Fine, I’ll say it: losing stinks. The Irish slopped up the first half so bad that the mess was simply too big to clean up in another 30 minutes of gameplay, and even in the midst of that doomed comeback effort the team was positively holding on for dear life. 20 regular season wins in a row is nothing to thumb your nose at, but it sure would have been nice to continue that run, along with the home winning streak, against a quite good but quite beatable top-ten opponent. That being said…Saturday evening was a textbook reminder of why it was high time to retire our NDNation roundups. It’s old news that college football can arrest the development of grown adults and turn them back into tantrum-prone doomsayers, but that doesn’t make the behavior any easier to process. If you still have it in you to whine about Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, be my guest, just leave the rest of us out of it. It’s boring and embarrassing! Sorry to scold but you’d think that we’d be able to deal with the Irish’s first loss to a team not named Alabama or Clemson in almost two years with a tad more grace.
As huge as he’s been in choice moments this year, Kevin Austin is still mildly confounding (against all odds, I generally kept the ole emotions in check for most of Saturday’s ordeal, but that drop really opened the curse-word floodgates. I don’t care that it wasn’t a perfect throw, playmakers need to make plays, particularly when the team’s back is against the wall in the biggest game of the season! Damn!). I won’t pass too much judgment, because barely getting the chance to play actual football for a couple years in a row is a pretty textbook way to stunt one’s growth. But it’s also perfectly reasonable to admit that seeing flashes of his next-level talent only makes games where he’s absolutely erased that more frustrating.
Some slivers of light among a lot of darkness: Kyren Williams doing Kyren Williams things, making plays despite living through something like a running back’s worst nightmare (a barely functioning offensive line and opposing defenses teeing off on brutal RPO calls in the hands of a lead-footed quarterback), and still notching a bunch of timely and violent blitz pickups on a weekly basis. By the end of Saturday’s action, Michael Mayer could barely walk at an average human pace and was still keeping the Irish offense tethered to life support. Cam Hart has ascended and the front of the defense is really, really solid — it’s particularly fun to watch the Ademilola brothers wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage in tandem. It would be helpful for the pass rush to hit paydirt at a slightly improved rate but I’m nitpicking, it’s hard to blame those guys for much of anything considering the absolutely gross situations the offense has put them in.
As was correctly noted in today’s Rakes Report, Brian Kelly does have a history of being loyal to a fault when incumbent quarterbacks make their way back from injury, and it mortally injured the team once again on Saturday. This is despite all the juice Kelly has been able to wring out of backups at a moment’s notice — basically, his legacy with this position group is deeply muddled, and likely always will be. That doesn’t really move me one way or another (especially given the accomplishments our dearly departed Ian Book was able to log as an unheralded, undersized prospect), but it needs to stop costing Notre Dame wins, plain and simple. We can point all we want to individual moments and missed opportunities by certain players but the coaching staff did their guys absolutely no favors and should take the brunt of the blame.
As of today, 9:30 am PST or so, Kelly is sticking with gamesmanship, listing Coan as QB1 on the depth chart but not exactly committing to that reality in the following presser. However, sometimes it’s as simple as “one quarterback generated two touchdowns in a half of play and the other generated zero.” Maybe teams will start to figure out Drew Pyne as more tape becomes available, but the thought of him starting Saturday on the bench is unacceptable. The offense was absolutely putrid when he wasn’t on the field against the Bearcats — it’s hard to point to anything they did well except target Michael Mayer an adequate number of times. Coan is simply too experienced to make the mistakes he’s making. Play the better quarterback, please.
Fair warning, this one’s a bit of a doozy. In the most recent episode of the Shamrock (thank you Alex for the heads up), Matt Fortuna casually noted that the 2020 offensive line semi-surreptitiously sought off-the-clock coaching from Harry Heistand, while ostensibly reporting up to Jeff Quinn. It’s hard to fully form an opinion on that without knowing the specifics of the arrangement, but it’s unquestionably a bad look for Quinn, especially in light of the current unit’s trajectory. He’s done so much good on the recruiting trail but if he can’t get it done on the field with a cadre of four-star talent then, uhm, who really cares. It was frustrating to watch the pretty decent push the line generated in the early going disappear as the game wore on. Of course, not all the sacks that quarterbacks have taken fall squarely on the line, but they just aren’t up to standard. There was simply no way ND was ever going undefeated with this kind of play in the trenches. We’re at the point where it doesn’t really matter how good Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree are, a disheartening and objectionable waste of skill talent that we’ll rue for some time. Tyree hasn’t even hit 100 yards rushing yet this year; absolutely staggering! If Fortuna’s reporting is true, and it sounds like it is, I’m not sure how Quinn keeps his job.
Go Irish, don’t turn the ball over three times in one half and preferably not at all, beat Hokies. All is far from lost, and it’s worth noting that if Kelly and Rees are forward-thinking enough to give Drew Pyne a real shot, this team really has the chance to grow into something resembling its best self. At this point all evidence points toward number 10 giving the team the best chance to win, accounting for the lineman in front of him, the kind of game his offensive coordinator wants to call, and simple statistical analysis of past performance (yards per play, points scored, turnovers, red zone efficiency, et al). The defense has grown in leaps and bounds while their counterparts have remained more or less stagnant through five games — it’s imperative that something changes and Tommy Rees’ group makes real progress, now. Roll with the guy who’s most consistently delivered for his teammates and this team can still put together a very fun and cool season.