Survive and Advance
It wasn't pretty, but Notre Dame has come a long way from a similarly ugly home opener in 2011 against USF
The first Notre Dame football game I ever attended was the 2011 home opener against South Florida. For anyone that had the misfortune of attending or watching, I will force you to briefly relive the absolute travesty that occurred on Sept. 4th, 2011, in Notre Dame Stadium.
Starting quarterback Dayne Crist marched the Irish down the field on the opening drive – covering 76 yards in eight plays – only to have running back Jonas Gray fumble on the four-yard line. South Florida scooped up the fumble and returned it 96 yards, effectively silencing the whole stadium, and taking an early 7-0 lead.
The game did not get much better from there. 16th-ranked Notre Dame did not score in the first half, and they had plenty of time to think about the 16-0 deficit they were facing as lightning in the area kept the teams in their locker rooms for over two hours and forced fans to evacuate the stadium. Personally, I spent this time in the Joyce with my parents and thousands of other fans, wondering if the game would resume and if Notre Dame would get their shit together.
In addition to the 96-yard scoop and score, the Irish fumbled again, had a Cierre Wood touchdown called back due to holding, and Crist threw an interception all in the first half. Now offensive coordinator Tommy Rees opened the second half at quarterback, and Notre Dame showed some signs of life. They cut the deficit to 23-13 early in the fourth, but after a second weather delay with 4:21 left in the game Rees came out and promptly threw his second interception. It was the fifth turnover of the game for the Irish and proved too much to overcome when – despite cutting the lead to 23-20 behind a Michael Floyd touchdown with 21 seconds left – USF recovered a late onside kick and ran out the clock.
Including the delays, the game lasted about six hours, an ultimately traumatic experience for me as a young Notre Dame fan.
The home opener this weekend against Toledo felt similar. Losing at halftime to MAC team by a score of 16-14, Notre Dame could not get any real offense going and the line looked awful. Brian Kelly turned to his backup QB even earlier in this contest, giving freshman Tyler Buchner his first opportunity to prove himself with over 11 minutes left in the second quarter.
Buchner looked decent in his first action in a Notre Dame uniform, completing all three of his passes for 78 yards and a long touchdown to Chris Tyree while also rushing 68 yards on seven attempts. If the offensive line continues to be as dreadful as they looked on Saturday, Buchner will probably see more action so that the running game can actually be a facet of the offense. Without Buchner in the game, Kyren Williams and Tyree were constantly met in the backfield and starting QB Jack Coan rarely had enough time to get through his progressions. Buchner’s presence on the field allowed Williams to break free for a long touchdown run in the second quarter, a play in which he amassed over half of his rushing total.
That being said, I don’t think it is time to make Buchner the full-time starter just yet. Coan did not have a bad game aside from the ugly pick six he threw late in the second quarter to give Toledo the lead right before halftime. He has proven that he is a great pocket passer and is willing to make throws that not a lot of college quarterbacks would be. This was especially evident on the game-winning drive when he lofted an over-the-shoulder pass on the money to Kevin Austin on the first play of the drive. He was then very aggressive in getting the ball to Michael Mayer, drawing multiple penalties before they connected for the winning touchdown despite Coan having a dislocated finger popped back into place moments earlier.
As much as I hate to even think about it, in order to have success in the immediate future, Notre Dame will probably have to utilize a two-quarterback system. The line is that bad. They gave up six sacks to a MAC team. I can only imagine what that will look like against the defenses of Wisconsin and Cincinnati, let alone the likes of Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson, who we ultimately hope to play in the postseason.
I must preface this by saying that I absolutely despise two-quarterback systems. There is no continuity and no flow to the offense for teams that employ this strategy, and often the offense becomes one-dimensional based on which QB is on the field. I can’t recall too many recent national champions that played two quarterbacks consistently. Additionally, there is absolutely no way that Coan, who still seems to be (and should be) the starter, can have any confidence if he is constantly looking over his shoulder to see if Buchner will be coming into the game. Players in this position tend to become conservative, not wanting to make the mistake that gets them removed the game. The risks that Coan has taken and the tough throws that he has made have been awesome to watch so far this season, and it is refreshing to see a pro-style QB as opposed to the scrambling style of someone like Ian Book. Obviously Book found great success and took ND to new heights, but if the Irish are to move towards true national championship contention, we need a QB like Coan who can stand tall in the pocket and deliver difficult throws.
But I digress. Notre Dame and Brian Kelly a lot to figure out before next week. Let’s focus on the win over Toledo for now. While it was by far the most stressed (and pissed) I have been during a home opener as a student here, there are a few positives that come out of the victory. I think that Notre Dame has come a long way since that miserable day back in 2011. Brian Kelly is a better coach, we have recruited better talent, and we are overall a better program than 10 years ago. The 2011 team that lost to USF would have also lost to Toledo on Saturday, but we are no longer that team or that program. We find a way to win tough games, and while it sure as hell wasn’t pretty, it was a win.
Notre Dame is 2-0. The season is young. There is plenty of time to play better football and climb back up in the rankings. Let’s pick one quarterback, regroup, and go from here.