And In That Corner … The No. 4 Clemson Tigers return to Notre Dame with QB uncertainty and a stout DL once again

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Let’s round up and call it exactly two years ago that No. 4 Notre Dame upset No. 1 Clemson in double overtime. That was actually a few days short of two years ago, that instant classic coming on Nov. 7, 2020, but both that tilt and this year’s rendition coming in the first week of November is just one of the parallels.

Just like two years ago, the No. 4 Tigers are facing some quarterback uncertainty, their first chance to sort that out coming against the Irish. Back then, Clemson was favored by five points, a number this week’s spread touched briefly on Monday. And again, this pseudo-ACC contest will come in primetime (7:30 ET; NBC).

Where are the differences these days? Let’s ask Matt Connolly of ClemsonSports, an On3 affiliate.

DF: Appreciate the assist, Matt. And I hope Halloween went well for your trick-or-treater. I felt guilty DMing you at all on that particular holiday, but trusted/assumed you would ignore my message until that more important duty was tended to.

It’s kind of amazing how closely this game falls to the two-year anniversary of Clemson’s last trip to Notre Dame, two days short of that exact date. While that game colors some of this matchup, both these teams have changed drastically since back then, perhaps most notably at quarterback. Let’s get that out of the way. … DJ Uiagalelei will start for the No. 5 Tigers on Saturday, right? And did I spell his last name correctly there without even looking it up?

MC: I was just looking at the game two years ago and how close the dates are, haha. Yes, you did spell it correctly. Well done. And yes, DJ Uiagalelei will start against Notre Dame. People are going to forget about it after the way he played against Syracuse, but he really had played well the first seven games of the season. He was excellent against Florida State on the road in a tough environment and has made a lot of big-time throws this year. He was incredibly clutch at Wake Forest when the defense couldn’t get a stop. He’ll start Saturday, and he deserves to start based on the way he’s played (every week but one) this season.

How long is Uiagalelei’s leash at this point? What type of game scenarios, short of injury, would you envision spur Dabo Swinney to bring in freshman Cade Klubnik, a la two weeks ago late against Syracuse?

While Uiagalelei will start, his leash is definitely shorter than it was two weeks ago. He’s not going to get pulled if he misses an open receiver or two, because to be honest, Cade Klubnik has missed his share in limited playing time as well. I don’t think it’s smart to throw a freshman into his first real road experience at Notre Dame. But if there’s an early interception or two and the turnover woes continue, you’ll see Klubnik get a shot.

Notre Dame fans have been pretty repetitive this week trying to claim Clemson’s offense is lackluster. Let’s pull from a few early-week comments, not to dunk on them, but to give you an idea of the misconceptions I aim to counter here. “This Clemson offense is not particularly scary.” “On offense, Clemson is not that spectacular.”

Personally, I see a veteran, daul-threat quarterback playing with one of the most dynamic running backs in the country and finally finding a rhythm with some of his receivers. Of course, turnovers doomed that momentum against the Orange, but flip that 90-yard scoop-and-score and the Tigers suddenly win that game 34-14. Am I giving Clemson too much credit? Where am I right and where are my readers right?

Yea, I think you nailed it for the most part. Clemson has a junior quarterback with really good running backs and tight ends around him. The receiver play has been inconsistent, and that’s the one area where there are question marks. Clemson doesn’t have anyone who truly scares you the way Mike Williams or Tee Higgins did. At the same time, they do have some solid players at receiver, led by freshman Antonio Williams. The offensive line has also been excellent, although it hasn’t been tested a ton. Overall, I think it’s a very good offense that is led by its running backs, QB run game and tight ends.

On the other side of the ball, there is an obvious question a la the quarterback situation offensively, so help me out quickly: What is the health status along the defensive line? Aside from Xavier Thomas’ Avengers photo on Halloween.

The defensive line is finally healthy after battling injuries for most of the year. I don’t know that Bryan Bresee and Xavier Thomas are all the way back as far as conditioning and football shape as they missed several weeks and were limited once they returned. But the bye week has been good for those guys, and they’re expected to play a big role against Notre Dame. Everyone else on the defense is in good shape. After Clemson couldn’t catch a break with injuries last year, the Tigers have been fortunate this season.

As has been the case in each of their last three matchups, that should be the fun part of this game. Notre Dame’s greatest strength, its offensive line, against Clemson’s, its defensive line. That went the Tigers’ way in 2018 (because that defensive line may have been the best of the decade), the Irish way two years ago, and then Clemson’s way again in that subsequent ACC title game, though Notre Dame was suddenly shorthanded. You’ve studied this week. Where do you see an edge on either side?

I think that the Notre Dame offensive line vs. the Clemson defensive line is a pretty even fight. ND’s line seems to have really gelled over the past several weeks and the offense as a whole is getting more and more confident. This is probably the best offensive line Clemson has faced, although it’s also probably the best defensive line Notre Dame has faced. I expect both units to win their share of plays on Saturday.

The Irish beat Syracuse last week behind one of the most Iowa-esque game plans you can have while still enjoying success. Notre Dame threw the ball five times in the second half. It simply got ahead of the Orange and then strangled the life out of the game. That will be its best path toward an upset this week (and to end the year at USC), but teams do not like running against Clemson, giving up just 87.88 rushing yards per game and 2.98 per carry, good for No. 7 and No. 11 in the country, respectively. In my opinion, the more illustrative fact is that opponents run just 29.5 times per game against the Tigers, No. 10 in the country. Is that all a result of Clemson’s defensive line? To start the year, this was a defense with a new second level. Have those linebackers found their footing as you would have expected?

I think Clemson’s success against the run has been a combination of things. You have a really good defensive line, which we’ve discussed, and an excellent group of linebackers behind them. Clemson’s linebackers are fast and solid tacklers, although maybe a little undersized at 240, 230 and 225 pounds. I will point out that Clemson hasn’t been great against the run in its two most recent games. Florida State ran for 206 against Clemson and averaged 6 yards a carry. Syracuse running back Sean Tucker had only 5 carries but averaged 10.8 yards per attempt.

I assume you see that as the most likely Irish path to an upset, probably combined with a punt block and an Uiagalelei turnover or two. Correct me if I’m wrong. And if not, what would you see as the path to a Tigers blowout?

I agree that Notre Dame’s best path to winning is getting the running game going and then hitting junior tight end Michael Mayer for a few big plays. If they do that they’re not going to need turnovers. Clemson’s best shot for a blowout is stopping the run and making Drew Pyne beat them through the air. If Notre Dame is one-dimensional, I don’t think it has much of a chance.

Clemson is favored by 3.5 or 4, depending on the sportsbook, as of Wednesday’s earliest hours. What are you expecting Saturday night?

I’m expecting a close, low-scoring defensive battle. Notre Dame is physical and I think will have some success running against Clemson. I also think the Notre Dame defense is legit and will make it hard on the Clemson offense. I’m not expecting a shootout like we saw a couple of years ago in South Bend. Ultimately I think Clemson wins, because I don’t think Drew Pyne can do enough in the passing game. But I don’t think it will be easy.

And for that matter, before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to this weekend? I missed you two years ago, the press box that season understandably designed to cut down on any socializing.

I actually did make the trip two years ago. It was an awesome experience and a beautiful night. I’m looking forward to walking around the campus again, seeing Touchdown Jesus and enjoying Notre Dame Stadium with a full stadium. Should be a fun game.

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.