Drew Pyne’s best performance of the year came on the road against North Carolina earlier this year. The junior quarterback completed 24 of 34 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns. I wrote after the game that it must serve as a turning point for the Irish offense.
For one game, it looked like it would -– Pyne had another outstanding performance against BYU in Las Vegas. But since then, highlighted by the dismal loss to Stanford, Pyne has regressed significantly. Yes, the Irish offense has scored 87 points in the last two games, but that was due to a dominant ground game. As Sports Editor Aidan Thomas wrote in his column after the win over Syracuse, it isn’t a sustainable approach.
The offensive distribution against Syracuse was particularly striking. Pyne attempted 19 passes against 56 rushing attempts for the Irish. Barely a quarter of Notre Dame’s offensive snaps were pass plays. In the second half of the game against UNLV, Pyne threw just five passes.
Heading into this weekend’s game against Clemson, it is almost a guarantee that this same approach won’t work. The Tigers’ front seven is, as usual, among the most dominant units in college football. They are allowing opponents under 90 yards per game on the ground -– good for seventh in the nation and fourth among Power Five teams. If the Irish have any hope to pull off the upset, they will have to rely heavily on Pyne.
There is one small issue -– the coaching staff seems to have lost all faith in him. Pyne’s role has seemingly been limited to check downs and passes over the middle to junior tight end Michael Mayer in recent weeks. The approach has been effective recently, but it’s also highly predictable:
“You know what you have to stop: the run game and the ball is going to No. 87 (Mayer),” Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said, according to Irish Sports Daily.
This offensive predictability is not due to Pyne’s lack of ability. While he certainly isn’t going to challenge for the Heisman Trophy, his performances against North Carolina and BYU prove that he has all the physical and mental tools necessary to succeed at this level.
This recent lack of production rests squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff. Notre Dame currently ranks 65th in passing yards per completion with 12.08 which reflects a lack of big play capability. Pyne’s receivers certainly could help him out-he does not have a consistent secondary target behind Mayer. Yet, receivers like Lorenzo Styles, Braden Lenzy, and Tobias Merriweather have the tools necessary to be big-play threats and it is inexplicable that Notre Dame hasn’t deployed them more often in such a role.
Pyne certainly isn’t a perfect quarterback, but he’s the best we have. He needs to improve and cannot be absolved of all blame. His performance against Stanford was one of the main reasons why the Irish scored just 14 points–yet the coaching staff must put him in a position to succeed.
This column isn’t to say Notre Dame should abandon the run and turn into an air-raid offense overnight. Running the ball is still the strength of this team and it is smart to play to this strength. The Irish looked impressive against Syracuse, there can be no doubt about that. But Clemson is a different quality of opponent.
Running the ball can and should continue to be the focal point of the offense. But when an offense does not possess even the slightest vertical threat, it becomes much easier for defenses to stop the run. On the flip side, if defenses are forced to respect the quarterback’s passing ability, the offense is able to run the ball much more effectively.
In passing-down situations, opponents have discovered that Pyne is ineffective when they drop eight. More often than not, these situations happen when Notre Dame runs the ball on first and second down and suddenly Pyne is left with a third and long and no option but to throw the ball.
Finally, if the coaching staff shows they are willing to trust Pyne to take shots down the field in big situations, it would be a significant confidence booster for him and the whole team. If Pyne needs anything at this point in the season, its confidence. He’s shown that he can be an effective passer in the right situations. If the Irish are to pull off the upset this weekend, they will have to put full trust in their quarterback.