Highlights: Notre Dame 44, UNLV 21 — Led by Michael Mayer and Irish defensive havoc

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Michael Mayer isn’t sure. He didn’t see the pass he caught early in the second quarter to propel Notre Dame well into scoring territory. It was a perfectly-placed pass from junior quarterback Drew Pyne, thrown exactly where only Mayer could catch it, but he didn’t see it. UNLV linebacker Fred Thompkins had excellent coverage.

Mayer still caught the 34-yard pass, of course, because he is Michael Mayer. That kind of editorializing would usually not be included at this point in the week, but after Mayer caught six passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in the first half of the Irish 44-21 win against the Rebels on Saturday, positive reviews of Mayer may as well be facts.

“I don’t think I saw the ball, to be honest,” he said after tying Ken MacAfee’s record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end at Notre Dame with 15. “I kind of stuck out my hand and hoped for the best.”

The best was realized, despite a pass interference flag on Thompkins.

“That’s a route me and [Pyne] practiced a lot, we’ve repped a lot in practice,” Mayer said. “Those type of throws, it’s just one of those things where it’s kind of just, alright, it’s me against the linebacker.

“Drew knows there’s a pretty good chance, if he throws that thing up, that I’m going to catch it. He believed in me and he threw it up there, and I found a way to catch it.”

Mayer was then asked if it was the best catch of his career. For someone who now has 157 catches in his collegiate career, also a Notre Dame record, with at least one snag in each of his 31 collegiate games, the best catch of his career is a lofty bar to clear. Mayer was the last person qualified to answer the question; not only did he not see the pass as he pulled it in, he also had not yet seen a replay of it.

“Sometimes I just don’t really remember things,” he said. “There’s some catches and stuff — so I’ve got to watch it.”

The only flaw to the one-handed, falling grab is that the Irish did not turn it into points. From the 14-yard line, they proceeded to stall out on a fourth-and-three from the seven.

That failure ran counter to an odd intention from Irish head coach Marcus Freeman this weekend. He has been more aggressive than not in go-or-kick moments in his first season as a head coach, usually deferring to the analytics that encourage forgoing kicks far more often than not. Not this week, four times turning to kicker Blake Grupe for a field-goal attempt inside the plus-30. Freeman said that approach was intentional, at least for the week.

“Going into this game, I wanted to, if it was close — the last couple of games I’ve been pretty aggressive on fourth-and-short. This game, I wanted to — we’re going to need Grupe to get some confidence,” Freeman said. “We’re going to kick the ball. I had told [offensive coordinator Tommy Reese], if it’s fourth-and-two, I’m going to kick it right now, really try to get some points on the board, get some momentum for our team.

“That’s what I told them, ‘Hey, great job taking care of the ball. If we get three points here, it’s good momentum for our team.’”

Grupe quite literally kicked his first field goal on a fourth-and-two, giving Notre Dame a 10-0 lead after its second possession. That attempt, more than the next three, presumably ran against any analytical numbers the Irish would usually ponder.

Freeman intentionally and preemptively opting against those numbers suggests he assumed this win from the outset perhaps more than just about anybody else, not that he would ever admit to that.

“I thought UNLV was a really good team,” he said. “I told [Rebels head coach Marcus] Arroyo before and after the game, he’s got a good football team. They don’t quit. I think it was 23-7 at the end of the first quarter — don’t expect that team to lay down. They battled back.”

Again, editorializing would not usually be included at this point in the week, so here is a fact: Following the analytical approach works only when applying it at all times. Leaning against it when facing an overmatched and injured UNLV may work out, but it is counter-intuitive, to say the least.

SCHEME OF THE GAME
For a second time this season, the Irish employed a tight-end scheme first seen elsewhere. After flipping the ball to Mayer on a jet sweep at North Carolina in late September, they brought sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans behind center a la the Kansas City Chiefs with tight end Noah Gray on Oct. 2.

That direct reference is not coincidence. Football coaches steal from each other more than some Texas A&M boosters undoubtedly feel Jimbo Fisher has stolen from their program.

Gray’s touchdown sneak was in a Sunday Night Football game. You better believe coaches watch the solitary primetime games just as you do.

“It’s a weekly thing,” Mayer said. “It can be any of the offensive coaches coming in and saying, ‘I watched this on Sunday Night Football or Monday Night Football, that type of thing. We should try this.’”

Evans’ plunges resulted in a first down and then a touchdown, clearly working twice on two attempts. Mayer would not admit if he envied Evans’ moment behind center, instead focusing on the relief of seeing Evans succeed in his second game back after a broken foot sidelined him to start the season.

“That was a cool moment for him,” Mayer said. “He had a little injury, he just got back, very cool moment for him scoring in a game his second game back.”

STAT OF THE GAME
It may not have been a big-play-filled thrashing. It may not have been the most entertaining game. Fans may have left the Stadium outright bored. But Notre Dame dominated UNLV. A postgame win expectancy of 98.8 percent may even feel low.

The outline for these highlights thought these paragraphs would criticize the Irish performance on third down, but they went 9-of-17, good enough to be left alone, but the real change this week came from defensive havoc.

Four sacks, with three coming from senior end Isaiah Foskey, part of nine tackles for loss and a Clarence Lewis-forced fumble, not to mention two blocked punts all set UNLV off schedule, and none of them are particularly dramatic moments. A fan in the stands hardly realizes a punt is blocked until it has been recovered, yet few plays in football change the game faster.

“We got a lot of momentum, gave the ball back the offense in plus territory, which is great for the whole team,” Foskey said of his two special teams moments. “Special teams is always something that Notre Dame hypes on, always works on. [Special teams coordinator Brian Mason] put me in the right position to make a play.”

Those plays led to 10 of the first 20 Irish points. The next Rebels punt was understandably harried after Foskey’s pressures, leading to a 20-yard punt return from Brandon Joseph, setting up Notre Dame with good field position for another Grupe field goal, 13 of the first 23 Irish points thus somewhat coming from special teams’ impacts.

More than anything else — more than consistency at the quarterback position, more than receivers making plays downfield, more than Notre Dame fans’ impatience — that defensive and special teams havoc has been lacking for the Irish this season.

“That’s the winning formula,” Freeman said. “If you want a chance to win, you’ve got to win the battle of field position, and today we were able to do that.”

Through the first six games of the season: Three forced turnovers.
On Saturday: Technically only one, though the blocked punts served the same field-flipping purpose.

Through the first six games of the season: 16 sacks for a loss of 101 yards.
On Saturday: Four sacks for a loss of 33 yards.

Through the first six games of the season: 32 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, costing opponents 139 yards, averages of 5.3 tackles and 23.2 yards lost per game.
On Saturday: 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage costing UNLV 44 yards.

“What coach Freeman started off this whole week with was urgency right now,” Foskey said. “That’s what motivated us to start off the game fast. When you make big plays, it’s easy to be motivated. You want to make that next big play on offense and on defense.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
While Notre Dame forced a turnover and blocked two punts, it also gave away the ball twice. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne had a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage and subsequently intercepted, a bit of an unavoidable reality in the passing game, and sophomore running back Audric Estimé lost a fumble for the third time in four games.

He finished with 17 yards and a touchdown on just three carries, classmate Logan Diggs taking over the bulk of the workload after the fumble, finishing with 130 yards on 28 rushes.

“All I can do is continue to be my brother’s keeper,” Diggs said. “I tell him, ‘Man, I feel that for you.’ And I told him, I’ve been in that situation, the ball is the most important thing on the offense, and you can’t let that go.

“Last week I was kind of on the side of, it’s going to be alright, just keep on doing your job, keep being better. But today I was a real teammate and told him, for real, ‘If you want to play, you’ve got to hold onto the ball.’”

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.