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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Pyne flips script, shows capability to dominate despite mistake

All year, Notre Dame junior quarterback Drew Pyne has been judged by virtually everything but the final result. After taking over as the starter, Pyne won eight of his first nine games. He did this without gaudy numbers. Pyne never threw for 300 yards in those nine games. During a three-game winning streak, Pyne completed just 32 of 64 total pass attempts for four touchdowns and two interceptions. On five occasions, the former four-star didn’t eclipse 156 yards passing. He had a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage in every game, and he missed open receivers with underthrows. Yet, with one exception, the Irish kept winning. Pyne seemed to find the clutch gene when he needed it. 

There was the Clemson game when the Irish really didn’t orchestrate any offense all half, leading 7-0 on a special teams touchdown late in the second quarter. Then Pyne notched the final 26 yards of a 78-yard drive, running twice for 15 and completing an 11-yard pass. Then, up 28-7, Pyne drove the dagger into Clemson’s back with a scoring strike to junior tight end Michael Mayer in the fourth. 

Or against Syracuse, when Pyne completed three straight passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in a critical end-of-half drive to seize control against the then-No. 16 Orange. Throwing it back to his first career start, Pyne led the Irish to just seven first-half points. On three straight scoring drives to start the second half, the junior completed eight of nine passes for 85 yards, leading Notre Dame to 17 points and a 24-17 win. 

All season long, Pyne showed flashes, putting it together in big moments and slowly pulling the Irish season back on track. On Saturday, however, it was almost the opposite. For almost all of four quarters, Pyne dazzled. He completed his first 15 passes. On the day, he finished 23 of 26 for 318 yards. Criticized for his downfield passing, Pyne completed eight passes that were aired out at least 18 yards past the line of scrimmage. Throw in a short pass to Audric Estime for 30 yards, and Pyne completed nine passes, including three touchdowns, for 18 or more yards. 

“Yeah, we went empty [backfield] a lot. We kind of knew what [USC’s] check was to empty,” Pyne said of the downfield passing success. “We worked that all week, Coach Rees had great plays against it and we were just able to execute.”

From a box score standpoint, the Irish piled up impressive numbers. They were outgained by just 33 yards, earned one less first down and punted one less time. Even on the ground, the Irish generated a couple of big plays. Audric Estime broke off a 24-yard run and a key nine-yard rush on third down. Chris Tyree set up the Irish’s first touchdown with an 18-yard run. For large portions of its time on offense, Notre Dame moved the ball at will. 

Pyne demonstrated trust in more than just Mayer, finding sophomores Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie for chunk gains on several occasions. Colzie notched three catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. He converted a 3rd and 10, a 2nd and 20 and also scored a touchdown on his three catches. Pyne targeted Styles five times, completing four passes to the sophomore, often short passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. Styles responded to the trust by racking up 36 yards after the catch. 

“I think it’s credit to them. They’re two young guys who just work their tails off nonstop. We work in practice, after practice. I worked that with Deion during the week, throwing a high ball up to him in the red zone,” Pyne noted. “Those guys come to work every single day with a positive attitude. They’re silly guys who like to have fun. They’re some of my best friends. That chemistry of being close with them — as receivers — translates on the field and in all the work we put in during the week.”

However, when it comes down to it, this game will be remembered for two fatal offensive mistakes. Rather than stretches of frustration with moments of brilliance, it was long stretches of brilliance with two moments of frustration. On the second drive of the game, Pyne couldn’t evade pressure enough to convert a 3rd and 2, falling a yard short of the first down. Notre Dame opted to go for it rather than try a 44-yard field goal and failed. That kept the deficit at 10 points. From there, the Irish offense did get going, but they had limited opportunities, getting just one more full drive in the half. They converted that one for seven points over nine plays and 80 yards. But USC responded and kept a double-digit lead at halftime. 

Coming out in the second half, the overwhelming sense was that Notre Dame needed to score after receiving the kickoff. USC was controlling the clock and marching at will. The Irish needed to minimize the number of stops required of their defense. And Pyne and Co. obliged for the first seven plays of the drive. Back-to-back completions to Mayer accounted for 35 yards, and the Irish quickly marched down to the red zone. There, Pyne kept the ball on a read-pass-option and looked to distribute it quickly to a running back in the flat. Instead, he never fully gripped the ball, dropping it for an easy USC fumble recovery. The Trojans subsequently mashed the Irish defense for 74 yards on seven plays and a touchdown. Notre Dame never again came closer than 10 points. 

“I think USC is a great team. That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things the rest of the season,” Pyne said. “Caleb Williams is a great player, their defense is good. They are a great team, but so are we and they got the best of us tonight.”

Pyne’s answer was in response to a question about whether it was fair to boil the game down to just two or three key moments. Pyne didn’t directly answer that, but his assessment of two great teams battling it out signaled a seemingly tacit agreement with the statement. USC wasn’t necessarily the better team. If Notre Dame executes on two more plays in this game, it’s an entirely different storyline. 

If the Irish take the points rather than go for it on fourth down, or just convert the fourth down, the game may have been 10-3. Given the lethal nature of Notre Dame’s second-half offense, a touchdown had the ill-fated fumble not occurred seems likely. That’s a 10-point swing. All of which goes to say that for all of Caleb Williams’ Heisman brilliance, the Irish were two snaps away from having the ball with six minutes left in a 31-31 game. Or, if you want to be picky, maybe USC operates a little differently on its lone second-half punt if the score is tied and the Trojans score. Still a one-possession game.

But with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, down 10, it felt lost. USC had only one non-game-ending possession last under three minutes, meaning if that held, Notre Dame would have needed to score twice in just over three minutes of game time. Cramped for time, Pyne forced a throw while scrambling, firing the game-sealing interception. 

Pyne’s season? Inconsistent and frustrating but shored up by an ability to generally deliver when absolutely needed. Against USC? Pyne and the Irish offense delivered all game only to beat themselves in two critical moments. 

It demonstrates growth — Notre Dame’s oft-critiqued offense was extremely close to going punch-for-punch with a Heisman candidate and one of the best offenses in the country. The same offense and the same quarterback that earlier this year frequently looked punchless against the likes of Cal and Stanford. It’s hard to score 38 points in 24 minutes and 37 seconds with an average starting field position that is 16 yards worse than your opponent. Defensively, the Irish looked outclassed by an opposing offense for the whole game, the first time that’s happened all year. 

“We were just trying to focus on execution,” Pyne said of playing from behind the whole game. “We were just trying to control what we control.” 

Ultimately what the Irish offense could feasibly even have controlled was barely enough to match the Trojans blow for blow. Thus, the game script demanded virtual offensive perfection. And in a regular season full of twists, turns and imperfection, Pyne and the offense were close to perfection. But a performance demonstrating vast improvement from the offense’s early and midseason form came up two snaps shy of accomplishing a daunting task. 

One fourth-down stop, one brutal, avoidable and self-inflicted mistake. One 11-point loss. 

That’s the margin of error in games between great opponents, and Pyne and a young Irish offense saw that firsthand in the Coliseum. There will be expectations that the Irish build on that growth in 2023, and Saturday night was a big first step. But before that, Notre Dame gets one more shot in 2022, and it comes with an opportunity to display sustained offensive improvement against a strong opponent. 

“We have a lot to play for, still. We’re gonna be in a bowl game, and I want to send these seniors out the right way…I’m gonna prepare for that, to finish the season out on a positive note,” Pyne said. “I’m proud of how we fought today, I’m proud of how we fought all season. I’m really proud of our team. In a month, when the game comes up, we’re going to finish it in the right way.”

Contact Aidan Thomas at