Highlights: Notre Dame 35, No. 4 Clemson 14 — Morrison’s interceptions, Mayer’s record, Marcus Freeman’s resolve

22 Comments

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Benjamin Morrison remembered Syracuse targeting him a week ago. The Orange completed a 30-yard pass on the Notre Dame freshman cornerback to key its momentary comeback. While most defensive backs survive thanks to goldfish-like short memories, Morrison instead relishes those missteps.

He stashed that mistake away, a route where Syracuse receiver D’Marcus Adams looked to have an in- or an out-option, taking the deep in path. Morrison knew Clemson would test him downfield similarly, and when the No. 4 Tigers (8-1) did so, Morrison sealed Notre Dame’s 35-14 upset on Saturday.

“All week I knew what kind of game this was,” Morrison said after his career day of two picks and seven tackles, the latter note overlooked because the former accomplishment was so decisive. “I knew they were going to test me off the previous games on what I had put on film, so I knew I had to kind of just really lock in and hone in on what I had to accomplish.”

In Clemson’s defense, the first few times it tested Morrison resulted in only incompletions. But with each pass he successfully defensed or after a particular third-and-seven he broke up, Morrison’s confidence edged closer to absolute.

“Once I was able to see things, I knew I was pretty locked in,” he said. “Once they started testing me, and things were going my way, I just felt good, so I kept going.”

That led to his first interception, a crossing route on which he said he is instructed to undercut the receiver, trusting the Irish safeties to keep a big play from breaking loose behind him. By undercutting the target, Morrison should have a better chance of knocking down the pass, or in the case of Tigers backup quarterback Cade Klubnik’s first pass attempt Saturday night, intercepting it.

“I was praying he was throwing it,” Morrison said.

He might not have prayed on the next possession, already beaten once on the drive, when Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei targeted senior receiver Joseph Ngata.

“That one was kind of cool because I’ve been struggling with that position all year long,” Morrison said. “Back-shoulder fade, back-shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. So today I was really focused on the details.

“Once I had him in the position I wanted to, I could have just played the man and [broken up the pass], but I trusted in my abilities and flipped my head around, and there the ball was.”

There indeed. Morrison made the leaping interception, managed to plant his feet inbounds, and then was sprung loose by a quick block from senior linebacker Marist Liufau. Morrison had to evade a valiant effort at a diving tackle from Tigers sophomore running back Will Shipley, but once he had done that, there was only one thing left to do.

“Honestly, I just ran.”

Morrison did not realize he was certain to score until he had crossed the goal line, unfortunate for him that Notre Dame Stadium has a video board in only one end zone, not the one he was racing toward. Morrison literally handed the ball to the referee once he had scored, very much acting like he had been there before when he very much had not.

Morrison’s two interceptions had turned a tense 14-0 evening into a 28-0 party, the eventual meeting of 77,000 fans at midfield preceded by Morrison’s reservations for six in the end zone.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Suffice it to say, Morrison earned this honor. Two interceptions and seven tackles would probably have been plenty for it, but to add a touchdown, well, that dramatic moment was the third-longest interception return score in Irish history and will be long remembered in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

PLAY CALL OF THE GAME
Leading 28-7 and receiving a kickoff with 10:14 left in the game, Notre Dame (6-3) had no reason to do anything but continue to run the ball through Clemson’s vaunted defensive line. The Irish had gained 191 yards on 33 carries (sack adjusted) to that point, a 5.8 yards per rush average. The Tigers clearly could not stop that run, and chewing up the clock would lessen the chances of something flukey happening to let Clemson back into the game.

Notre Dame had thrown only six passes in the second half. Yet thanks to Morrison, its lead had grown from 14-0 to 28-0 and, at this point, 28-7.

Ten subsequent run plays gained 64 yards, and the Irish were on the 17-yard line with time continuing to tick. Then quarterback Drew Pyne got the play call and hesitated out of something short of confusion. Junior tight end Michael Mayer could understand why.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t know that play call was coming,” Mayer said. “I thought we were just going to run the ball. We got that call in, and Drew looked at it and was like, ‘Are we really passing it right now? We just ran the ball for however many yards.’”

Mayer was all for it. He may have realized what offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was up to. Mayer was tied with Ken MacAfee for most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in Notre Dame history, with 15 in his career. Setting that record at home would hold more meaning for Mayer.

“I was like, ‘Yeah dude, let’s go, let’s do it, this is our last chance to do it this game,” Mayer said. “I think Drew knew probably that ball was going to come to me the entire way.”

Sure enough, Mayer set the Irish record, giving him every season and career receiving record for a tight end at a program often referred to as “Tight End U.”

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT
Freeman was riffing, rather philosophically, about the challenges for 18- to 23-year-olds to focus through success, something Notre Dame will now need to do.

“It’s easy to tune out the outside noise when you’re not winning, because it’s all negativity, right?” Freeman said.

But just before that, the literal outside noise added poignancy to his point.

“After a win over a top-five program, can we still be selfless? Can we tune out all the outside noise?” and at that moment, the fans in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel — some 40 or 50 feet away and separated from the postgame media room by only one set of glass doors — began chanting the “Seven Nation Army” echo.

That slow procession off the turf and into the night greeted Freeman twice. Once as he moved from the locker room to the podium and then again on his return. The latter featured “Freeman Freeman Freeman” chants only quelled by him taking a moment with his family and some recruits’ families. Then Freeman took a moment for himself, with that crowd.

Maybe Notre Dame has turned a corner under Freeman. Maybe more days like the September loss to Marshall and the October humbling to Stanford will come again in 2023. Either way, those few minutes will assuredly linger in Freeman’s memory, a coach comfortable enough to admit self-doubt but confident enough to leave those worries in his office and never let his players know about them in team meetings.

“You have some moments in your office when you’re by yourself that you have to take a deep dive into yourself,” Freeman said. “… When I’m in front of that group, I have to be the most confident individual they’ve ever seen. If their leader gets up there in front of them after a loss or after we don’t play well with their head down, what message does that send?”

Freeman was anything but a trumpet giving an uncertain sound on Saturday, particularly as he raised a victorious fist to that crowd in the bowels of the Stadium.

“I make sure when I walk out of my office, I’m the most confident leader that I can be. They need that. They will go as their leader goes.”

STAT OF THE NIGHT
Irish quarterback Drew Pyne threw for 85 yards on 9-of-17 passing. The last time Notre Dame completed so few passes in a win — before last week’s 9-of-19 for 116 yards showing — was in 2017, when the Irish used 191 rushing yards from Josh Adams and 106 more from Brandon Wimbush to beat No. 11 USC, 49-14, despite Wimbush and Ian Book combining to go 9-of-22 for 120 yards.

The last time Notre Dame attempted so few passes in a win was in 2012, when the Irish defense shut down BYU to the tune of 243 total yards in a 17-14 win despite Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combining to go a mere 8-of-17 for 119 yards while Everett Golson was sidelined by concussion symptoms.

The last time Notre Dame threw for so few yards in a win was 2007, when three field goals, a defensive touchdown and a one-yard Jimmy Clausen rushing touchdown covered up for Clausen going 17-of-27 for 84 yards in a 20-6 win at UCLA, though running back Armando Allen added a 10-yard pass to the total tally.

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

19 Comments

Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

3 Comments

Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
Getty Images
9 Comments

Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
Getty Images
22 Comments

There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.