Saturday was the epitome of “a win is a win” for Notre Dame football. The Irish nearly lost to a MAC team for the first time in program history behind another shaky offensive line performance and a defense that continues to play great for long stretches only to give up game-changing, chunk plays. Fortunately for Notre Dame, the Irish pulled out the victory to improve to 2-0 on the season, even if they might have just kicked the can down on the road on their problems a little longer.
Still, there are always things to like, and this game was no exception. We saw glimpses, albeit brief, of what the Notre Dame offense can be if they can figure out some sort of patchwork offensive line. Here are this week’s 5 things I liked.
Notre Dame won the game and is 2-0
Let’s get easily the biggest thing to like from this one was Notre Dame winning the game. No, close wins over Toledo shouldn’t be celebrated. I get that. The alternative to winning is losing, though, and Notre Dame won. In years past, Notre Dame lost games like this.
In fact, I’m sure a familiar feeling started to set in for many Notre Dame fans in the fourth quarter. That feeling of dread. The same feeling that crept into our minds last week too. No, it’s not good that Notre Dame has had to rally to beat Toledo and needed OT for Florida State, but the silver lining is that wins buy time. There is still time to figure out some of the issues that ail this team. Of course, not all things will be fixed to most of your liking – it looks like there’s more than we assumed there would be. But, winning buys more time to fix those problems.
Notre Dame is also not the only top-10 team (yes, it’s debatable if Notre Dame is a top 10 team right now) to struggle. Texas A&M struggled to get by Colorado. It looks like it could be a weird season, so the longer Notre Dame can win and keep plugging away, the better.
The play design of Chris Tyree’s touchdown catch
It’s amazing what the threat of a running quarterback can do for your offense (more on this later). It just opens up so much – especially in terms of RPOs. The Chris Tyree touchdown was a perfect example of this.
That was just a beautiful play design by Tommy Rees and excellent execution. You can do that with Buchner in the game because the threat of him running freezes the defender and gets Tyree out of the backfield uncovered. This is something Notre Dame could have – and should have – done more with Ian Book, given his running ability but never did. These kinds of plays are possible with Buchner in the game and are easier for a true freshman to execute.
This is a play that should excite Notre Dame about what is possible with a more mobile quarterback in the game regarding Tommy Rees’s creativity.
Jack Coan having his finger popped back in and then throwing the game-winner
It’s safe to start wondering if – maybe when – Tyler Buchner should start for Notre Dame at quarterback after what we saw, even if you’re a fan of Jack Coan. And after yesterday, how can you not be? Coan had a very up and down game. He started hot, went ice-cold, then threw the game-winner. That game-winner is a play that Notre Dame fans will be talking about for a while, though.
Coan struggled at times, and he wasn’t helped by an offensive line that gave up entirely too much pressure. This play was big-time, though. The dude got a finger on his throwing hand, popped back into place between plays, and proceeded to throw a game-winning touchdown on the very next play.
I said after the game that I don’t know what Notre Dame should do at quarterback. It’s not as simple as “just start Buchner since he did so well” because we don’t know what a defense will do with time to prepare for a true freshman – especially now that there is some tape on him. However, I know that I have a lot of respect for Coan being able to handle coming back in the game and doing what he did.
Penetration from the front 4
The defense has not been great. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. Giving up 38 points to a Florida State team that mustered just 17 against Jacksonville State and then 29 to Toledo will not get it done most of the time. That said, the front four played pretty well on Saturday and got a lot of pressure with the need to blitz.
Notre Dame had 5.0 sacks as a team yesterday, and four of them came from the defensive line. Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola each had one, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had 2.0, including the game-winning strip-sack. So, Notre Dame’s defensive line is getting pressure. It just isn’t always finishing. The secondary also is not helping matters with breakdowns preventing the Irish from capitalizing on that pressure. But, the line is getting pressure, and that is something the Irish can build on.
A special tip of the cap to Tagovailoa-Amosa for putting up a monster day on what was also a very tough day for him personally. A few hours after helping seal the victory for Notre Dame, Tagovailoa-Amosa attended the funeral for his father over Zoom. That’s beyond a tough situation for any college kid to go through. Hopefully, sealing the victory for the Irish helped him get through that easier.
What the threat of Tyler Buchner running did for the run game
To say Notre Dame struggled to run the ball with Jack Coan in the game would be an understatement. The Irish were completely shut down on the ground until the Irish inserted Tyler Buchner into the game. Buchner himself ripped off first down runs on his first two plays, and then the drive ended with a Kyren Williams 43-yard touchdown run.
With Coan behind center, Toledo didn’t have to respect his legs at all. Combine that with a shaky offensive line, and it was a recipe for futility. Once Buchner came in, the Toledo defense immediately had to worry about Buchner’s legs, and that threat opened up the running game. So it’s not surprising that Williams broke free for the long run shortly after Buchner softened up the Toledo run defense.
How sustainable a two-quarterback system with Buchner and Coan is, remains to be seen since teams will now be ready for it. We also don’t know how much of the playbook Buchner is comfortable with at the moment, but given he was on campus for spring ball, he should have a decent amount at his disposal when he gets snaps. And he will get more snaps, even if he doesn’t start in the short term.
That said, the spark that Buchner gives the offense is undeniable, and it may be the only way to unlock the Irish rushing attack in the short term.