Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM JANUARY 2023 5 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at I f you look only at the numbers, you wouldn't even ask the question. A glance at the stat line would tell you Drew Pyne locked down Notre Dame's quarterback job for 2023 and beyond. There would be no discussion about dipping into the transfer portal. Tyler Bu- chner, the injured initial starter Pyne re- placed, would find himself Wally Pipped. Pyne, in 11 games and 10 starts this year, threw for 2,021 yards with 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. That's three more touchdowns than Ian Book had in 10 games when he led Notre Dame to the College Football Play- off in 2020. It's only three fewer than 2021 starter Jack Coan's 13-game total. His 155.27 passer rating is 20th nationally and fourth best in Notre Dame history. If only it were that easy. The thing is, decision making in this sport and at this position is based on more than just the numbers. Your eyes would tell you Notre Dame's offense, while 8-2 with Pyne at quarterback, is imperfect because of the passing attack. That's why the Irish are pursuing a transfer at the position, a decision that played a part in Pyne's portal plunge after head coach Marcus Freeman told the QBs about it. "We're so grateful for what he did for our program this year, and I wish him all the best," Freeman said. "I'll never go back and regret the conversation we had about our plans moving forward." The pass game ebbs and flows are not all on Pyne, of course. He takes more crit- icism than someone with his production probably should. But he plays the game's most impactful position. The Irish of- fense was functional when he took over, but they're looking for more than that. Finding it starts with the quarterback. And that's why the Irish's response to an 8-4 regular season has included a thorough exploration of the transfer portal for a quarterback, in addition to giving Buchner a chance to reclaim the job. Pyne earned consideration to be the answer in 2023 had he stayed, but Notre Dame would have been shortsighted to hand him the job in December. Freeman does not speak like someone who is shortsighted. Nor did he have to look far Nov. 26 at Los Angeles Me- morial Coliseum to see the impact of a star quarterback. USC's Caleb Williams dictated the outcome of the game in a 38-27 win by the Trojans. Pyne, even when throwing as many touchdowns (3) as incompletions that game, fell short of that type of influence. It feels cruel to say after he completed 88.5 percent of his passes (23 of 26), av- eraged 12.2 yards per attempt and helped the Irish set a season high in yards per play (7.8). But it's not wrong to say. And it's why a strong statistical sea- son didn't satiate the desire for Notre Dame to get more out of that position. The Irish offense was competent this year. Dynamic? Not so much. They saw the power of dynamism against USC. The source was a player from the portal. Notre Dame likely won't pull the Heis- man winner from the transfer wire. But that's not to say it can't find someone who can ignite a steadier passing game. Tennessee, Washington, Oregon and Utah — all top-15 teams in the final CFP rankings — start grad transfer quar- terbacks. The Volunteers, Huskies and Ducks are the Nos. 1, 4, 8 and 17 teams in yards per play. Notre Dame is 58th. None of their starters were consid- ered flashy additions either. They com- bined for just one season inside the top 80 in passer rating at their old stops. This isn't the aisle Notre Dame wants to shop down very often. There's something to be said for letting the player you re- cruited grow in the job over multiple sea- sons. That's what the Irish did by tabbing Buchner the starter before the season. Had Buchner remained healthy all year, maybe the Irish wouldn't need to consider the portal. But assuming his growth will continue upon full recovery from shoulder surgery is a risk the Irish can't take if they want to push them- selves closer to the offense they faced to end the regular season, even if he has a productive return in the Gator Bowl. Pyne provided a fine floor when Buch- ner went down. Notre Dame getting to the heights Freeman envisions involves rais- ing the ceiling. It's hard to have watched Pyne's season and conclude he did that. Certain numbers also tell that same story. Pyne has a season completion rate of 64.6 percent. He has not finished a game in the 60s, though. Every start has been above 70 percent or below 53. He has thrown for less than 160 yards in five of 10 starts. Notre Dame is 117th out of 131 FBS teams in pass attempts per game (25.3). Those are the numbers that led to more discussion about what he's not rather than what he is. The latter was on display in Los Angeles, the first time this year the Irish offense didn't deserve to shoulder the blame post-defeat. But so was the former — not because of what Pyne didn't do, but what his counterpart could. Notre Dame owes itself a look at every possible solution that can give its pass- ing offense a higher gear it didn't have this season. That includes the transfer portal for a QB and a receiver (or two). The Irish are exploring both, and the process involves tough conversations with the current team like Freeman had with the quarterbacks. The straight talk is necessary for Freeman to reach the goals he set upon taking this job. "We all have to continue to move forward," Freeman said. "My job is to make decisions and continue to evaluate what's best for our football program." ✦ Junior quarterback Drew Pyne entered the trans- fer portal Dec. 2 and won't play in the Gator Bowl. PHOTO BY MEG OLIPHANT Marcus Freeman Has Big Picture In Mind At QB

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