And In That Corner … No. 16 Syracuse Orange and sold out Dome host Notre Dame

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Notre Dame and Syracuse have met every two years since 2014, a streak that will end after this season, suffering a one-year delay before they meet up in both 2025 and 2026. Games played every other year seem to come just short of developing enough rhythm. If there is not an excessive amount of roster and coaching staff turnover between two games, there certainly is between three games covering a five-year span.

Thus, while the Irish have won all four of these even-year meetings (by an average score of 40.5 to 18), not much of what was seen in 2020 can be applied to 2022 and absolutely none of 2018’s result should be pertinent this weekend (12 ET; ABC). To fill in those gaps, let’s chat with Emily Leiker of The Post-Standard, more commonly known in the internet age as syracuse.com.

DF: From afar, this could be a tough week for Syracuse to refocus after its unbeaten season came to an end with a fourth-quarter collapse at Clemson. In the immediate aftermath of that 27-21 defeat, what was the mood around the Orange? There are no such things as moral victories, but also, they nearly beat the best team in the ACC and perennial national title conter.

EL: You’re right about the moral victories piece – that was something Syracuse head coach Dino Babers was asked about postgame and immediately shut down. That said, I do think there were some positives the team took away from the game, the biggest being the way they responded to the loss. We heard from Babers and several players that the team had a great film session Sunday without any finger-pointing or negativity. The way that game ended, it could have been really easy, in my opinion, for a team to get down on itself for letting a win slip away due to what were mostly self-inflicted wounds. But that’s not what we’ve seen or heard out of this Syracuse program this season, which I think bodes well for how they’ll respond on the field against Notre Dame.

Syracuse built its 21-10 lead on the back of turnovers, forcing four. In its first six games this season, the Orange had forced only nine takeaways, so it is not like this is a defense thriving on interceptions and fumbles. Was there a change in scheme or approach that led to those four turnovers, or merely Clemson sloppiness? Fortunately for these purposes, either answer sheds light on Notre Dame’s next two weeks.

There weren’t any scheme changes from what I could tell or that I was told offensively. It was certainly a standout game for the defense, but I do think once Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei threw that first pick, his head was a little scrambled for the rest of time he played. He might have had a little bit of last year coming back to haunt him: He had more interceptions than he did touchdowns last season and had drastically improved that ratio in 2022. Saturday’s game was just the third time he’s thrown an interception this year, and he hadn’t thrown more than one in a single game until Syracuse picked him off twice.

From the moment that game ended, Syracuse running back Sean Tucker’s lack of usage has been a hot topic. One of the best backs in the country, he ended with five rushes for 54 yards, also catching five passes for 18 yards and a score. Clemson claimed his so few rush attempts was a result of the Tigers’ defensive intentions, encouraging Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader to keep the ball more often on zone-reads. Shrader did end up with 21 carries for 71 yards, a distinct uptick from his average of 13 rushes per game in the first six this season. I realize gauging the success or failure of such schemes is a fool’s errand, but where do you assign fault or credit for Tucker’s reduced role? Is there any version of this weekend that sees it repeated?

Tucker’s reduced role was I think mostly at the fault of the coaching staff. It’s hard to say whose call exactly it was because the only coach who speaks with media is Babers, but the head coach did admit his running back should have had more carries and said the issue was addressed. Personally, I think a little bit of blame can also be attributed to Shrader just for pulling the ball as often as he did on his reads. That said, it’s obviously not his fault that the reads were what Syracuse had schemed up and didn’t change, nor was it his fault that Clemson’s defense was getting as much pressure as it was and forcing him to make quick decisions.

With all the criticism the program received over the matter since Saturday, I don’t expect it will be something that’s repeated this weekend. I would assume we’ll see more designed runs for Tucker called or at least him getting the ball more on reads.

On the other side of the ball, Clemson had a ton of success running the ball, gaining 293 yards on 60 carries. While an extreme, that was not the first time someone ran through Syracuse’s defense this season. Virginia took 29 rushes for 149 yards, and Louisville gained 137 yards on 31 attempts. Obviously, this stands out given the one thing Notre Dame tends to do well offensively is run the ball. Have these ground gashings come as a result of Syracuse selling out to stop the pass or is this just a faulty front?

I wouldn’t call Syracuse’s defensive front faulty per se, but it is young and has been the most affected by injuries this season. So that’s definitely hurt them in defending against high-powered rushing offenses. Looking at Notre Dame’s kind of three-pronged rushing attack and what that means for how they’re able to rotate players through that position to keep them fresh, I’m definitely assuming there will be at least a couple occasions where Syracuse gets burned on the run.

Speaking of stopping the pass, Orange cornerback Duce Chestnut appeared to suffer an injury against Clemson. I know he came back in, but what is the report on that injury? If the Irish are going to have any successful downfield passing, I do not expect it to be in Chestnut’s direction. While we’re at it, are there any other injuries that Notre Dame fans should make note of?

He did go out briefly with what seemed like a knee injury in the second quarter, but returned after that and played well for the rest of the game. Babers is pretty reserved when it comes to talking about injuries, so we really don’t know anything about Chestnut or any of the other players who had minor issues against Clemson.

One player who sat out the Clemson game and could be making his return this week is Syracuse’s other star cornerback, Garrett Williams. He suffered a thigh bruise early in Syracuse’s game against North Carolina State (on Oct. 15) and has not played since. Babers did say it wasn’t a season-ender, and Williams went through all of the team’s warmups and was suited up for the game against Clemson. He looked pretty close to 100 percent to me, but as of Wednesday, we haven’t heard officially whether he’ll be on the field against Notre Dame.

Let’s turn to the more abstract for a moment. This is a 6-1 Syracuse, currently ranked No. 16, coming off a blown chance at what may have been the biggest win in program history. There are competing momentums there. The Carrier Dome—errr, this is so dumb—the JMA Wireless Dome can hold nearly 50,000 fans and when in the right spirit, can be very loud. What kind of atmosphere should Notre Dame expect this week?

The game sold out of general tickets early this week, the school announced. There are still some student tickets left and some on reseller sites, but it will be packed and it will be loud. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly small number of fans that fit in the Dome; the fact that it’s an indoor venue means the noise echoes off every surface. Syracuse also sold out its game against N.C. State, and the Wolfpack offense was clearly affected by that.

Do you agree with me that renaming a building after a different corporate entity is bafflingly dumb when the former name has become so synonymous and entrenched with the arena? JMA Wireless cannot be getting enough publicity out of this to justify what is widely thought to be more than $3.25 million per year. And my disparaging this lunacy right now cannot be helping. I’ll stop. At least, until I repeatedly refer to a running back as a “carrier” on Saturday.

Haha. I barely made it here before it switched to the JMA Wireless Dome and I still had trouble remembering it wasn’t the Carrier Dome for about a month. You’re not the first out-of-towner I’ve heard complain about the name change.

Syracuse is favored by 2.5 as of late Wednesday night, only the fourth time Notre Dame has been a regular-season underdog against an ACC opponent in the last six seasons and just the eighth time in the nine years of this scheduling arrangement. The Irish won the last three such moments, including once this year and once last year. What are you expecting to see Saturday?

I think it will be a close game for sure. That said, I do think Syracuse will cover the spread handily with the home-field advantage and a drive for its offense to prove that it actually is good against a top-tier defense. Should be a good matchup either way.

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.