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Rep by rep: It’s Pyne Time

The first time Irish fans saw Drew Pyne take the field for the blue and gold, it was at the tail end of a 52-0 blowout win over South Florida. Not exactly the most memorable moment. However, the second time Pyne saw the field with the Irish tells you everything you need to know about Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Notre Dame was facing Alabama in the College Football Playoff. When Ian Book briefly left the field for injury, Pyne was thrust into the action. A true freshman at the time, Pyne entered for two plays, completing his only pass attempt for seven yards. It was hardly a groundbreaking play, nor was it an extended performance. But with no warning, playing in the Rose Bowl against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, Pyne came in cold off the bench to quarterback the Irish offense.

“My mindset has never changed since the moment I got here,” Pyne said on Tuesday. “I will always be prepared and as ready as possible for any point that I need to help the team.”

That mindset has been evident throughout Pyne’s career at Notre Dame. Last year, he appeared in two games. First, he replaced an injured Jack Coan against Wisconsin, with the Irish trailing 13-10. He completed six of eight passes, including his first career touchdown toss. That score pushed the Irish lead to 24-13. A week later, Pyne performed admirably in attempting to rally Notre Dame from a 17-0 deficit against Cincinnati. He got the Irish within four points despite being forced into a one-dimensional offense that threw the ball 22 times in the second half.

Last weekend, Pyne entered in relief of an injured quarterback once more, replacing sophomore Tyler Buchner. This time, Pyne did struggle, tossing an interception that sealed an already likely Notre Dame loss. Although he led a touchdown drive to give the Irish a last-gasp onside kick attempt, it ultimately proved to be too little, too late.

But now, with Buchner announced out for the season, it’s truly Pyne time in South Bend. But according to the redshirt sophomore, that hardly affects his mindset. “ I’m going to keep preparing and treating practice like a game every day,” Pyne commented. “It’s easy to fall in a trap, to think that it’s different. I’ve prepared as hard as I can no matter what situation I’ve been in. I’ve got to lead the guys on the practice field, push them as hard as I can every day and that’s what I’m focused on right now.” 

Pyne’s biggest challenge is sparking a lethargic Notre Dame offense. Notre Dame has scored 31 total points this season. They matched or exceeded that output in 10 of their 13 games last season. The ground game has been nonexistent outside of Buchner. And the passing game has been inconsistent at best and awful at worst. Now, without their biggest running threat, and the offensive line continuing to struggle, what can Pyne improve upon in his first career start?

The Connecticut product was quick to point out that it’s hardly just one guy or one position that was failing the offense.

“I think it’s easy to point fingers on the offense, but it takes eleven guys to succeed on offense to run the ball,” Pyne said. “It takes receivers, it takes a quarterback, it takes a running back. It takes 11 guys to succeed.”

Every player can certainly share some of the blame for this 0-2 start. There were dropped passes that could have been touchdowns. Missed blocking assignments from the offensive line and tight ends that caused negative plays in big situations. In the passing game, only junior tight end Michael Mayer and sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles have more than three receptions. Pyne knows he must find a way to get them the ball. But he also needs to spread the offense out.

“I think Coach Rees does a great job of that. He knows how to get guys open and create space. He knows how to put us and me in a great position to succeed,” Pyne said. “I have full faith in him and everything he does.” 

Additionally, there was a lack of disruptive play defensively, punctuated by the zero turnovers the Irish have caused. Pyne can’t fix everything, but he needs to provide a spark. And Pyne is ready to do just that. Not for his own benefit, but for the teammates that have helped him throughout his career, which has included a bevy of quarterback battles.

“I’m not here for personal accolades or for stats. I’m here to do whatever I can to help my team win. I think the guys know that. Right now, I play for [Jarret Patterson], for Bo Bauer, for AD [Avery Davis], for guys like that,” Pyne said, name-dropping a few Irish veterans in their final year on the team. “I’m playing for all those guys on the team that have taken me in since I got here.” 

That preparation starts in practice, as it has for three years for Pyne. And he’s not letting anything get to his head, and he’s taking it day by day.

“I’m not thinking long-term. The opportunity I see is after this I’m going to go watch film. It’s easy to fall into that trap of letting this get to my head, but the opportunity I have, from where I’m standing, is being able to… come back tomorrow and have a great practice… taking it practice by practice, rep by rep, as hard as I can and with as much focus as I can.” 

Pyne’s in a relatively unique position. Frequently, a four-star recruit who lost consecutive quarterback battles (last year to Coan, this year to Buchner) would hardly hesitate before entering the transfer portal. By 247 sports, Pyne was the eighth-ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2020. He received interest from the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and other premier programs.

But Pyne has first and foremost always been all in on Notre Dame. Last year, after the Cincinnati game, he discussed his frequent trips to the Basilica, or his walks around campus that he used to calm himself and reflect after practices and games. Pyne has always bled blue and gold. Now he gets a chance to do so on the field.

“It’s an honor to be able to help this team win,” he said “I’m focused on one thing and that’s preparing as hard as I can for Cal and practicing to be able to have success this week.”

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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Irish Insider: Marshall 2022

‘Dominate every day’: Irish defense looks to build on Week 1 effort

Former walk-on Matt Salerno primed for bigger role in Irish offense

McGinley: This weekend, the Irish define themselves

The Observer grades each position, picks players that need to improve

Notre Dame keys to victory vs. Marshall

Notre Dame staff picks

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
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Sports

Former walk-on Matt Salerno primed for bigger role in Irish offense

The pass was tipped once, twice and then three times before Matt Salerno, on his back, brought the ball in for a 31-yard gain. The improbable catch extended a Notre Dame drive early in the second quarter and led to their only touchdown of the game. 

 “It’s probably the biggest play I’ve made in my career,” Salerno said. “It was great to have that opportunity, I’m glad Tyler (Buchner) trusted in me enough to throw me that ball.”

Salerno didn’t see the field much on Saturday — he was on the field for just eight snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, but he was there when the team needed him to make a critical play. For the former walk-on, it was impactful for him to be able to contribute in such a big matchup. 

“That’s really my first time taking significant reps [against] a big team and a big moment like that on offense,” he said. “For me, [it is] that personal confidence that I know I can compete at that level.”

It was only Salerno’s second career reception — the first, which came in November’s blowout victory over Georgia Tech, went for a loss of four yards. 

Salerno joined the team as a walk-on prior to his freshman season in 2018 and only saw the field once in his first two years. He became the team’s primary punt returner during their run to the College Football Playoff in 2020 but managed just 45 total yards on 10 returns. He reprised that role at times throughout 2021, including in the Fiesta Bowl loss against Oklahoma State.

Prior to the 2022 season, Salerno finally earned a scholarship after four years in the program. This year, he will likely play a pivotal role in a wide receiver group that was already thin before Avery Davis suffered a season-ending injury. 

“We’re so short on guys that everyone has to play a lot of different positions,” Salerno said after a practice last month. “Being a fifth-year guy, I know the offense really well so just being able to fill in any role that needs someone.”

The loss of Davis — a sixth-year player and team captain — hurt the team’s morale, but Salerno said it was important to keep going.  “He wouldn’t want us to be moping around, we still have a mission to do, so we’re going to do it for him,” he said. 

As a whole, the play of the wide receiver group underwhelmed many observers during Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. The group totaled just three receptions for 117 yards. Junior tight end Michael Mayer was Buchner’s primary target throughout the game, hauling in five passes for 32 yards Saturday. 

For Salerno himself, it wasn’t all celebratory Saturday night, either. With the Irish trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, after they had driven into Ohio State territory, he was called for a controversial offensive pass interference call. 

The penalty pushed the Irish back to their own 44-yard line. The offense never regained its momentum, losing 2 yards over its remaining two drives, while Ohio State scored another touchdown to put the game out of reach. 

“I think we handled it well,” Salerno said of the challenge of playing in Ohio Stadium. “I know a lot of people are talking about the lack of receptions, but there was also just a lack of plays we ran on offense in general.” 

Salerno said the team ran less than 50 plays on offense as part of a strategy to keep the Buckeyes’ explosive offense off the field as much as possible. “It was part of our game plan to limit their offensive possessions,” he said. “Even though the production wasn’t necessarily there, it wasn’t really a slight on the receivers. We’re just going to keep building on that.”

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, starting his first collegiate game, had an up-and-down performance, starting off by completing his first eight passes, but finished 10-18. 

“I thought he did really well,” Salerno said of Buchner’s play. “As a receiver, there’s a lot of things that I need to be on top of in terms of the playbook and that’s just a single little sliver of what Tyler needs to be on top of…just for him to be so poised in that moment and perform, proud of him.” 

Despite the loss to the Buckeyes and the fact that the wide receivers were held to such a low output, Salerno believes that there were many positives to take away from the matchup in Columbus. “We know we can compete against one of the best defenses in the country,” he said. “Like Coach Freeman said, this will be our floor and it’s only going up from here.” 

Salerno will certainly play a pivotal role in the wide receiver group moving forward, especially with graduate student Joe Wilkins and sophomore Deion Colzie working through foot and knee injuries, respectively. 

After toiling for four years while rarely seeing the field on offense, Salerno will take a turn this season stepping into the limelight. 

Liam Coolican

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu

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Notre Dame vs. Marshall: Keys to Victory

Notre Dame proved to be a worthy opponent against the favored Ohio State Buckeyes last weekend. However, a scoreless second half was the nail in the coffin for the Irish to ultimately lose the matchup. Nevertheless, they beat the brutal 17.5-point spread and showcased the team’s potential. Next for the Irish is this weekend’s home opener against the Marshall Thundering Herd. Though the Irish are overwhelmingly favored in this matchup by the national press (also ranked the second-easiest game on the schedule by Observer Sports Staff), they must not be complacent and look past this game.  They will need to execute what was learned from the loss last weekend. Here are three key points for Notre Dame to capture a secure win and work on some of its shortcomings. 

  1. Less conservative play calling

Last weekend, Notre Dame came out to establish the run game and keep the ball out of the hands of the explosive Ohio State offense. This earned the Irish the lead through the end of the third quarter. However, the Buckeye defense soon adjusted and their changes were apparent and effective. In the second half, it appeared the Irish were playing not to lose, which ultimately resulted in their demise. Rees chose not to take shots downfield with deep passes and instead continued to repeatedly run the ball. This led to Buchner only completing 10 passes. There is lots of potential here this weekend, especially in a less risky game, for Rees to be more aggressive with the play calling. 

  1. Create holes for the running game

As mentioned above, the run game struggled last week against Ohio State. The lack of holes opened for the running backs proved to be a problem for the Irish in moving the chains. Last year, the offensive line was a weakness for the Irish. it was supposed to have been much improved with the return of coach Harry Hiestand. Missing an injured Jarret Patterson didn’t help but the O-line had its challenges blocking a fired-up Ohio State defensive line. There is still time to pick up the pieces, however, and against an undersized Marshall defensive line is the time to do it. 

  1. Don’t underestimate Marshall

Marshall begins its first season in the Sun Belt Conference after coming over from Conference USA. Head coach Charles Huff previously was an assistant at Alabama and Penn State and will have his team prepared. The Herd went 7-6 last year with four of those losses by a touchdown or less. Last weekend the Herd blew out FCS school Norfolk State in their first game of the season, capturing a 55-3 victory. QB Henry Colombi is a transfer from Texas Tech, so he has familiarity with big crowds having started five games as a Red Raider. Nevertheless, Marshall will be missing star running back Rasheen Ali. Ali rushed for over 1400 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. A difference maker on the field, he would have been someone for the Irish to watch out for.  

Though it seems like an easy path to victory for the Irish, The Thundering Herd has absolutely nothing to lose. They have some talent on both sides of the ball with the capability of keeping it close for a quarter or two. The Irish should not get sleepy this weekend as The Herd will surely be intense and looking to upset the Irish. Notre Dame must fix last week’s mistakes and continue to improve on the positives to handle Marshall and continue their march to the College Football Playoffs.

Madeline Ladd

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu