Chat transcript: Talking Tommy Rees, Drew Pyne and the chances of a Notre Dame clunker on Senior Day vs. Boston College
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football writer spent several hours answering reader questions in a live chat format. A full transcript, gently edited for length and clarity, appears below:
Frank from Royse City, Texas: Will Phil Jurkovec play this week for BC?
Mike Berardino: Texas Frank, thanks for the question. Based on what BC coach Jeff Hafley told reporters on Monday, Phil Jurkovec is still in the concussion protocol as he deals with right knee and rib injuries. Even if Emmett Morehead hadn't just led the Eagles to a last-minute road upset at No. 16 N.C. State, that would be a lot for the Notre Dame transfer to overcome in order to spoil Senior Day for his former teammates.
Harry, Auburndale, Fla. I hope Coach Freeman will play the tape of the 1993 BC game. Do you think it's possible for ND to have a letdown this coming Saturday? As a 22 point favorite, this team has shown they can play down to any level. What has saved Drew Pyne is the outstanding athletes that surround him. He can't be an option for next year. BTW who is T-Mac?
Mike Berardino: G'day Harry. I was making a reference to Auburndale's Tracy McGrady last time. Didn't the AHS Bloodhounds name their basketball gym after the NBA Hall of Famer? Anyway, this 2022 edition of Notre Dame football has repeatedly shown it is capable of just about anything on the performance spectrum. That aligns with the madness taking place across the college football landscape, but it's still a concern for a program that entered the year with 42 straight wins against unranked opponents. If there is an emotional letdown on Saturday, it might come from the Senior Day experience, not from beating Clemson two weeks ago or letting Navy claw back into the game last time out. It's notable that Marcus Freeman said he changed protocol to have the entire ND roster out there on the field for the extended pregame ceremony. You think that might be mentioned if the Irish start slowly on Saturday? And I appreciate the reference, but I'm not sure watching David Gordon left-foot the '93 Irish out of their national title aspirations will do much to scare the current group into a better showing.
Sean, Portland Ore: Are you a superstitious guy? I am not, but I am beginning to be. The only games/parts of games that I have missed this entire season: the 4th quarter vs. Ohio State, entire Marshall and Stanford games, and the 2nd half against Navy. How can I explain to my wife and family that making sure I watch every snap of the season from here on out is of utmost importance for the success of the team? I'm kidding... mostly... Will ND have confidence and "juice" after a horrible 2nd half vs. a horrible team to play BC strong?
Mike Berardino: Portland Sean, thanks for sharing. That is ... freaky? I'm not superstitious, but I've covered enough baseball to know that sport is rife with dudes who won't shave/change undergarments/switch dugout locations or alter a variety of other behaviors if they think it can help them get one more hit, much less than win a ballgame. You have my endorsement to watch every play of all remaining ND games.
Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: After ten games there is enough evidence to conclude Notre Dame plays to the level of their opponents. What, if anything, can the coaching staff do to get this team to play week in and week out with the same consistent performance? Thank you for answering my question.
Mike Berardino: Hey Alan, thanks for your question. Like most things about this season, it's hard to make blanket statements as perception tends to change week to week. For instance, when Marshall took down the Irish in Week 2, it happened on the greatest day in Sun Belt Conference history with similar upsets in College Station (Appalachian State) and Lincoln (Georgia Southern). Those 3 winners that day now have a combined 14 losses. When ND ran away from unranked UNC on the road, the Tar Heels weren't taken very seriously. Now they're 9-1 and up to No. 13 in the AP poll. Those October wins over No. 16 BYU and No. 16 Syracuse? You won't find either team in the AP rankings after both the Cougars and the Orange fell into four-game tailspins. In fact, they aren't even listed among those receiving votes. I guess what I'm saying is there's a difference between playing to the actual level of your opponent and its perceived level. To me the latter is a greater concern, and it's likely what's been in play with this year's Irish.
Bill from Lexington: A win is a win but have you ever seen a worse offensive performance from play calling, the coaches and players? Been a fan since 1960, that was really hard to watch. After that 2nd half against Oklahoma State and what happened against Stanford and Marshall nothing short of all out effort equals bad outcomes. Too much talent for this to happen, hope we fix the play calls against the blitz package.
Mike Berardino: Hey Bill, not sure if you're checking in from Lexington, Kentucky (home of the Wildcats) or Lexington, North Carolina (Barbecue Capital of the World). If it's the latter, you might recall Mack Brown's first two seasons at UNC, when snarky fans were printing up T-shirts that read "1-10, Do it Again." And then UNC did! I was around for that, so factor that in. I'd say what happened in Baltimore was the latest reminder of the dangers of clock watching. It's a bad idea in any workplace, but especially when you're trying to sit on a lead against a slow-moving offense down to its third-string quarterback. Attack, attack, attack. And then attack some more. As for defense, remember the words of the great John Madden: "The only thing the prevent defense prevents is winning."
Batavia, IL Brian ND Class of ‘75: Thanks for the weekly decompress sessions, Mike. After pounding the rock relentlessly against Syracuse and Clemson, why begin the Navy game with sideline to sideline throws? Where was that fearsome ND offensive line who outmanned the Navy line in pounds and height? What causes the sudden collapse with the blocking capability of the ND offensive line for both the run and pass? Do you have any idea what ND offense shows up this Saturday afternoon? Let it be known I am not a fan of Tommy Rees.
Mike Berardino: Batavia Brian, glad to help. Your question reminds me of the eternal riddle: Is it better to exploit your opponents' weaknesses or play to your strengths? Notre Dame defiantly stuck to its ground-and-pound identity for three straight wins, but when it put up 35 first-half points against a brutal Navy secondary, it got away from what it does best. Tommy Rees noted last week it only took a handful of running plays against Clemson's vaunted front seven before he declared on the headset: "Hey guys, we’re going to be able to run the ball on them. We have to stay with it."
That resolve didn't carry over against a Navy defense that was "unorthodox," per Freeman, in its willingness to sell out with an all-out blitz. Remove Pyne's scrambles, keepers and kneel-downs from the equation, and Notre Dame gained more than 3 yards on just 5 of 24 called running plays all day. Four of those plays went for negative yardage. No wonder Harry Hiestand, as I noted on Twitter, was so animated on the sideline as he coached up his O-line group with a 22-point lead and Navy chewing up 10 minutes off the clock. Even with Freeman challenging his O-line at the break, ND's second-half running plays were a disaster: 1, 3, 1, 3, 2, 2, (-1), (-1). Is that play-calling? Misplaced priorities? Falling victim to the "Navy lull"? Or is that a step back for an O-line that been imposing its will in the second half going back to the Cal game?
Sean, Greensboro N.C.: As a former coach, it seems to me that Freeman and his staff were terrible when it came to in game adjustments in the second half against Navy. Also. I do not understand the Irish not throwing slants or draw plays to slow that Navy rush. What am I missing?
Mike Berardino: Greensboro Sean, I hear you. How about the jet sweep? Or setting up a traditional screen pass with a convoy of blockers leading the way? As for the quick slant, this is where Pyne's stature works against him. He's had nine passes batted or tipped at the line this year, and at least three of those have led directly to interceptions. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be asked to get the ball out in "hot potato" fashion, especially with Michael Mayer and Mitchell Evans beefy enough to box out defenders for those quick tosses. By the way, a dozen different players have caught at least one pass for the Irish this year. Evans, who returned vs. Stanford, has yet to join that list.
IrishMike Altoona, Pa.: Does ND still go after a QB in the portal if Kenny Minchey commits?
Mike Berardino: Irish Mike, thanks for checking in. That would seem like the wise move.
Irish Rob, Scranton Pa.: A week after setting the world on fire, ND gives us the 2nd half against Navy.....Was this simply an instance in which everyone decided this was in the bag and went way too conservative (offense)/prevent (defense)??? Or was this an instance in which coaching deficiencies were brought to light (inability to adjust on the fly)? The former can be corrected, the latter is more of a worry for me moving forward....thoughts?
Mike Berardino: Irish Rob, fascinating question. The first part we've already discussed today. As for the latter concern, Al Golden's defense had allowed points on the opening series of the second half just once all year (BYU TD) before that 10-minute Navy death march. Even so, ND got the stop on third-and-5 that could've produced its fourth 3-and-out this year under those circumstances. Instead, trailing by 22, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo rolled the dice on fourth-and-1 from his 28 and got the bailout call on DJ Brown's holding penalty downfield. How different is that second if the Irish hold Navy there?
John from Munster, Ind.: Who is going to be the starter who we miss the most next year? And next year which side of the ball will improve the most?
Mike Berardino: Munster John, thanks for the question. The first one is easy: Mayer. Even so, considering how modest the offensive production has been through the air, I'm going to answer part 2 by saying it will be the offense. It would be hard for special teams or defense to make as big of a jump as the Irish offense could next year, but it will all depend on whoever wins the QB slugfest and his ability to get the ball to the wideouts. I may be giving too much credit to the trio of four-star wideouts set to join Tobias Merriweather, Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie, but that's my answer.
Ryan, Mars, Pa.: It’s Mars Man. What do you think about Lenzy's good catch and the punt block unit so far?
Mike Berardino: Mars Man! Hope you had a good weekend. That Braden Lenzy circus act was more than good, it was epic. It joined Jayden Thomas' Vegas magic trick against BYU on Chansi Stuckey's #CatchRequired evidence sheet. As for the punt block party, now at 7 on the year and five straight games, Brian Mason made today's list of 51 nominees for the Frank Broyles Award that will be announced on Dec 6. Mason is one of two special teams coordinators to make the cut: South Carolina's Pete Lembo is the other. The Gamecocks, under HC Shane Beamer, are the keepers of the "Beamerball" flame and have blocked five punts and six kicks overall this year. ND is still looking for its first blocked PAT or FG.
WalshHallQB70 St Augustine, Fla: Thanks for your excellent sports writing, outlined against a blue, gray October sky. I remain mystified by the lack of in-game adjustment to Navy’s all-out rush in the second half. Did Coach Rees head out for crab cakes and miss what was going on in the green plain below? Drew Pyne appeared equally puzzled, but gotta believe he needed more help from staff. Any feedback from the O.C.?
Mike Berardino: Hello Walshie. Thanks for those kind words. As mentioned earlier in the chat, Navy's fearless blockade worked wonders against an Irish running game that had been cruising at full throttle. We'll have our weekly chance to lob grenades, er, questions at Rees after Tuesday's practice, but I didn't see any remnants of crab cakes (or delivery bags from Rusty Scupper) in the Ravens' press box on Saturday.
Frank, Lakeside Park, Ky.: Thanks for the chats. It seems a disproportionate amount of blame is being cast on Drew Pyne for the Navy ,second half collapse. I do not recall seeing a swing pass, a screen pass or any other calls to effectively combat Navy’s zero coverage pressures. It seems that Rees is the guy checking out of play calls. Shouldn’t audibles be left to the QB? I hear people yearning for Tyler Buchner. He is 0-2 as a starter. Drew Pyne is 7-1 as a starter and should be 8-0.ND definitely needs an accomplished play caller as an analyst to mentor Rees imho .A lot of balls get batted down, intercepted and overthrown across college football. Pyne has had a lot to do with salvaging the season and deserves more credit for his efforts. .Also, what is so hard about coming up with a design to get the ball to Chris Tyree on the perimeter?
Mike Berardino: Colonel Frank, the honor is mine. I'm not sure where this "yearning" for Buchner is emanating from, but I tend to agree with you that Pyne's proper tag to this point falls somewhere between "legend" — Ian Book's pre-Clemson term — and "albatross." I'd like to see ND move the pocket more with Pyne as well. He was quite efficient with his decision-making on the move. In the pocket, en route to the fetal position, not so much. As for Tyree, yes, that has been a season-long mystery. Per Pro Football Focus, the Jet, as his teammates call him, has 17 catches (out of 19 targets) for 106 yards (6.2-yard average) on passes either behind the line (including jet sweeps) or on routes of 9 yards or less (7 of 7). In 2021, with Jack Coan at QB, Tyree had 23 catches (25 targets) in that range for 203 yards (8.8 average). That 30-percent reduction in his impact on the safe/short routes (by ypc) has been hard to overcome.
Tim, Vero Beach, Fla.: Any potential surprises, good or bad on the recruiting trail prior to the December signing day for the Irish?
Mike Berardino: Dodgertown Tim, thanks for finding us. Until Dec. 21 arrives, it's important to remember these are all NONBINDING commitments. So, yeah, there could still be a few surprises, especially in Year 2 of recruiting in the NIL era. The flipping (and attempted flipping) just never stops. You do wonder how any of these kids get their homework done.
Mike from N.C.: First, I hope you can help us make some sense between the first and second half’s of last Saturdays game. I painfully watched the second half twice and am still at a loss to understand what happened. Second….I wrote you last week about Pyne being uncomfortable in the pocket. This week when not under pressure in the first half he was very good. In the second half….awful. I get it, no time. But he again looked lost under pressure and simply couldn’t get the ball out of his hands; even though he knew exactly what Navy was going to bring. Freeman and Rees were no help in all fairness. Is it time to give another QB a chance? Thanks Mike….always appreciate your unbiased point of view.
Mike Berardino: Carolina Mike, good to hear from you again. As Pyne was melting down in the second half, I did recall our exchange from last week and I was mildly ashamed at my quick dismissal of your valid observation. As for Steve Angeli, if the coaching staff hasn't trusted the freshman enough to give him a series here or there against UNLV or Navy, I don't see him as a viable option in the final two weeks of the regular season. This might also be a good time to point out just how similar the defensive profiles are for BC and Navy, at least according to PFF.com efficiency rankings. Pass coverage: Navy was 128th in FBS before last week, BC is 118th this week. Rushing defense: Navy was 39th, BC is T-35th. Pass rush: Navy was 89th, BC is 68th. So, even though BC is 2 points away from being winless against FBS competition this year, the Eagles might try to follow a similar blueprint against an Irish offense that had to lose confidence with that 12-yard second half in Baltimore.
Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: I think Tommy Rees has done a very good job as an offensive coordinator based on the inexperience, injuries and limitations Notre Dame has at quarterback. In your opinion, is my assessment correct or do you see things differently? If I am over-evaluating Coach Rees, please let me know. Thank you for answering my question.
Mike Berardino: Hey Alan, let's go back to you for the last question. It's a mixed bag, for sure, but considering the overall level of talent and fan backlash, I tend to agree with you that Rees is undervalued for what he's done this year. For instance, although Notre Dame is tied for 59th in scoring offense (29.7 ppg) and 39th in scoring defense (22.3), I'm guessing it would surprise most Irish followers to learn the PFF.com efficiency rankings have it almost exactly reversed: Rees' offense is T-23, Golden's defense is 47th and Maestro Mason's special teams are seventh nationally. Not sure how much the unveiling of Mitch-a-Palooza helps Rees' standing in those PFF rankings, but the TE sneak is now 5 for 5. I'd keep running M-a-P in short yardage until somebody stops it.
Mike Berardino: That's a wrap, chat people. Thanks again for all these questions. See you right back here at 11 a.m. next Tuesday of Thanksgiving Week (Nov. 22) for our next live chat. Stay safe out there and be good to each other.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.