Notre Dame’s thankful list for 2022

Yes, here at Fighting Irish Wire we are participating in Beat SC week but it turns out there is also another celebration going on in the coming days.  Thanksgiving, the greatest of all holidays despite being under constant attack from both Halloween and Christmas, is just two days away.  It’s the proper time to reflect on all of the things we have to be grateful for in life but for your sanity, I’ll keep it to Notre Dame athletics.

The majority of this will have to do with football but it has been a memorable run for other Fighting Irish athletic teams as well.  Let’s take a minute and give thanks for some great moments and achievements in the last year.

And most importantly – Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Men's basketball returns to NCAA Tournament

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The Notre Dame men’s basketball team returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 this past year.  They beat Rutgers in the tournament’s First Four before flying cross country and upsetting Alabama in the first round.  The season ultimately ended with a loss to Texas Tech but it was a pleasure to watch last year’s team grow during ACC play.

The 2022-23 team is off to a 4-0 start with some narrow wins but will certainly be fun to watch grow over the coming months.  And who knows, maybe just maybe they’ll be dancing again this March.

Women's Basketball Takes Step Forward

BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT – MARCH 26: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish huddle before the start of the game against the NC State Wolfpack during the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Total Mortgage Arena at Harbor Yard on March 26, 2022 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

After going just 23-28 the two years previous, Notre Dame women’s basketball took a big step forward back to their regularly high standards last season.  They wound up 24-10 overall and had No. 1 seeded North Carolina State on the ropes in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.

Head coach [autotag]Niele Ivey[/autotag] has the Irish off to a 4-0 start and ranked inside the top 10 earlier this season.

Women's Soccer in Final Four

I’ll be the first to admit we need to do a better job helping publicize some of the great achievements beyond just what happens on a football field or basketball court with Notre Dame athletics.  With that said, Notre Dame has a team playing in the Final Four in the coming days.

Notre Dame women’s soccer is an absurd 17-2-3 on the year and is still alive in the NCAA tournament.  They take on North Carolina in the Final Four at 6 p.m. EST on Saturday for a chance to play for the national championship.

College World Series Run

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Notre Dame = baseball school.

Those words were never thought to be true but [autotag]Link Jarrett[/autotag] led Notre Dame to just their third College World Series appearance all-time in the early days of this past summer after shocking top-ranked Tennessee in a best-of-three Super Regional.

This came one year after having the Irish within one game of qualifying in 2021.  Jarrett has moved on, as he took the head coaching job at Florida State, where he starred as a player.   He certainly helped establish a culture of expected success with Notre Dame baseball during his time in South Bend.

A pair of new World Series champs

When the Houston Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies in six games this fall, a pair of former Notre Dame baseball players won their first World Series titles.  Trey Mancini was traded to Houston from Baltimore at the deadline and Brandon Bielak bounced between the Astros and the minor leagues as a relief pitcher this past season.

Notre Dame was also represented as the National League champions as Matt Vierling helped patrol the outfield for the Phillies.

It's already been a year?

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Time really does fly the older you get.  A year ago this coming weekend Brian Kelly coached his final game at Notre Dame.  After routing Stanford and while recruiting out west, news broke that Kelly was in talks to become LSU’s next head coach.  Shortly after news broke that he was gone.

That was an incredibly crazy time to be a writer covering this team.  Who was going with him?  Who would be the next head coach?  Was everyone going to transfer and were all the recruits about to de-commit?

I know it’s not popular to say because of how he left but Brian Kelly restored Notre Dame to be one of the nation’s best college football programs.  It wasn’t going to go much further if any further at all with him at Notre Dame.

He found success right away at LSU and Notre Dame has a very good chance to be headed to somewhere even better than where Kelly left the program.  For one, I’m thankful Marcus Freeman inherited the program where Kelly left it instead of having to go through another entire reconstruction like has been done with the more recent head coaching changes.

University of Cincinnati Football

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Thank you, Cincinnati Bearcats.

If not for your successes, Notre Dame football wouldn’t be in the place it is today.  That starts with Notre Dame hiring Kelly in December of 2009 but goes so much deeper.

Mike Mickens is a former Cincinnati defensive back who has done a tremendous job improving the play of Notre Dame cornerbacks in his three seasons with the Irish.

Brian Mason is having the best year a special teams coordinator has had in a really long time as he’s turned “Fair Catch U” into “Punt Block U” seemingly overnight.  (More on Mason to come, I promise)

Oh, and Marcus Freeman’s previous stop to Notre Dame?  Being Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator.

So thank you Cincinnati for all of those and looking back, thanks for walking into Notre Dame Stadium and pushing the Irish around in October of 2021.  The loss hurt at the time but without it, perhaps Kelly stays with an undefeated team instead of heading to LSU. Then we’re probably not looking at Notre Dame’s future looking as bright as it does today.

Drew Pyne

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Drew Pyne has the chance to lead Notre Dame to ten wins in eleven starts this year if the Irish can upset USC and then win a bowl game.  Pretty good for a quarterback, right?  Certainly isn’t bad but if things go according to plan, Pyne likely won’t make another start at Notre Dame after this postseason.

Pyne was beat out by Tyler Buchner for the starting job in fall but thrown into action in Week 2 as Buchner was lost for the season due to injury.  Pyne struggled mightily off the bench that day in the loss.  He had plenty of struggles a week later against Cal but helped find a way to get a needed win.  He played one of his best games to close September at North Carolina and the Irish have won eight of his nine starts.

It wasn’t perfect and largely wasn’t pretty.  Pyne’s upside isn’t nearly that of recruiting prospects or of a quarterback that will take Notre Dame to a championship level.  Despite that being obvious, he has trotted out like he’s Connor McGregor on a weekly basis, has clearly been adored by his teammates, and certainly is willing to be coached.

Thank you for everything this season, Drew.

Return of O-Line U

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Notre Dame’s offensive line had slowly been regressing the last four or five years.  It won the Joe Moore Award in 2017 but since seemed to take a slight step back each season.

Early on in 2022 those issues were still obvious.  Ohio State handled the line of scrimmage against Notre Dame and then Marshall came in and did far too much of the same.  It looked like it was a doomed season for a unit that had high expectations.

Well, as good coaching tends to do, that unit has grown as the year went on.  September struggles were too much to overcome in order to be a Joe Moore Award finalist this season, but you can’t tell me that as of November 22, you wouldn’t take Notre Dame’s offensive line overall but maybe five or six nationally.

Thank you for bringing O-Line U back, Harry Hiestand.

Benjamin Morrison

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Notre Dame has a special talent for the next couple of years in cornerback [autotag]Brandon Morrison[/autotag].  I mentioned Mike Mickens earlier and he deserves much praise for finding the talented freshman who didn’t come with monster recruiting rankings by any means.  Morrison saw the field from Week 1 and has continued to grow.  His pick-six against Clemson slammed the door on any comeback hopes and he ended the home slate by picking off three Boston College passes.  It seems as if Notre Dame has what is clearly their most talented cornerback since [autotag]Julian Love[/autotag].

Special Teams

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I mentioned above some of the good that Brian Kelly brought to Notre Dame as he turned the program around.  There were several things that happened under his watch but an emphasis on special teams clearly never was.

Exit Brian Polian and enter Brian Mason.  All Notre Dame has done this year is blocked seven punts.  How ridiculous is that number?  The five-straight games with one are the longest game-with-a-punt-block-streak since 2012.  Those seven blocked punts are also the most by an FBS team since 2012 and the most by a Power Five team since 2008.

Michael Mayer

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In the storied history of Notre Dame, there have been some truly great tight ends.  Heck, that’s why it’s referred to as “Tight End U”.  None have ever been better than [autotag]Michael Mayer[/autotag].

A downfield threat, a possession-receiving threat, a serious blocker, and the team’s hardest worker according to his head coach.  Mayer is only a junior but has nothing else to accomplish as an individual with Notre Dame football.  I expect this Saturday is the final time we’ll see him in a Notre Dame uniform as he’ll go on to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL in short order.

His records speak for themselves and his value to the 2022 squad is invaluable.  Other highly regarded prospects will fill his spot on the depth chart but Michael Mayer is a generational talent that isn’t simply replaced.  He’ll be missed but his efforts and talents are certainly appreciated.

Still Independent

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Despite the rest of the college football world continuing to rearrange and search for new conferences to align themselves with, Notre Dame remains independent.  It seems as if the plan is to stay that way for as long as possible, too.

In a sport where history and tradition seem to matter less and less by the day, I’m thrilled Notre Dame has found a way to make its independence still work.  Obviously, a huge thank you goes to athletic director Jack Swarbrick for leading the charge in continuing to successfully maneuver that.

Here’s to hoping when my great-grandchild is managing this site in 50 years that they’re still celebrating Notre Dame’s independence, too.

Marcus Freeman

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I wonder how Marcus Freeman would describe his last year.  Ups, downs, twists, and turns were all a part of his first 52 weeks on the job.  We knew there would be growing pains for a first-time head coach but that didn’t make them any easier when they occurred.

It might not have been a storybook year where he led an upset of Ohio State in his first regular season game.  Nor did he find a way to capture heroics and escape the Marshall and Stanford debacles instead with victories.

However, regardless of what happens Saturday night at Southern Cal, the arrow is pointing significantly up for the Notre Dame football program a year into Freeman’s tenure.  Continued growth at the pace Freeman seemed to pick it up this year will have the Irish reaching a sustained tier they haven’t been a part of for 30 years.

Story originally appeared on Fighting Irish Wire