Notre Dame notched an extremely gritty victory Saturday night in vaunted Lane Stadium, defeating Virginia Tech 32-29. While the win certainly will not rank among the most impressive victories ever recorded under Brian Kelly’s watch, it may rank at or near the top of most wacky. The team’s performance only further served to increase my confidence in Brian Kelly and his ability to direct a football program.
Following last week’s home loss to Cincinnati, the hand wringing amongst the fan base began in earnest. When Kelly declared during prep for Virginia Tech that he needed to pick a quarterback moving forward for the remainder of the season, most Irish fans assumed that Drew Pyne would be directing the offense for the foreseeable future. Yet, Kelly provided a telling comment in the middle of the week when he stated that he was factoring into the equation which quarterback could go on the road at night and handle such a raucous environment. This comment should have tipped everybody off that Jack Coan was going to remain the starting quarterback. Thus, it was maybe not as surprising as it was to see Coan began the evening under center. However, Coan could only muster 27 yards on 11 plays in the first quarter, and Kelly moved quickly by replacing Coan with Tyler Buchner with the Irish down 10-0 early in the second quarter.
One could argue that the decision to start Coan only serves to prove that Kelly continues to botch his decision-making at the quarterback position. However, I tend to take the viewpoint that the coaches clearly seen Coan perform up to a certain standard in practice to give them the belief that Coan provided the team the best chance to win. For whatever reason, this isn’t translating onto the field, but I give Kelly credit for being adaptable enough to potentially save the season with the quarterback switch. Not only did Buchner help lead the Irish to 14 points thanks to two long drives, but Coan remained engaged throughout the remainder of the game. Prior to Coan having to re-enter the contest following Buchner’s ankle injury in the 4th quarter, there were several shots of Coan talking to Buchner after both good and bad drives. Kelly clearly has built up enough equity and garners enough respect with Coan, and by extension the team, to make decisions in the heat of battle and not have his players turn on him or outright disrespect him. This paid off tenfold when Coan led the Irish to 10 points within the span of four minutes to secure the victory late in the fourth quarter. After the game, Kelly praised Coan, Coan praised the team and its effort, and everybody went home happy.
In addition to the quarterback situation, Notre Dame faced a myriad of problems elsewhere on Saturday night. Despite the seemingly positive rhetoric surrounding Michael Mayer’s ability to play against the Hokies, he was ultimately unable to play due to his groin strain. Without one of its top playmakers on offense and starting 4th-string left tackle and true freshman, Joe Alt, the offense still found a way to put up 32 points and record 394 yards. By no means is this an offensive explosion but is certainly nothing to sneeze at either. To further complicate things, Chris Tyree exited the game with a toe injury which forced true freshman Logan Diggs into his first meaningful snaps of the year. Mitchell Evans, Cane Berrong, and Deion Colzie each saw extended playing time due to injuries. Certainly, their play was far from even, but the aforementioned players were all able to provide impactful snaps throughout the evening and did not shrink in the moment. In my opinion, this is a testament to the types of recruits the staff has been bringing in, the standard of play that has been established up and down the roster, and the pedigree of the coaching staff. All of these things are attributable to Brian Kelly as the leader of the program.
As previously stated, Saturday’s victory over Virginia Tech was far from a clean performance. However, the 2021 Irish having been dealing with varying levels of transition throughout the year but continue to battle. I believe that one of the more important takeaways from the game was that the expectation of winning, no matter the circumstances is firmly ingrained within the program. Although it is hard to quantify, one would be hard-pressed to deny the fact that Notre Dame is now a program that simply finds ways to win, which is a reflection of the massive facelift the program and head coach underwent following the 2016 debacle. The program has not lost back-to-back regular-season contests in four and a half seasons (and counting) and currently holds the nation’s longest unbeaten streak against unranked opponents at thirty-six games. Both streaks highlight a sustained run of excellence that shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
To sum it up, this team is most likely going to need to win ugly down the stretch. Although there are no more ranked teams currently on the schedule, one could argue there will not be any easy victories either. However, when considering the past several years, as well as performances like Saturday night, Irish fans should believe in Notre Dame’s ability to run the table for the remainder of the season to set themselves up for a New Year’s Six Bowl Berth.