen entering the season. It gained 52 rushing yards on 27 attempts while giving up 203 yards on 36 attempts, the kind of disparity that should be ripe for Notre Dame’s picking in a week.

It should also be ripe for Air Force (10:30 ET; CBSSN) on Saturday night, though the Falcons are only 10-point favorites. This can once again, just like last week, underscore how long-held analytics factor into those metrics more than recent results.

No. 18 Syracuse (5-0): The Orange took the week off before a daunting three-week slate, facing No. 15 North Carolina State (3:30 ET; ACCN), No. 4 Clemson and Notre Dame in a row. Syracuse is favored by 3.5 against the Wolfpack, a number that defies distinct comprehension to this point.

No. 4 Clemson (6-0): Boston College never stood a chance. That may sound reductive, but the Tigers were able to hold the Eagles to 25 rushing yards on 30 carries. Even if adjusting for sacks, 68 rushing yards on 26 carries is hardly the sign of a balanced offense in a 31-3 loss. Without an explosive offense of its own, Boston College had no chance of keeping up as Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei threw three touchdown passes.

The Tigers now head to Florida State (7:30 ET; ABC) as 3.5-point favorites, another ACC spread that feels suppressed and is thus uneasiness-inducing.

Navy (2-3): The Midshipmen have turned their season around in a distinctly unexpected fashion. Beating Tulsa 53-21 was Navy’s second win in the three weeks since its idle week, the loss a tight 13-10 defeat at Air Force. More notably, this was the Midshipmen’s first strong rushing showing, gaining 455 yards on 69 carries, a 6.6 yards per rush average.

How much of this success is sustainable? Who knows. Heading to SMU (7:30 ET on Friday; ESPN) may shed some light. With Navy as an underdog all along, the line rose as high as +13.5 before settling at +12.5 late in the week.

Boston College (2-4): The Eagles reach their idle week looking to strike a unique balance, something that will not save their season but could tilt them back toward a few wins late in the year.

No. 7 USC (6-0): On the one hand, the Trojans managed only 369 yards and 30 points against Washington State. On the other, they held the Cougars to 5.2 yards per play and 14 points without relying on any turnovers for the defensive showing. USC quarterback Caleb Williams threw for just 188 yards on 15-of-29 passing, but he still threw two touchdowns.

It remains difficult to nail down how good the Trojans are or are not, this roster pieced together over the summer, not yet thoroughly tested. No. 20 Utah (8 ET; FOX) may not strike some as that staunch of a test, but the Utes are at least a known and proven commodity. With Utah favored by 3.5 points, this may finally be the moment USC becomes a real contender … or an also-ran.

No. 2 Ohio State (6-0): Beating up on Michigan State is going to become a Big Ten past-time in 2022, so the Buckeyes’ 49-20 win need not be praised too much. They now take a week off.

Marshall (3-3): The Herd did not play over the weekend in order to slip in a Wednesday night game against Louisiana, in which Marshall fell flat. A double-digit favorite by kickoff, the Herd lost 23-13. Suddenly a supposed one-time Sun Belt contender is 0-2 in the conference.

Cal (3-2): After an idle week, the Bears travel to Colorado (2 ET; Pac-12 Network) for what should be a fun time. The Buffaloes are that bad. Cal is now a 15-point favorite, a number that might yet reach -17, quite frankly, an unusual occurrence in the Justin Wilcox era. Since Wilcox took over in 2017, the Bears have been favored by more than two touchdowns against exactly zero FBS opponents

North Carolina (5-1): Are the Tar Heels an ACC title contender? Winning on the road at Miami, 27-24, puts North Carolina at 2-0 in the conference, so there is obviously a long way to go yet, but it has a decided leg up on the rest of the Coastal division having logged that second win. Pitt is 1-1, and with a tiebreaker over Miami (0-1 in the conference), the Heels may need to focus on only the Panthers in two weeks.

North Carolina should have little trouble at Duke (8 ET; ACCN), no matter how well Mike Elko’s first season is going. The Heels are touchdown favorites.

BYU (4-2): After the loss to Notre Dame, the Cougars host another Power Five opponent, Arkansas (3:30 ET; ESPN). The line has fallen to a pick’em, despite favoring BYU most of the week.

Friday at 7:30 ET — Navy at SMU (ESPN)
Saturday at 2 ET — Cal at Colorado (P12N)
3:30 ET — North Carolina State at Syracuse (ACCN); Arkansas at BYU (ESPN)
7:30 ET — Stanford at Notre Dame (NBC); Clemson at Florida State (ABC)
8 ET — USC at Utah (FOX); North Carolina at Duke (ACCN)
10:30 ET — Air Force at UNLV (CBSSN)

Favorites: Syracuse (-3.5) vs. North Carolina State; Clemson (-3.5) at Florida State; Cal (-15) at Colorado; North Carolina (-7) at Duke; BYU (pk) vs. Arkansas.
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Notre Dame; UNLV (+10) vs. Air Force; Navy (+12.5) at SMU; USC (-3.5) at Utah.

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.