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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Herko: Will the next Michael Mayer please stand up?

After the abysmal Marshall game that culminated in Tyler Buchner’s shoulder injury, no one would blame any Notre Dame fans who decided to check to see when basketball season started. Buchner’s replacement, junior Drew Pyne has been up and down for sure, but there has definitely been some great improvement since his interception in the fourth quarter on that terrible day. But, how much of this improvement is a result of increased reps at practice that comes from being the starting quarterback versus having the benefit of a future first round draft pick in Michael Mayer on call whenever Pyne gets into trouble?

Mayer is certainly the star player on this inconsistent Irish offense, but with him on his way to the NFL, who will the Irish rely on next year? If Pyne is to be the starter next year, which would make sense because he has far more game experience than Buchner now, this is the time he should be building better chemistry with his younger wide receivers and tight ends to see real cohesive play next season. 

For every game except his first as a starter against Cal, Mayer has been on the receiving end of the majority of Pyne’s passes. At North Carolina, just under a third of Pyne’s total passes were to Mayer, while the four underclassman receivers combined for 14 catches. 

Against BYU, Mayer caught 11 of Pyne’s 22 passes for 116 of his 262 total passing yards, including two touchdowns. Only nine passes were completed to freshman and sophomore receivers and running backs with Jayden Thomas and Lorenzo Styles leading the pack.

Hosting Stanford, five of 13 passes were caught by Mayer and six others were caught by the underclassman. And in the Irish’s win against UNLV, Mayer caught six of Pyne’s 14 passes. Four passes combined were completed to sophomore Lorenzo Styles and redshirt freshman Jayden Thomas, which totaled all of the passes completed to underclassmen. 

The first problem is Pyne is just not throwing enough. Whether this is by design or is the result of a lot of broken plays, Pyne needs to learn that good things happen faster when you put the ball in the air. If the lack of throwing is commentary on Pyne’s playing abilities, practice more throws during practice reps; We should not be looking to Navy’s offensive schemes as a role model. 

Additionally, lots of short passes especially on later downs will not cut it. Defenses that Notre Dame plays are starting to key in on these patterns. To free up areas closer to the offensive line for runs and shorter passes, these defenses have to respect the deep ball. And they just don’t right now because they occur so infrequently. 

This is not to say that Notre Dame needs to become predictable or aggressively throw downfield on every play — just that the play call and execution need to match the situation. For example, toward the end of the second quarter during the UNLV game, the offense turned it over on downs after two incomplete passes. It was 3rd and 3 (and then 4th and 3) on the UNLV seven-yard line. Pyne threw for the end zone both times when it may have been easier to run or look for a shorter pass. 

Or last week against Stanford, when the Irish completed a five-yard pass on 4th and 7 at the end of the game. This offense can play well -  they just need to make logical decisions based on the looks the defense is showing them. 

Besides the fact that Pyne is just not throwing enough for Notre Dame to be successful against halfway decent teams, he and his younger receivers need to build greater trust between them if there is going to be any chance for good games against Clemson, Syracuse and USC.  Or, even more importantly, for a better season next year. Those teams will be stacked enough on defense that may be able to double team Mayer for large portions of the games, to force Pyne to throw elsewhere. Styles, Staes, Thomas and Merriweather all have flashed at different points this season. The young star power is there in the receiving core. Drew Pyne has to utilize them if Notre Dame football wants to keep winning football games. 

The only way that trust between the offensive skill players is going to form is if it shows up in the stat book. Everyone loves Michael Mayer, but Pyne needs to figure out who his next Michael Mayer is going to be. 

Contact Annika at aherko@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.