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Things We Learned: Notre Dame offense, QB Drew Pyne look to ‘tailor’ approach despite limitations

Notre Dame took care of business against UNLV on the strength of 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground as well as timely special teams play.

Backup quarterbacks are often referred to as the most popular players on a team. Fans so quickly assume the backup can play better than the starter as the passer in front of them misses passes or makes mistakes. True at Notre Dame in most any season, including this one when sophomore Tyler Buchner struggled for most of the day against Marshall in the second Irish loss of this wayward fall.

Perhaps there should be an addendum to that typical phrasing of “most popular player on the team.” Maybe it should then be followed by a long pause and “until he isn’t.”

Such is the fate for Notre Dame’s now-starting quarterback Drew Pyne, through five games in that leading role and suddenly devoid of any forward momentum, despite his second and third starts featuring six touchdowns and only one interception.

He is no longer the Irish fan base’s favorite player, no longer the subject of retroactive claims that he should have started all along, no longer the engine to a developing Notre Dame offense. Though, to be clear, Pyne will remain the Irish starter this season as long as he is healthy.

“Playing quarterback, I know some guys may make it look effortless, but it’s really difficult,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “It takes a lot of people on a football team and our coaching staff to help a quarterback have success.

“Drew Pyne is a warrior, and he’s done a really good job. He takes a lot of heat, and he gets a lot of praise. That comes with the position. When things go well, the quarterback is gonna get a lot of praise. When things don’t go so well, the quarterback is gonna take a lot of heat.”

Things went only alright for Notre Dame (4-3) in its 44-21 win against UNLV on Saturday. Pyne completed just half his 28 pass attempts for 205 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, the completion rate and yardage boosted by glorified handoffs on jet sweeps. And once again, just as was the case with Buchner before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, there is a fanbase murmur calling for freshman Steve Angeli to take over for Pyne. The new most popular player on the team … until he won’t be.

They overlook the fact that the starter is starting for a reason, and coaches’ livelihoods depend on making that decision. There is too much at stake for them to play a favorite. There is no quicker way to poison an entire locker room than to develop for the future at the expense of wins now.

Pyne has won four of five games as the Irish starter. He has played well more often than not, but his last two games of 360 yards and three touchdowns with one interception on a 49.1 percent completion rate will not be enough for Notre Dame in the coming weeks, particularly concerning when realizing the last two opponents both featured defenses comparable to Gene Chizik’s disastrous operation at North Carolina. (The most-recent SP+ rankings slot the Heels’ defense in at No. 105 in the country, 10 spots ahead of UNLV’s, but trailing Stanford’s No. 81 ranking.)

While he largely avoids turnovers, the most critical aspect of the position in Freeman’s opinion, Pyne’s inability to connect downfield with receivers has shown why the Irish named Buchner the starter after just one week of preseason practices. At the time, Freeman praised Buchner’s ability to also make plays with his legs, something that some took as a knock on his passing abilities, but Buchner was better than Pyne in throwing downfield, as well. Even when Buchner missed receivers in that Marshall game, it was by inches, not yards.

“Our offense was different with Tyler Buchner than it is right now with Drew Pyne, why? Because of some of his strengths,” Freeman said. “... You have to tailor what you’re doing around your players.”

Notre Dame thus tailors its offense to junior tight end Michael Mayer and a trio of running backs, though perhaps that trio may increasingly become a duo if sophomore Audric Estimé continues to lose fumbles.

“Right now the best player on offense, and not to single him out, but we all know it’s Michael Mayer. You’re going to find ways to get Mayer the ball,” Freeman said. “We got an offensive line that’s playing at a high level and three running backs that are playing at a high level.”

The offense changed when Buchner went down. He was the Irish starter for a reason, and Pyne’s strong performances against North Carolina and BYU should not have glossed over that. Then again, his shoddy showings against Stanford and UNLV also should not condemn the rest of his season. No player or team is as bad or good as the most recent game.

Pyne may need to remember that, as well.

“I know Drew pretty well,” Mayer said after Saturday’s win which featured him tying the all-time touchdowns mark for a Notre Dame tight end career. “I know when he’s down, I know when he’s up, I know when he’s in the middle. I know when he needs a slap on the butt to say, ‘Let’s go, we’re still in this thing, let’s drive down the field, let’s go score.’

“It’s important because he does get down sometimes, and I think he does need some people to lift him up sometimes.”

That is human nature, not something to have an existential crisis about when discussing the Irish starting quarterback. It is human nature that Freeman neglected to buoy when he went into Saturday afternoon hoping to kick some field goals to boost kicker Blake Grupe’s confidence. Pyne also needs that boost, and a couple extra chances at putting up points against the Rebels may have helped.

But Freeman knows he has to tailor his offense to its current abilities, and with two tough defenses en route (No. 31 defense for Syracuse, No. 14 for Clemson), points will be at a premium and some field goals could be pivotal.

Pyne’s limitations are a reality, not something that can be corrected on the fly in the season, and they are why Buchner was always the clear choice for Notre Dame as the starting quarterback. They will set a ceiling on the Irish season, especially with those two Orange defenses looming and a shootout at USC set to end the year.

Angeli will not be the answer, either. If Pyne is injured, as was nearly the case in Saturday’s second quarter, Angeli will take over and the offense will again adjust.

“We’re not going to ask him to do everything we ask Drew Pyne to do,” Freeman said of the true freshman with one career snap. “But we have to give him enough that he has a chance to be successful, but also make sure it’s small enough that we’re not asking him to be confused and do things that he’s not capable of doing.”

This is where Freeman’s comment about playing quarterback should be emphasized.

“I know some guys may make it look effortless, but it’s really difficult.”

Clemson just had to bench one of the most-celebrated quarterback recruits of the last decade, in his second season as a starter, to pull off a comeback win against Syracuse. Oklahoma’s season took a turn from bad to worse when its starting quarterback missed action. Penn State just wiped the floor with Minnesota when sixth-year Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan was sidelined.

North Carolina State went from ACC contender to ACC doormat when Devin Leary’s season ended. Then-No. 13 Kentucky could not manage even 300 yards in a home game against South Carolina because star quarterback Will Levis was sidelined. Alabama fans live in fear of Heisman-winner Bryce Young missing another game.

And those examples are just off the top of the head, absolutely no digging necessary. There likely could be another three paragraphs with three examples each.

Backup quarterbacks are, at least 90 percent of the time, the backup for a reason.

That has once again become clear in South Bend, no matter the position’s popularity.

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