Entering Saturday’s action in Blacksburg, it felt like perhaps the least likely outcome was something like “Notre Dame wins, but only at the cost of muddying the already murky waters at the quarterback position even further.” Brian Kelly expressed the need to stop the musical chairs and find a definitive answer, a restless fanbase (and local media contingent) loudly clamored for that answer to be Drew Pyne, and those balancing acts seemingly get harder and harder to manage as teams turn to the back half of their schedule.
…Haha! Here we are, with an even more unsettled situation than before (a hard-earned win makes this a fair trade for the time being). At this point, it’s a fool’s errand to try and understand Kelly’s inscrutable logic in starting Jack Coan and then rolling with Tyler Buchner instead of Pyne — after all these years, he’s obviously deeply confident in his own decision making, and will stick to his own internal logic even when everyone else thinks he’s being too stubborn for his own good. Starting Jack Coan again was a bad idea, full stop — in his first stint on Saturday, he generated 15 whole passing yards, one first down, and zero points. In those final two season-saving, game-tying and winning drives, he went 7-9 for 93 yards (10.3 YPA). If Kelly’s logic is hard to understand, the larger college football universe’s is even more impenetrable. Sometimes players are bad, and then they’re good. I don’t know.
If I had my way, the Irish would stick with Pyne, a sort of happy medium player who can split the difference between the things Coan and Buchner do well and do poorly (even if Pyne looks subpar in practice, he’s shown enough in live action to have earned a shot). But maybe there’s something to the starter/closer roles for Buchner and Coan a la Golson/Rees in 2012. Coan looked genuinely awesome in a no-huddle format (go figure), and it comes as great relief that teams can no longer key in on Buchner as a run-only option. Of course, you play a true freshman QB, you live with true freshman mistakes. But he’s too dynamic not to see the field (holy cow, can he accelerate out of the backfield, and those cuts up the middle are something to behold), as long as he can keep opposing secondaries honest. (As an aside, how funny is it that Coan and Buchner shared the same second sport — they really could barely be more different while now playing the same position.) Since it seems like the staff is choosing the true freshman over the redshirt freshman, it’s imperative that they up Tyler’s reps significantly — the future is (sort of) now.
Another Defensive Setback
Here we go again with Marcus Freeman’s unit, who inarguably had a down day against a pretty subpar offense. Of course, the defense had its moments of dominance, and ended up knocking VT’s offensive SP+ ranking from 37th nationally to 50th, but it wasn’t a good enough or consistent enough performance given what they’re capable of (one measly sack simply doesn’t cut it, and conceding an easy three points before the half was so gross). It’s largely thanks to their inability to effectively contain Tech’s mobile quarterbacks, who combined for 78 yards and one crucial touchdown on the ground. Not terrible in a vacuum, but the Hokies notched eight third down conversions, an inexplicable figure after the Irish’s recent improvement in that area. Basic stuff like “spy the fast quarterbacks who are more or less allergic to throwing the football” didn’t happen, for one reason or another. They should be fine moving forward, especially given a bye week to sort it out, but this was a weird offense to regress against.
Good News from the Trenches
Because this team hasn’t yet learned how to function as a cohesive unit, of course the offensive line unquestionably had their best showing of the season while other position groups floundered to varying degrees. Nobody will mistake it for the lines of the past few years, but once Buchner entered the game and made Tech’s defense think twice about where the ball was going, they put it together both in pass protection and the rushing attack. At this point, I’ll get excited about 4 yards per carry, sure (season-to-date average was previously 2.4 YPC, woof). But no tackles for loss and just two sacks (one that falls squarely on Coan’s horrifying penchant for leaning directly into avoidable defenders) is an incredible step up from the season’s first five showings. I think we see this group continue to take moderate steps forward in the coming months, maybe with Joe Alt at left tackle, maybe with a little more Andrew Kristofic at guard. One reason to feel confident in continued steady progress is…
A Tale of Two Halves
…the Irish have already seen the worst of the opposing defenses on their schedule! Average defensive SP+ ranking for first half opponents is currently 31st nationally, while second half opponents rank #72 on average. Current rankings are below — it really is night and day:
A huge second half for Kevin Austin is on the table — holy shit, that two point conversion (while being mauled!), I am absolutely still not over it. Fingers crossed that Chris Tyree’s turf toe doesn’t linger, but at least Logan Diggs is clearly game ready and soon to be a major problem for the opposition. Avery Davis goes quiet for spells but seems to always emerge in crunch time for a big play or two. Would love to see some more creative ways to get Braden Lenzy the ball in space moving forward as well, especially given his history against the Irish’s next adversary. As Buchner gets more comfortable operating the offense, Tommy Rees is going to have so many ways to hurt these below average opposing defenses, as long as the line can continue trending upward.
Sigh of Relief
Hard to think of a recent off week that came at a more opportune time for team and fans alike, right? The Irish have been, for better or for worse, never not entertaining, and every waking moment besides the fourth quarter against Wisconsin has felt like a cardiac event in waiting. Saturday was ND’s third victory by a three-point margin in six games, and definitely the zaniest one yet. Also, we’d like the best tight end in college football healthy and ready to play again, please and thanks.
All of college football is something of a mess, but the Irish feel particularly drawn to what I’m coining “nonsense wins,” games that the Irish simultaneously should have won by two or three scores but also sort of had no business winning, if that makes sense. Postgame win expectancy for the good guys was a jaw-dropping 97 percent! Which is obviously backed up by the Irish’s statistical advantages in yards per play, rush and pass success rate, defensive stuffs, you name it. This year’s Notre Dame still isn’t reliably great at any one thing, but if one quality has carried over from the past few years it is, as others have noted, that they’re pretty bad at losing. Notre Dame football is a cosmic gumbo of relative stability, constant unnecessary headaches, quarterback controversies, supremely cool dudes, postseason frustrations, and, most importantly, a whole lot of wins. It’s time for this squad to heal as much as possible, then lock and load and beat (at least) six more inferior football teams that will all be gunning for Irish heads.
What we need to see from the Irish after a week of cheeseburgers is some actual consistency and complimentary football, please, I am asking politely. Brian Kelly spoke to this in the preseason when he noted that the defense needed to play in a way that regularly put the offense in healthy situations. We all know that Southern Cal is hot garbage, but lesser Trojan teams have repeatedly given better Irish teams fits in recent years, even in losing efforts.
We cannot see those sorts of defensive slip-ups against an always potent USC offense (we’ll find out what Cam Hart is made of soon enough — Drake London is maybe the best receiver in the country, averaging 11 catches for 139 yards and almost a touchdown per game through Saturday). We can’t leave the defense out to dry with turnovers like we saw against Cincinnati. We can’t handicap ourselves with multiple drives of utterly incompetent quarterback play to open the game anymore. The next step is consistency, where every unit holds the line and doesn’t waste a great performance from another.
P.S. — Jon Doerer is a Notre Dame legend and I hope we’re all appreciating him as such. So many of his crunch time kicks have been from long distance, and this time he calmly stared down not only one of the raucous environments (lol) in football, but a damn laser from the crowd as well. Allow yourself to let go of those occasional head-scratching misses, he’s a material reason the past few years have seen so much success. It came as absolutely no surprise that he drilled another game-winner last night, which says it all.