Categories
Sports

Catch of the year?: After slow start, Braden Lenzy enjoys shining moment

Irish graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy shocked the nation Saturday afternoon with his circus catch in the first quarter of play against Navy. M&T Bank Stadium held its breath as junior quarterback Drew Pyne launched the ball 38 yards to an endzone-bound Lenzy. Navy cornerback Mbiti Williams Jr. appeared to be in a perfect position to defend the ball. Well, he was in a perfect position. Until Lenzy pinned the ball against the defender’s back to snatch it away with one hand.

Not only was it an unbelievable catch, but it was also another touchdown that extended Notre Dame’s lead over the Midshipmen to 21-6. Lenzy’s feat also placed Pyne in a more comfortable position in the pocket. With 234 passing yards in the first half, Pyne was making good reads, completing all but two of his 16 first-half passes. That early, substantial lead allowed the Irish to ultimately defeat Navy despite looking slow and disengaged in the second half. 

If you have not seen this pivotal moment rotating throughout highlight reels yet, it is certainly one to watch. Lenzy’s catch is all over headlines of major sports outlets. It even clocked in at number one on SportsCenter’s top 10 of the weekend.

Lenzy’s shining moment is well-deserved. The Oregon native has had a slow start to the season and experienced. several disappointments in his career. Lenzy only had 128 yards total in his first seven appearances of the season. Compare that to Lenzy’s performance against Navy, where he amassed five catches for 67 yards in the first quarter alone, and it is evident how far he has come. Pyne commented after the game on Lenzy’s work ethic and how it was truly his time to shine.

“Braden’s a guy that, all season, runs as hard as he can,” Pyne said. “He’s a guy that, in practice, always has a smile on his face. I felt like I gotta give him a shot. I scrambled out there and he beat his man by a couple yards. I saw that and I said I’m going to give him a chance so I threw it up and he made the unbelievable catch. I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life. I’m so happy for him and he’s going to continue to keep getting better.” 

Taking a look at Lenzy’s career, this catch comes at a pivotal time in the graduate student’s final year. Lenzy had a huge season in 2019 and was thought at the time to be the next big star for the Irish. His unique speed and chemistry with former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (’19) made him an explosive asset in the running and passing games, capable of a game-breaking play at any moment. He was frequently used offensively in the backfield, something Notre Dame could benefit from this season.

However, Lenzy failed to back up his breakout campaign with a disappointing 2020 showing. Lenzy suffered a hamstring injury in summer camp and then reaggravated it during the year. He finished with only seven catches on the season.

Lenzy figured back and better than ever in 2021. But he never developed chemistry with quarterback Jack Coan (’22). Even though he ended the season with 32 catches, he didn’t play as prominent a role in the offense as expected. Nevertheless, his seven-catch performance in the Fiesta Bowl ignited hopes and he returned in 2022 with unfinished business. 

With the disappointing and uneven performance by the offense this season, perhaps Lenzy’s catch of the year will ignite the Irish the rest of the way.

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu

Categories
Sports

Ladd: Offense rewrites their narrative in the Bible Brawl

The Irish played their cards right as they kept their perfect Shamrock Series streak alive with a 28-20 victory against No. 16 BYU out in Sin City. Though the Irish were favored by four, this was no walk in the park against a ranked team. Just getting this was huge for the Irish. But more importantly, the execution during the game demonstrated that the Irish offense CAN close. The early loss of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner at Marshall only added fuel to that fire in a game – to put it bluntly – that was chaotic and quite abysmal. 

A mediocre Cal performance did not help the Irish offense’s case much. And their inability to carry out the run game became a point of worry for Irish fans. It was unclear earlier in the season if junior Drew Pyne would perform as expected as a starter.. This weekend’s performance though ended that concern.

Before this weekend, a UNC victory showed signs that the Irish offense could gain momentum and put it all together. I was not sold though, as UNC’s defense is one of the weakest of all Power 5 teams. To me, the matchup versus BYU was a real test of what the offense can do. Pyne looked comfortable in the pocket yesterday, despite playing in front of a very vocal crowd of 62,742 in one of the NFL’s sleekest stadiums.

We’ve come a long way from Tommy Rees shouting expletives to a befuddled Drew Pyne on the phone at the Cal game. I felt proud of the offense last night as they did what they had to do and showed us the potential they were hiding. 

The offense started well early by controlling the line of scrimmage and despite struggles in the second half, they were able to pull off a win. An obvious point of notice was the Vegas quality show junior tight end Michael Mayer put on. Though I will not exhaust the topic, I thought the early use of Mayer was a smart game plan. He was able to make big plays early on in the game and is now the leading tight end in receptions for the Irish.

It goes without saying that the Pyne-Mayer duo certainly stole the show, and I was continually impressed by Mayer’s ability to “be there” and make some serious plays. A role model and leader for the team, Mayer’s hard work shines through on the field. I’m excited to see how he continues to be an asset for the Irish as the season progresses.

Another notable point for the offense was the number of other players who were able to step up and make plays. Aside from Mayer, Pyne connected with seven other receivers, including Jayden Thomas who was able to get his shining moment. The stellar 30-yard touchdown catch from Thomas was a difference-maker in the game and the first of his career. 

Freshman tight end Holden Staes also contributed, making his first career catch on a critical third-down conversion. Sophomore running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs were also active on the field. Estime finished with 110 total yards, 97 on the ground and 13 through the air, good enough for his third straight game with 100+ yards from scrimmage. Diggs finished with a team-high 17 carries, which he turned into 93 yards.

All in all, everyone really showed up last night, which is what is most important. I saw an Irish offense ready for action and looking to help their leader, a poised and decisive Drew Pyne. The O-line also contributed substantially, providing time for Pyne to get comfortable. I enjoyed this quote by Freeman via the post-game press conference. 

“It’s too often the quarterback gets too much blame and too much praise, right? We need guys to make the quarterback look good. And to see Jayden (Thomas) make some of those big catches that he made the day was huge for the confidence of our wideouts room, but also the confidence of our quarterback to be able to spread the ball around. And so, it was really good to see that.”

Pyne demonstrated his growth and ability to perform as the leader of the offense. Compared to his performances earlier this season, it was clear he took ownership of the position and knew exactly what job he needed to do. He excelled on third down in this game, which I think was a large part of the team’s success. Pyne showed excellent decisiveness and accuracy in the majority of his looks in the game. 

There is always room for improvement, however. In the second half of the game, BYU’s defense seemingly knew exactly where Pyne would go with the ball. Focusing heavily on Mayer almost began to hurt him, and the fourth quarter interception was especially problematic. Nevertheless, this is a learning experience for him. There is plenty of teaching tape for him to work on with Rees.

Though it is early, Pyne is on track for a historic year. His current completion percentage (72.5%) and passer efficiency rating (167.3) would represent single-season records for the Irish. The former is currently held by Ian Book, while the latter is shared by Jimmy Clausen and Bob Williams.

Will Pyne be able to keep this up? I do not know. But if he continues to play the way he did this weekend while perfecting mistakes, I think it is quite possible.

All in all, I think it was a stellar performance from the Notre Dame offense. At least, compared to what we have seen at the beginning of the season. Pyne’s poise and increasing confidence, paired with the help he received from the wideouts, was key in the victory over the Cougars. It will be interesting to see who continues to rise up and assist in making those plays. It takes everyone engaged and on the same page to create a cohesive and dominant offense. This was definitely the most we have seen of that from the Irish thus far. 

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu.

Categories
Sports

“That’s why we named him the starter”: Buchner ushers in new era against the Buckeyes

When he was first signed at Notre Dame, quarterback Tyler Buchner’s talent was lauded as the saving grace that would replace the stability that Ian Book brought to the Irish football program during his time in the position. When the former QB1 had played out his eligibility after having been the starter for three years, questions immediately arose about who would — and could — fill that position. Enter Buchner, a fellow Californian, four-star recruit that seemed ready to step into the role.

That was until graduate transfer Jack Coan entered the mix, unleashing the quarterback battle that ensued during the 2021-2022 season. With the position shifting between Buchner, Coan and junior Drew Pyne, the once straight path for the sophomore blurred slightly. But despite any uncertainty and doubt, it seems Buchner has won out and has become the sole man for the job.

That same uncertainty and doubt, however, followed Buchner into this season opener. After a year of experiencing several different quarterback combinations — often multiple in a single game — having a starter preestablished in fall camp was a shocking reality for Irish fans. Especially when it was one who did not play in the spring Blue and Gold game due to injury. Yet in the season opener, in his first game fully at the helm, Buchner has proven that although he may not yet be perfect in the position, he has great capacity to be.

Buchner exhibited both his run and pass game against the Buckeyes; he racked up 177 passing yards and a net 18 yards in rushing, nearly as much as sophomore running back — and sole touchdown scorer — Audric Estime’s 21 yards. He did so without a turnover, as head coach Marcus Freemen noted in his post-game press conference, which cannot be said for Coan’s or Book’s first games as starters for the Irish.

“I’m pleased with him,” Freeman said. “But the biggest thing I’m pleased with is zero turnovers.”

Aside from starting out on an even better foot than his predecessors, Buchner also had to adapt to the changing landscape on the field, shifting from the original idea to run both the ball and the clock, as Freeman said was their game plan heading into Saturday night. When his passing game was instead called upon, Buchner was able to capitalize on several opportunities for yardage gain, despite throwing some incomplete passes. 

In response to these mistakes, Buchner emphasized that it is the small facets of the game that eventually add up to how well a player or team performs.

“At the end of the day, it sort of comes down to execution and, you know, the little things,” Buchner said. “We didn’t do little things at the level of which, you know, the standard at which we hold ourselves to.”

In terms of execution, Buchner being a first-time quarterback was cause for concern, as he enters this new role in a highly anticipated matchup against one of the top teams in the country. However, Freeman noted that his adaptability and confidence prevented the moment from overwhelming him and instead, he rose to the challenge.

“That’s why we named him the starter,” Freeman said.

He demonstrated these qualities from the opening drive of the game, which ended in a field goal attempt that put the Irish on the board first. His rocket pass to sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. set the tone for what could be under Buchner’s leadership.

This confidence, Buchner said, is bolstered by his teammates. After having gone eight for eight at the start of the game, he noted how the offense was starting to gel based on their trust in each other and their abilities.

“Luckily, I’ve got a great support staff around me. Awesome teammates,” Buchner said. “They played really well. And so you know, having the confidence that, you know, the guys around me are going to execute and do their job well certainly helped.”

Buchner also acknowledged his equal responsibility in this system. When asked about the offensive line, Buchner said that it is his job to be in the correct protection, too. This rapport Buchner has with his offense gives Freeman high hopes for the quarterback’s future at Notre Dame.  

“He’s going to be a really great football player and a great leader for us,” Freeman said.

Emily DeFazio

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu