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Leftovers & Links: Turnovers to determine Notre Dame’s QB battle; notes on Ohio State, Tennessee State and Brian Kelly

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 09: Tyler Buchner #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts a pass against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the second half of the game at Lane Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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Defensive coaches tend to value turnovers, both given up and forced, more than offensive coaches. Forcing a turnover is the most dramatic example of success for a defense while giving up a turnover is only marginally worse for an offense than a punt.

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman is decidedly a defensive coach, even if he is spending more time with the Irish offense this spring to pick coordinator Tommy Rees’ mind. As they weigh the ongoing Notre Dame quarterback competition between rising sophomore Tyler Buchner and rising junior Drew Pyne, mistakes loom largest in the tallying.

“I was really, really pleased today,” Freeman said Saturday after a 100-play scrimmage. “The only way to win the scrimmage is takeaways. Up until the second-to-last series, the offense didn’t turn the ball over one time, and then we had a pick late in the scrimmage, but by that time, the offense was way ahead.”

Rees insisted he did not remember who threw the interception or if it was even one of the leaders rather than the younger quarterbacks, rising sophomore Ron Powlus III or early-enrolled freshman Steve Angeli. But the lack of turnovers this spring has kept close the competition between Buchner and Pyne.

“That’s been a point of emphasis all spring,” Rees said. “With the exception of one practice through the first 11, they’ve been outstanding in that field. There was one practice — (Northwestern transfer safety) Brandon Joseph, he showed up one day. Outside of that practice, they’ve done a really nice job of taking ownership of that. They know how critical it is.”

Freeman and Rees continue to insist the competition is tight, and the rest of the world will continue to expect Buchner to be named the starting quarterback no later than mid-August.

“It’s a great competition, especially between Tyler and Drew,” Freeman said. “… I’ll sit down with Tommy and say, ‘Hey, give me your grades. Let’s talk about where you see these two.’ It’s still going to be an evolving process in terms of until you name a starter.”

The façade of a quarterback competition was made entirely worthwhile for one moment of honest self-deprecation from Rees. On the importance of quarterbacks avoiding turnovers …

“I know how critical it is through my own mistakes.”

Rees ranks third all-time in Notre Dame history with 37 career interceptions, behind Steve Beuerlein’s 44 and Brady Quinn’s 39, but Rees’ 0.79 interceptions per game in his career are far from the most prolific Irish rates, led by Terry Hanratty’s 1.31 and Joe Theismann’s 1.17.

To anyone upset Notre Dame is stooping to play an FCS team in 2023, let’s point out the teams the Irish have played in recent years that rated below multiple FCS teams in 2021. The most widely-respected rankings of both FBS and FCS teams are the Sagarin ratings, and in that, James Madison finished last season at No. 68 and Montana at No. 91, followed in short order by Montana State (No. 92) and Eastern Washington (No. 95). Behind them …

No. 96: Georgia TechNo. 97: Navy, annual opponent, obviously including 2022No. 101: NorthwesternNo. 104: Ball StateNo. 121: UNLV, 2022 opponentNo. 130: South FloridaNo. 138: DukeNo. 142: VanderbiltNo. 151: New MexicoNo. 153: Bowling GreenNo. 166: TempleNo. 190: ConnecticutNo. 211: Massachusetts

It sure is a good thing Notre Dame has never diluted its schedule with an FCS opponent before. <sarcasm font> Those 11th- and 12th-best opponents have proven crucial to Playoff hopes for the Irish. </sarcasm font>

Hopefully, Marcus Freeman finds better ways to spend his time than reading this space, but he parrotted one of the running gimmicks around here over the weekend, citing exactly how many days until Notre Dame faces Ohio State. In only 145 days, Freeman will coach against his alma mater.

Irish optimism will abound heading into the Sept. 3 matchup, but few others, if any, will give Notre Dame a chance. Some sportsbooks opened the first gambling lines for the biggest week one games, and they initially favored the Buckeyes by only 10.5 points.

A day later, that had risen to +13.0.

Do not expect that spread to move back down. Ohio State is listed as the third-favorite to win the national title next year, still available in some locations at slightly better than 5-to-1 odds. Shortly after Georgia won the 2021 title, the Buckeyes were listed at 6-to-1, another example of the odds moving in their direction.

Scoff at the gambling market’s insights at your own peril. Ohio State’s offense in 2022 will be one of the best seen in the last few decades, likely no worse than a notch or two below LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020.

All break-ups turn into spin zones eventually. Even if Brian Kelly was largely diplomatic when introduced at LSU on Dec. 1 — “I can’t say enough about my 12 years at Notre Dame, the incredible people that I worked with and certainly the incredible players that I had the honor to coach there.” — at some point he was going to point out all the reasons he thinks the Tigers program is better than the Irish. In a job dependent on recruiting, that would be only natural.

So when Kelly granted two national interviews last week, many of the excerpted quotes about training tables, facilities and proximity to the country’s top talent were anything but surprising. One quote, however, stood out as unexpected and perhaps even a faux pas in the coaching community.

At 60, Kelly is admittedly on the tail end of his career, exceedingly unlikely to seek another job after his $95 million payday in Baton Rouge, but he will still need to hire assistant coaches and rely on his connections in the coaching ranks to impress some of them. Badmouthing another coach will not help with that, nor does a slight on Marcus Freeman help Kelly in any way.

Yet …

“I needed 19 years of head coaching experience to $%#* up the first couple of years at Notre Dame,” Kelly said to CBS Sports. “There will be some rough spots [for Freeman]. He’s smart. He’ll lean on the people around him.”

This is not to say Kelly is wrong. As a 36-year-old, first-time head coach, Freeman is almost certainly going to stumble a few times. He already did in the Fiesta Bowl faceplant. But sometimes being right does not justify pointing something out. In this instance, it seems Kelly had more to lose by saying it than to gain.

Hence, that was the most surprising thing in his first of a few national media tours at LSU, by far. Frankly, nothing else in the stories was all that noteworthy, given the ground was all covered when Kelly left abruptly for LSU five months ago.

The Associated Press article on Kelly at LSU did include the note, “The whirlwind courtship of Kelly by LSU took place over the course of about 10 days that included Thanksgiving weekend.”

Things were likely not finalized when Kelly addressed the media after Notre Dame obliterated Stanford the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but the possibility of his departure was also more probable than not, in hindsight. That timing provides some new color to a few quotes from that postgame availability.

“We’ll take the week off, and get this team ready for postseason action,” Kelly said on Nov. 27, albeit harmlessly.

Even more notable with that timing, though, is that Kelly had clearly authorized his representatives to speak with LSU when he offered his most notable quote of that week.

“Unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check …,” Kelly said about the thought of ever leaving Notre Dame on the Monday before it faced Stanford.

Even if 10 days was rounding up, Kelly knew that check was incoming.

None of this changes anything, but it does provide a more complete picture of Kelly’s final week or so in South Bend.

Notre Dame’s return to the Basilica on gamedays another sign of Marcus Freeman’s guiding mandateNotre Dame adds Tennessee State to 2023 schedule, the first FCS or HBCU opponent in Irish historyNotre Dame adds defensive tackle depth via Harvard graduate transferNotre Dame’s unique 2023 made playing an HBCU the logical choice, hence Tennessee StateFriday at 4: By scheduling Tennessee State, Notre Dame met inevitable frustrations with welcome opportunity

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