Notre Dame dominates No. 4 Clemson in all phases in a stunning 35-14 upset

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame had so stymied No. 4 Clemson that the unbeaten Tigers sought juice any way they could find it. They turned to the most popular player on any team, the highly-touted five-star backup quarterback, for a spark, and instead, the Irish defense immediately sent Cade Klubnik back to the bench.

Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison intercepted Klubnik’s first pass attempt Saturday night and thus sealed the Irish upset of Clemson (8-1), a 35-14 rout that would more accurately be described as a mauling.

“They just physically kicked our butt,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Period. The end.”

Three plays after Morrison’s snag, one forced by pressure from fifth-year defensive end Justin Ademilola, Notre Dame (6-3) capitalized via a two-yard Audric Estimé touchdown. With a three-touchdown lead, the Irish could securely resort to their preferred means of operation and eat the clock given Clemson had yet to produce a quality drive on eight possessions.

That would change on the very next drive, only for Morrison to intercept Tigers’ starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei inside the red zone and if that was the night’s exclamation point, Morrison’s 96-yard touchdown return was seven more exclamations that would be outdone in lasting memory only by the scene of Notre Dame Stadium emptying onto the field and surrounding Irish head coach Marcus Freeman in jubilation.

“You can hear those fans, the students,” Freeman said from the podium after the game, the fans funneling up the tunnel out of the stadium only some 50 feet and one set of doors away, still very audible. “I really didn’t want to leave that field. I mean, just spend some time with those students. This is a game that I’ll never forget.”

Uiagalelei or Klubnik, Clemson’s offense never found any sort of a rhythm. Its first half production consisted of a pair of three-and-outs, two four-and-outs and one drive stalling in Irish territory. The Tigers had 71 yards at halftime, most of them coming via sophomore running back Will Shipley. But as Notre Dame opened its lead, Clemson could not solely rely on a ground-based attack. It needed explosive plays, and they were nowhere to be found. By the time the Irish held a three-score lead, the Tigers had turned over the ball as many times as it had reached Notre Dame’s half of the field, two of each.

“As the defense continues to force Clemson to punt, the offense doesn’t feel that pressure of we have to score,” Freeman said. “Our defense came up huge today. Again, I’m proud. They have done a really good job all year.”

The Irish hardly found explosive plays, either, making Morrison’s touchdown stand out all the more, not to mention Notre Dame’s special teams once again wreaked havoc.

The fifth Irish punt block in their last four games, junior linebacker Jordan Botelho got his hands on the boot and it landed in sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie’s lap with a clear path to the end zone 19 yards away, staking Notre Dame to its initial lead that would grow with a designed run for junior quarterback Drew Pyne into the end zone just before halftime.

“I challenged that (punt block) group yesterday,” Freeman said. “I said, ‘Listen, you won’t surprise anybody. Everybody in the country knows you’re coming after a punt.’

“When you find ways to execute and you find ways to play with relentless effort, it doesn’t matter if a team knows you’re coming after a punt or not.”

On an evening in which winds would dampen scoring and lessen any margin for error, that early swing put the pressure on the top-five team, not the home team looking to avoid a third loss on its own turf.

Those winds may have played a role in Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe’s second-quarter miss, a 42-yarder that drifted left of the uprights, and that miss presumably altered coaching decisions throughout the rest of the game, even as winds gradually calmed somewhat after blowing at 23 miles per hour at kickoff. But after Morrison set up Estimé’s first score, those decisions became moot.

At that point, the only remaining doubt was if the Irish fans would storm the field for a second time in three years after a win over Clemson. That doubt dissipated as stadium personnel walked along the perimeter of the field quite literally coaching fans on how to rush the field safely, to stay away from all Tigers players and to clear out if they did not want to charge the turf.

“Our fans deserve this win,” junior tight end Michael Mayer said, coming off a four-catch, 44-yard, record-setting touchdown performance. “It’s been a little bit of an up and down season, to say the least.”

STAT OF THE NIGHT
Swinney’s “Period. The end.” thought summed up Notre Dame’s dominance. Clemson justly boasts one of the best defensive lines in the country. It is as deep as it is talented. Yet, the Irish offensive line held the Tigers defensive line to one sack, a one-yard loss in the first quarter. That was also the defensive line’s only tackle for loss.

Clemson’s defense managed just four tackles for loss. As Notre Dame ran the ball 46 times for 265 yards, not counting the kneel down to run out the final seconds, the Tigers could not cause defensive havoc. Those four tackles for loss cost the Irish eight total yards.

“We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn’t shy away from our strength,” Freeman said. “It was a challenge to our offensive line, to our quarterback, to our running backs.

“At some point during the game, their confidence rose and they said, we can block anybody in the country, and they showed that tonight.”

PHOTO OF THE NIGHT
Audric Estimé is listed at 229 pounds. Add in full pads, and he is probably at least 240 pounds. At least.

A SMATTERING OF STATS
Pyne threw only 17 passes, the second straight week he dropped back fewer than 20 times, completing nine of them for just 85 yards.

“Man, he’s a winner,” Freeman said. “He has to be unselfish and continue to not look at stats, just look at, do I do the things necessary for us to win? He did. He took care of the football. When we decide to throw the ball, he did. He took some shots. He really ran the play clock efficiently. There’s a lot of things he’s going to be able to build off of this one.”

Both Estimé and sophomore Logan Diggs ran for more than 100 yards, 104 and 114, respectively, while junior Chris Tyree added 26 more on seven carries with 26 receiving yards, as well, on two catches.

Clemson running back Will Shipley accounted for 80 total yards, 63 of them on the ground. At halftime, though, Shipley had 51 of the Tigers’ 71 yards. In the second quarter alone, Shipley gained 34 yards on four touches; Clemson’s second-quarter output was 15 yards on 10 plays.

The Tigers are negative-five in turnover differential in their last two games, a number boosted by a desperation Syracuse turnover two weeks ago. Notre Dame had not come out ahead in the turnover margin this season until its own game at Syracuse last week, making this two straight weeks the Irish have stolen more possessions than they have gifted, after starting the season negative-seven through seven games.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Prince Kollie 19-yard blocked punt return. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Clemson 0.

Second Quarter
0:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Drew Pyne 4-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Clemson 0. (11 plays, 78 yards, 5:47)

Third Quarter
14:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 2-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Clemson 0. (3 plays, 14 yards, 1:05)

Fourth Quarter
12:58 — Notre Dame touchdown. Benjamin Morrison 96-yard interception return. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Clemson 0.
10:14 — Clemson touchdown. Will Shipley 1-yard rush. BT Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Clemson 7. (11 plays, 75 yards, 2:44)
4:16 Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 17-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Clemson 7. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:58)
1:35 Clemson touchdown. Joseph Ngata 4-yard pass from DJ Uiagalelei. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Clemson 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 2:41)

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.