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Things We Learned: Offensive development from Notre Dame’s receivers and offensive line accelerates Pyne’s growing confidence

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Tight end Michael Mayer hauled in two touchdowns to help lead Notre Dame to a 28-20 victory over No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas, as they improved to 11-0 in the Shamrock Series.

In-season development need not spark retrospective regret. It should incur heightened expectations for the seven games remaining for Notre Dame (3-2) this season, not lamentations about losses in the past.

Taking the latter approach risks wishing Irish junior quarterback Drew Pyne would not have so efficiently led the way to a 28-20 win against BYU in Las Vegas on Saturday. Warping his development into an indictment of decisions made months ago serves only to shortchange Pyne’s progress.

Pyne threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-28 passing not because he should have begun the season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, but because he has found confidence once thrown into the role three games ago after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

“That comes with confidence,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “When you start making the right decisions, you take care of the football. Now you’re seeing him start to make plays.”

Talk to Pyne, now or before he started against Cal in mid-September only to play so poorly in the first quarter as to turn his offensive coordinator into a meme, and it is clear he never lacked confidence. That does not mean he could not find more or find tangible justification for what he already had.

“I look at the first half of the Cal game, and really maybe the first quarter, it wasn’t a lack of confidence. It was a lack of execution, and that really messes with your confidence,” Freeman said in the immediate aftermath of beating the Cougars in front of a raucous, split crowd. “Drew Pyne is always ready to go.

“Now what you’re seeing is the execution starting to be there, so the confidence is starting to rise.”

Pyne could not have played much worse in his first few moments. Between taking over in the closing moments against the Herd and that you-can-laugh-about-it-now first quarter against the Bears, Pyne went 7-of-15 for 47 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was, bluntly enough, bad.

“Something that all you guys saw during the Cal game, all my teammates coming up to me when I was down, when I wasn’t succeeding,” Pyne said Saturday night. “Every single player on the team, offense, defense, special teams, so many guys came up to me, had my back.”

In the 11 quarters since then, Pyne has thrown for 674 yards and eight touchdowns on 59-of-76 passing with only one interception. That’s a 77.6 percent completion rate and 8.87 yards per attempt. He has been, well, good.

“I don’t really worry about stats,” Pyne continued from Allegiant Stadium. “I just worry about winning. I have no clue, I couldn’t even tell you ballpark how many yards I threw. Whatever.

“I don’t really think about that. It’s just play-by-play. I think accuracy has always been a part of my game that separates me.”

In that opening against Cal, accuracy very much was not something that separated Pyne, at least not in a positive way, until it very much was, as he finished that 24-17 win with a 13-of-14 passing stretch.

This hot streak inarguably outpaces anything Buchner put together in his seven-plus quarters, throwing for 378 yards and two interceptions on 28-of-50 passing. That’s a 56 percent completion rate and a 7.56 yards per attempt, the latter pacing a worthwhile one and somewhat shocking considering the sluggish completion rate.

But the difference for Notre Dame has not been Pyne instead of Buchner. While Pyne has found his footing behind center, the rest of the Irish offense has leapt forward, even literally.

Sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas making a leaping catch for his first career score Saturday had nothing to do with Pyne. In fact, Pyne’s pass may have been deemed turnover-worthy, if being critical.

Against Marshall, repeated Buchner deep balls went off his receivers’ hands. They were not perfect throws, but if Braden Lenzy or Lorenzo Styles had made the kind of catch Thomas made, the Irish likely would have beaten the Herd.

“What you’re also seeing is some receivers and a tight end make [Pyne] look really good,” Freeman said. “He’ll get credit for that. That catch that Jayden Thomas made was a heck of a catch, and I’ve always said it, quarterbacks will get praise and take blame for maybe certain areas that they don’t have to.

“It’s good to see some guys making him look good and him making plays.”

The same goes for the offensive line. Fifth-year left guard, two-time captain and preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson did not play at Ohio State and may not have fully trusted his sprained foot against Marshall, literally or figuratively. With three more games working amid a veteran line, Patterson & Co. are starting to make Pyne look good.

“Our offensive line is just getting better,” Freeman said. “That’s over the course of five games. You see a group that’s just getting better and better and better. Five guys just gelling, really communicating and executing at a high level.”

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In that respect, Pyne has two responsibilities: One, help get the offensive line into the proper protection, and two, do not panic when that protection gives him enough time to craft a haiku before eventually finding junior tight end and certain All-American Michael Mayer at the far end of a crossing route.

“Gotta love when I’m back there and have a lot of time,” Pyne said. “The most important thing is to not panic. I’ve had a lot of time like that before in my life, and I didn’t know what to do.

“I just don’t panic, keep looking, see the defense, see what’s going on, and just find an open guy or have to throw it away.”

Buchner was not afforded that luxury. That played a part in his frequent escapes from the pocket. Those were also the reason Freeman and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees named Buchner the starter after one week of preseason practice. Pyne’s recent efficiency does not render that logic retroactively moot.

“I don’t question that decision at all,” Freeman said. “That was earned. We made a decision, sometimes the results can put a mask over your eyes and cloud the process of getting to that decision.

“I know we didn’t win that game and three-quarters that Tyler played, but Tyler Buchner earned the right to be a starter through preparation.”

Entering the season, Notre Dame knew it would have a strong defense and trusted its offensive line would pave the way. It had few receivers to buoy the downfield passing game. Their recent emergence has raised the Irish ceiling, to Drew Pyne’s benefit.

Notre Dame may have a quarterback decision to make anew in the spring, but that wonder can wait for the Irish to continue this offensive push for seven more weeks.

“Now Drew Pyne has done a superb job and he’s done an excellent job of leading his team,” Freeman said. “He’s earned the right, obviously, now to be our starting quarterback and done a great job with this opportunity.”

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