Things We Learned: Notre Dame dominates Clemson in the way long expected, if also delayed, this season

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There need be no disclaimer. Notre Dame (6-3) simply beat No. 4 Clemson (8-1) that badly. If the Irish had topped the Tigers 14-0 instead of 35-14, the response would be the same. Notre Dame beat Clemson, a bona fide Playoff contender, that resoundingly.

After the Irish went on the road and beat ACC contenders North Carolina and Syracuse, the victories needed to be couched, emphasizing how bad both defenses are. Once Notre Dame got a lead thanks to those sieves, it could wrangle the life out of the game and minimize the worry of their genuine explosiveness. Against the Tigers, no clarification need lessen Irish joy this week.

Notre Dame walloped a top-five team. Even if wanting to disparage Clemson, the harshest thing one could say is, the Irish dominated a top-10 team.

“Not every day do you get the opportunity to play in this place, jam-packed, with those fans and have an opportunity to beat a top-five team in the country,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday night after navigating his way through those fans, filing slowly out of the Stadium tunnel, to get to the postgame media room. “It’s really special. I’m so proud of our guys.”

Those opportunities are rare, obviously, given facing top-five teams is a matter of timing more than it is scheduling. Yet, this was the seventh time the Irish have faced a top-five team since 2017, the 11th time they’ve played a top-10 team. Notre Dame was 1-5 and 2-8 entering Saturday.

Some commenters will read that and jump into Brian Kelly criticisms, but their point has always been misguided. Beating top-five teams is supposed to be hard, it is uncommon by nature. Kelly beat No. 1 Clemson near the peak of its powers in 2020, and the Irish out-physicaled No. 7 Stanford in 2018. There were highs.

That 2018 demolition of the Cardinal may be the closest comparison to Saturday’s win. Notre Dame ran for 281 yards (sack adjusted) to win 38-17 and stake its claim as a Playoff contender, but Stanford remained competitive into the fourth quarter, when the Irish outscored them 14-0.

Of course, mentioning Stanford in 2022 elicits bad memories from just weeks ago, but the upset of the Tigers should overshadow that misstep.

“This is still part of a new foundation,” Freeman said. “You can’t just change leaders and think it’s going to be like this. We have to build this foundation the right way.

“We believe that becomes infallible, it becomes infallible, you have such a strong foundation that no matter what happens, you’re going to be solid.”

Clemson did not have that foundation Saturday. It was never as competitive as that 2018 top-10 matchup against the Cardinal was. Not even former Notre Dame recruiting target Will Shipley could carry the Tigers, gaining 63 yards on 12 carries but increasingly left out of the offense as Clemson fell further and further behind the Irish.

One could remove Notre Dame’s special teams and defensive touchdowns, ignore the short field (via freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s first interception) that led to Audric Estimé’s touchdown run and dismiss Michael Mayer’s record-setting score as a garbage-time perk, and the Irish still beat the Tigers decisively. If looking at the game through that lens, then it is only fair to point out the Notre Dame possession ending in a Blake Grupe missed field goal was a quality drive, its first of two in a row before halftime.

The Irish controlled 68.75 percent of the game before Morrison ran his second pick back 96 yards for a touchdown, when focusing on drive-by-drive results.

That was where Notre Dame differed from its season-opening loss at No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes outplayed the Irish most of the game, even if they firmly took the lead only in the third quarter’s final minute. Ohio State controlled 53.3 percent of the game before its drive to secure a 14-10 advantage, and it controlled 63.2 percent of the game in total.

“We wanted to run the ball — Ohio State seems so long ago,” Freeman said. “But there were points in [that] game where we weren’t able to do it.”

Considering Notre Dame took 27 carries for 95 yards in Columbus (sacks adjusted), that was certainly the case. It was not against Clemson, a defensive front nearly, if not equally, as vaunted as Ohio State’s.

“At some point tonight, if we weren’t able to run the ball with efficiency, we were going to have to throw it a little bit more,” Freeman said. “We threw it when we needed to, but we were running the ball with the efficiency we needed to continue to extend the drives.”

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne threw 17 passes, the fewest in an Irish win in a full decade, the last such instance being a Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combination to go 8-of-17 for 119 yards in a 2012 victory against BYU. No disrespect to Notre Dame’s current offensive coordinator or one of his, to this day, best friends, but anytime a stat is comparable to a Rees and Hendrix partnership, it is not a sign of effectiveness.

“You have to play to your strengths,” Freeman said. “That can be within the game. Today, those strengths were playing really good defense and running the ball on offense.”

In those respects, Notre Dame is who we thought it would be. It just arrived a bit late.

Early in preseason practices, Freeman began describing his team as an “O-line- and D-line-driven program.” It made sense, an offensive line returning five starters and an offensive line coach long missed along with a defensive line featuring two likely second- or third-round draft picks and enough depth to make that offensive line look shallow.

But then Marshall pushed the Irish around. And Stanford somehow escaped South Bend with a win.

It took some time for Freeman’s foundation to settle.

“Winning does two things in my mind,” he said. “It gives you that feeling, that it’s hard to [replicate], the feeling of being a winner. But it’s short-lived, especially here, because next week we have to get ready to go. …

“Two, it’s a confidence and belief in what you’re doing. It reaffirms the process, it reaffirms the things you’re doing.”

Notre Dame has now won three in a row and six out of seven. That confidence and belief has arrived, and it has done so because the Irish are who we thought they were.

They shut down Syracuse’s running game and then squeezed the Orange into pulp. (Editor’s Note: Shame on you, Douglas.) They stopped Clemson in its tracks.

Notre Dame so soundly defeated the Tigers that removing the two biggest plays from the game would not change the fact that the Irish outplayed Clemson in every regard conceivable, most notably along the offensive and defensive lines.

The only person who may not be aware of who Notre Dame is at this point is one of the offensive line’s greatest beneficiaries. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs finished with 17 carries for 114 yards on Saturday, part of the Irish totals of 45 carries for 266 yards, yet he still does not realize who Rees is at his core.

“Thank you for continuing to trust me, trust the whole running back room, trust the O-line,” Diggs said he told Rees as the game clock dwindled Saturday. “Putting the game in our hands means a lot, coming from him especially. He likes to throw the ball.”

If Rees could revive his football career as any type of player, it would almost certainly be as an interior offensive lineman. In the aftermath of this upset, he tweeted out a photo prominently featuring a ballcap insisting, “Run the damn ball.” It seems safe to assume Rees already owned the hat, not finding it at a gas station after midnight Sunday morning.

Rees is not someone who likes to throw the ball. He barely instructed Pyne to on Saturday, which led to such dominance — the genre of dominance expected all season, if not to this extreme — that Diggs could make that mistake before the game ended.

Rees had left the coaches’ booth to watch the final few minutes of a blowout of a top-five team from the sideline. The Irish may be who we thought they were, but that was a moment of bravado never anticipated in one of this season’s two (and maybe yet three) games against top-five opponents.

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.