Last week’s bye week came at perhaps a perfect time for Notre Dame for various reasons – quarterback uncertainty, mounting injuries, a run of opponents with top 40 defenses grinding down the lads, etc. It also came at a perfect time for me since my wife, and I welcomed our first child, a beautiful baby boy, into the world last week when there wasn’t a whole lot to write about.
Notre Dame needed last week’s bye week. Like really needed it. The Irish just looked a little worn out physically and emotionally. Every game in the first half of the season was a close affair. Even the Wisconsin game that ended with a 41-13 rout on the scoreboard was a three-point dogfight heading into the fourth. The opener went to overtime. Week two needed a last-minute rally to pull it off. The Purdue game was close for much of the game. The Virginia Tech game needed late heroics to win it.
That takes a mental toll on a bunch of kids who are also going to class and learning to become adults at the same time. Unfortunately, that gets lost on fans sometimes who look at college football players as robots or players in a video game that should play to perfection each week.
Physically, Notre Dame was a beat-up football team in the first half of the year. Four different players have started at left tackle. The linebacking corps has been recked by injuries forcing projected backups like JD Bertrand to play nearly 100% of the snaps each week. Marist Liufau, Paul Moala, and Shayne Simon made up 50% of the two-deep at linebacker in August. Unfortunately, all were lost for the season by week two. Freshman Prince Kollie was expected to step up and provide depth, but an early-season COVID-related absence set him back physically and mentally in terms of lost practice reps.
Notre Dame played three quarterbacks in the first half of the season primarily out of need, not injury though Jack Coan did get knocked out of the Wisconsin game with an ankle injury. Despite playing all close games, the only game this year where one quarterback took every snap was the opener at Florida State. By week two, Tyler Buchner had a defined package. Week four, Drew Pyne came off the bench for an injured Coan. Week five, all three Irish quarterbacks played, but Pyne finished when Coan and Buchner failed to score any points. In week six, Buchner briefly shined before showing the bad that comes with playing a true freshman.
Despite all of this, however, Notre Dame entered the bye week with a 5-1 record and a clear path for an 11-1 regular season. That said, the questions that arose over the first six weeks should also prepare fans for another potential loss or two if the Irish don’t show some considerable growth over the final six weeks of the season.
Monday, we learned that Brian Kelly and Notre Dame plan to start Jack Coan with Tyler Buchner mixed in. That was met with obvious disproval from Notre Dame Twitter since outside of Coan’s late-game heroics against Virginia Tech and Toledo, the only time he moved the offense well was the opener. Many hoped the Irish would use the extra week to get Tyler Buchner ready for a full-time role. It doesn’t appear as though that will be the case. Perhaps the staff looked at what Coan did well against Tech and Florida State – run tempo and spread out defenses – and decided the best way to win out was to shape the offense around that with Buchner continuing to expand his package. The staff’s decision – and its outcome – will likely determine if this team finishes 9-3 or 11-1.
Aside from the drama at quarterback, the most significant need for Notre Dame over the last week and a half was just to rest and get healthy. The Irish should get Michael Mayer back for USC on that front, but also lost Cane Berrong for the season and will be without Mitchell Evans for the first half of the USC game due to an absolutely ridiculously bad targeting call in the 2nd half of Virginia Tech game. Kevin Bauman is still a couple weeks out from a return from his injury.
Notre Dame will be near full strength along the offensive line after finally finding some stability in their last outing. Andrew Kristofic moves into the starting lineup this week while freshman Joe Alt remains there even with Michael Carmody and Tosh Baker available. Kristofic took the majority of the snaps at left guard against Tech and it appears the staff decided over the bye that he will be the full time starter moving forward. Carmody will help out at tight end in a pinch at tight end as well with Berrong out and Evans having to sit out the first half of the USC game.
Chris Tyree was banged up in the Virginia Tech game with a bit of turf toe, but Brian Kelly said that the speedy running back was a full participant this week and will be ready to this weekend.
While Notre Dame needed the bye week, I did as well with our son being ever so accommodating by arriving during the bye when his due date was originally closer to the USC game date. For us, he’s our first child so the last week has been a bit of a whirlwind so if you noticed less content the last week or so, that’s why.
As I embark on a 12-week paternity leave from my day job though, I’m hoping to still knock out my thoughts here at UHND in between feedings, bouts of no sleep, and diaper changes. Game preview pods with Greg will be tough for the next few weeks (maybe the rest of the season) since we tend to record late at night with Greg on the west coast, but I’m planning on doing some short solo pods mixed in as well, and we should still be able to do post-game pods most weeks. The first half of the 2021 Notre Dame football season has helped prepare me for the rollercoaster I’ll be on every day for the second half of the season.