Things We Learned: Avoidable first-year mistakes cost Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman

31 Comments

Notre Dame will receive no points for Marcus Freeman’s honesty. His transparency on Monday will not soften the Irish loss on Saturday, falling inexplicably to Stanford, 16-14. Any retrospective credit comes only in the shadow of the first-year head coach initially making the mistake he voluntarily confessed to.

“It’s been a long 48 hours of trying to really figure out what the heck happened on Saturday,” Freeman said Monday, summing up both his coaching staff’s tasks and his fanbase’s angst.

One thing that happened on Saturday was Notre Dame twice failed when it should have scored touchdowns. Convert either of those opportunities, beat the Cardinal by a hair, and this game would be filed into the overflowing folder of “Winning is hard” moments that former Irish head coach Brian Kelly excelled at, those three words one of his favorite postgame mantras, one laughed at for years by critics but now envied for its accuracy in hindsight.

The latter of those scoring opportunities will haunt sophomore running back Audric Estimé for some time, fumbling the ball after he had gained a first down on Notre Dame’s penultimate drive. That was not a moment to scratch and claw for every yard; that was a time to put everything short of his life in front of losing that ball. That was the possession to win the game on, not when the Irish got the ball back deep in their own territory with no timeouts and the clock dwindling, as Freeman regretted on Saturday night.

Estimé will learn from that mistake, this his first season of any genuine work, one that has been impressive albeit one now wrought with a pair of fumbles in scoring territory.

But it was the other botched scoring opportunity that Freeman took ownership of, essentially hopping on the live grenade that is his fanbase’s frustration and impatience.

Facing a fourth-and-two from the five-yard line, Notre Dame seemingly ran into Stanford’s defense. If the end-around handoff to sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas late in the first quarter struck anyone as doomed from the start, that’s because it was. When Thomas took the ball, running to the left, the Irish offensive line was pushing to the right, a designed misdirection. While that was the intention, it essentially took the offensive line, a Notre Dame strength, out of the play. Awaiting Thomas on the left side of the field were five Cardinal defenders and just two Irish blockers, both tight ends.

One does not need to be a mathematician or a football coach to see the underlying problem there.

Junior tight end Michael Mayer got beat, and while he brought that defender to the ground, it forced Thomas upfield into those four remaining defenders, eliminating any chance of a remarkable individual scoring effort. When Thomas cut toward the goal line, he needed to cover five yards to gain the first down, and there were two Stanford defenders standing on the three-yard line facing him straight up.

How did such unfavorable math ever become reality? Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees realized the play call did not match the defensive look as the Irish took to the line of scrimmage, and Freeman did not subsequently mortgage all composure to take a timeout.

“We had a plan all week to say, ‘They’ve shown they’ll stack the box, they stacked the box, we’re going to be able to get in on the jet sweep to Jayden Thomas,’” Freeman said Monday. “Then all of a sudden I hear coach Rees over the headset saying, ‘Oh shoot, that’s not the look.’

“I probably, at that moment, should have called a timeout, but I still felt confident.”

When your offensive coordinator openly regrets a play call before the snap, confidence should not be the takeaway.

There may have been only a few seconds to take that timeout, but confidence suggests Freeman never intended to try. For that matter, junior quarterback Drew Pyne did not recognize the quagmire and take the timeout himself.

Freeman taking ownership of that mistake is not something most coaches would do. He is showing leadership by example there, making it clear to his team that he is more critical of himself than of any of them.

“I’m the first one to go up there and say, ‘Here’s areas where I have to improve,’” Freeman said. “Every person in our program has to be transparent about that. The minute you start pointing fingers at the players, you’ll lose them. The minute you just blame the coaches for everything, you lose them.”

While that is the right approach for a leader basing his program on building people up rather than tearing them down, it does not put any points on the scoreboard, especially not two days after whatever “the heck happened on Saturday.”

Unlike the 77,622 in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium — a sellout for the first home night game of the Freeman Era — the first-year head coach is not wavering. If anything, he has gained confidence during this 3-3 season lowlighted by two upsets at home when favored by three scores.

The first of those upsets, the 26-21 loss to Marshall, gave Freeman a three-game losing streak to open his career as a head coach, the first coach in Irish history to begin his career 0-3. In another transparent moment most coaches would risk their firstborn to avoid, Freeman admitted to doubt creeping in last month.

“After Marshall, it was a lack of confidence for me,” he said. “Until you have some evidence that all this work you’re putting in is working, you’re going to have a little lack of confidence and faith in what you’re doing.”

After Stanford snapped Notre Dame’s three-game winning streak, frustration was Freeman’s dominating emotion.

“When we execute and do things we’re supposed to do, we’re a really good football team,” Freeman said. “There was anger after this last game because I know we’re a good football team, and we did not play up to our standards. That’s the frustrating part.

“If we play the way we’re supposed to play and the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat anyone we play against. When you don’t, in college football, the parity is close. You’re going to lose, and you saw that on Saturday when we lost to Stanford.

To make one thing clear, Estimé could protect the ball with his life, Freeman could make the right split-second decision 10 times out of 10, and this version of Notre Dame still would not beat a handful of teams in the country. The Irish outright lack the playmakers, both offensively and defensively, to stick with the national title contenders, not even on Notre Dame’s best day.

But the Irish should still be able to beat Stanford, even on a mistake-riddled day, by players and coaches alike.

“Don’t let this be a lack of confidence in who we are and how good we can be,” Freeman said. “Let’s make this about what are the true issues of what happened on Saturday.”

Those were self-inflicted mistakes, ones an established program should avoid, from the head coach to the offensive coordinator to the bull-headed running back, and with most everyone in between.

Pyne finished 13-of-27 for 151 yards, focusing on Mayer nearly as often as not, and not feeling the pressure of a pass rush that led to a lost fumble. Notre Dame defenders repeatedly tackled like it was a game of nine-year-olds playing flag football and the Cardinal had tied knots in their belts.

The avoidable mistakes permeated the Irish roster, and still it had a chance to win the game before Estimé’s eighth and final carry, finishing with 57 yards, that 22-yarder actually his longest jaunt of the day, although it is a statistical generosity, as he lost the ball after only nine or 10 yards, trying to break a sixth tackle on the play when nothing else mattered but possession.

The inexact nature of football stats illustrates the inexact nature of a game played with an oblong ball, Notre Dame failing to land on any of the five fumbles Saturday.

Maybe that was the lesson the Irish needed to learn again in Freeman’s debut campaign: Winning is hard.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

33 Comments

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

3 Comments

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
Getty Images
9 Comments

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
Getty Images
22 Comments

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.