Notre Dame was on the verge of losing back-to-back regular-season games for the first time since 2016 Saturday night in Blacksburg. However, Jack Coan ended up rallying the Irish after Tyler Buchner left the game after injuring his ankle. Still, along the way, the Irish might just have answered a few lingering questions they could define the rest of the season for the Fighting Irish in 2021.
Tyler Buchner, health permitting, should be QB1 from here out
Tyler Buchner was not perfect in his first real extended action. Heck, at times, he was bad. That said, the spark he gives the offense is undeniable. With Buchner in the game, the Irish were finally able to run the ball with some sort of success – and that was without Chris Tyree or C’bo Flemister available for much of the game.
The arm talent is there. His bomb to Kevin Austin was a pretty pass. When he hung in the pocket and hit Avery Davis in stride in the second, we got a glimpse of what he brings as a pocket passer.
We also saw the bad – and the really bad – of playing a true freshman. He had one pick-six and should have had another. Remember, though, Buchner’s been primarily practicing a very specific package. If Notre Dame commits to Buchner moving forward and gives him all of the starter’s reps, the passing will improve each week.
For as great as Jack Coan’s heroics were to end the game, the beginning of the game was just too much of the same story that we’ve seen for weeks now to think he’s the answer the rest of the way. It comes down to Pyne and Buchner. Neither has been great passing – Pyne was 9 of 22 against Cincinnati, Buchner was 6 of 14 against Virginia Tech.
Buchner’s legs – he ran for 67 yards on 12 carries – are what sets him apart. This offense will look much different if they go with Buchner and spend the next two weeks building a game plan around him. Buchner looks like the future, so they might as well roll with him now.
Notre Dame’s seems to have found its offensive line alignment
Perhaps just as important as seeing what we saw from Buchner was seeing the offensive line finally start to gel. Notre Dame started Joe Alt at left tackle and ended up inserting Andrew Kristofic for Zeke Correll. After the game, Kelly credited the additional size Alt, and Kristofic bring to the line over Michael Carmody and Correll. Both have about 20 lbs on the players they replaced.
With Alt and Kristofic on the left side, the Irish finally found some success rushing the football, topping out at 180 yards for their highest total of the year. That isn’t usually a total we get very excited about. However, in 2020 the Irish topped that mark in all but four of their games. In 2021, 180 yards was more than 40 yards higher than their previous total.
Correll at guard always felt like a stretch given his size, and it looks like Kristofic could be in line to take over that position for the rest of the season. Alt was not the true freshman that anyone thought would be impressing at this point, but here we are.
This alignment could be what is best for Notre Dame, both short-term and long-term. When Blake Fisher is healthy, Notre Dame has a great problem on its hands with two promising freshmen LTs. Kristofic gets experience and returns next year. Correll steps back into the starting lineup for Patterson next year at center. Freshman Rocco Spindler most likely fills the only opening next year.
With a solidified line and a QB, will the Irish finally have an identity?
It was a small sample size, but with Buchner in at quarterback and the reshuffled line, Notre Dame looked a little more like Notre Dame at times. If the staff rolls with Buchner as QB1, they can gameplan around his strengths and weaknesses and build on his passing each week. The RPO becomes much more of a threat than it is now.
Notre Dame does not face a defense better than the one they faced last night, statistically speaking, again this season. In fact, they face some pretty bad defenses in the second half of the season, which could be an ideal situation for breaking in a true freshman QB. The next three games are all at Notre Dame Stadium and four of the final six. The only road trips are to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville and Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto – not exactly intimidating environments.
If this is the route that the staff chooses to go, Notre Dame fans need to be prepared for more mistakes like the ones they saw Saturday night in Lane Stadium. Buchner did not play his senior season and basically had one full season of high school football. As a result, he will see things every week he’s never seen before, and there will be a learning curve even if he is getting starter reps in practice.
We’ve seen Notre Dame and Brian Kelly go with a young, inexperienced quarterback with a veteran, less physically gifted backup in 2012 with Tommy Rees backing up Everett Golson and occasionally coming in in relief. We could see something similar over the final six games of the year.