I reached what will hopefully be the apex of my frustration with the 2021 Notre Dame Fighting Irish somewhere in the middle of the fourth quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Irish looked like they were headed for a shocking second straight loss after - apparently - having grossly mishandled their quarterbacks and suffered system failures all over the field. Of course, we all know the story from there: the much-maligned Jack Coan re-entered the game and led a sterling final stretch and Jonathan Doerer’s leg once again saved the Irish from a massive road upset by an unranked team.
I took a week off at the same time the Irish did, and I must say I have emerged with a more optimistic perspective heading into the back end of this year’s schedule. It’s impossible not to be excited about the first matchup in two years with the USC Trojans, but I’m also feeling more bullish about the potential of this Irish team to have a successful season in spite of all its flaws, and to set the table for better things to come. Moreover, in a year where seemingly no team besides the Georgia Bulldogs can avoid taking a few on the chin, the Irish sit at a relatively solid 5-1 with a close-ish loss to the #2 team in the country. This season could still be a great one for the Irish, so here are three reasons for optimism you can - hopefully - watch for in the back half of 2021.
Offensive Line Realignments
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been one of the most frustrating units to watch this season, as many of us were confident the Irish could maintain a reasonable level of competence even after four starters departed from an excellent 2020 squad. Instead, the line has proven an Achilles’ heel of the offense. Add on injuries to week-one starters and an extremely immobile quarterback, and you had a serious problem.
However, more recent weeks have seen improvements in the Irish line as the coaches made adjustments and new contributors settled in. Pass protection improved overall in each of the last two weeks, with Andrew Kristofic coming in for the struggling Zeke Correll and playing at a higher level, and Joe Alt improving on the left edge. Against the Virginia Tech Hokies, the Irish also started getting more of a push in the running game, aided by the dual-threat ability of Tyler Buchner.
If this unit can continue to improve, give the Irish running backs more room and take pressure off the uncertain quarterback situation, it could be a major storyline to watch and give the Irish offense a lot more dynamism.
Unexpected Youth Movements
This was already going to be a year in which we saw a lot of new players for Notre Dame - the aforementioned new-look offensive line, new quarterbacks, new starters at receiver, linebacker, defensive line, etc. But there has been even more of a youth movement than expected on this team, as injuries to starters and expected contributors have forced some unexpected names into action. Besides the quarterback situation (more on that below), we’ve seen Logan Diggs, Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Styles, Mitchell Evans and more get meaningful skill-position minutes on offense.
The defensive lineup has been more consistent, but has still seen a ton of rotation and churn already. J.D. Bertrand has been (mostly) a relevation at linebacker, and we’ve seen Justin Ademilola, Rylie Mills, Howard Cross and Nana Osafo-Mensah make impacts behind the starters up front.
It’s remarkable that Notre Dame has been able to handle this kind of roster attrition and get to 5-1 with the amount of young and/or inexperienced players they have had to use. It will be a lot of fun to watch those players continue to grow in effectiveness and maturity as they continue to play, and their growth should lead to improved results on the field.
I know. The quarterback position at Notre Dame has been an absolute cluster this season that has given fans massive headaches and made us all question this coaching staff. But hear me out for a second.
Directly after the Cincinnati game, I said in this space that Drew Pyne had to start if the Irish were to have a successful season moving forward. I thought for certain that Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner were, respectively, incapable and unready to uphold the winning standard that the program had established in recent years. I was joined by many fans in this opinion, and I joined them in being extremely skeptical when Jack Coan took the field against Virginia Tech.
Evidently Brian Kelly does not take suggestions from bloggers because Pyne ended up not even playing a down as Coan and Buchner combined to lead the Irish to a win. The results of the game themselves were not exactly actionable: Buchner undoubtedly provided the Irish a level of dynamism that Coan could not early in the game and showed his ability to pass at a high level, but it was also Coan who saved the day after Buchner’s unraveling in the second half.
What is my new take and/or conclusion after this? I have no idea. The only possible suggestion I can make is that if Coan is going to remain the starter, the Irish should look into the possibility of putting him into some sort of hypnotic/sleeping chamber on the sideline when the Irish are on defense, then waking him up before each drive and telling him the Irish are losing with two minutes left. The guy is just dynamite in those situations.
I have no idea what to think about the quarterback situation for this team, and if anything it appears to be a hot-hand-of-the-week situation. But I do know that for the team to be 5-1 at this point with all the shuffling that has been done, Kelly and co. have to have been making the right calls most of the time, and I’m more inclined to trust them than to keep trying to guess, because every time I think I know for sure what the right move is something happens to prove me wrong.
The reason, then, to be optimistic about the quarterback situation this year is that for all the issues and limitations at the position, we seem to have a staff that knows how to use all three of these players to win games. Moreover, each of them has shown that they can win, given the right opportunity. We’ll likely get to see both Pyne and Buchner get significant and meaningful playing time that prepares them to compete for the starting job in 2022, while also getting to see Coan fight for his legacy in his final year. It’s going to be crazy and frustrating at times, but with the hardest parts of this schedule behind us, there’s reason to believe it’ll end in a good spot.
We currently live in a college football world where the Clemson Tigers have two losses and are teetering on the edge of the top 25, the Purdue Boilermakers just beat the number-two team in the country and the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes are fighting on the margins while the Cincinnati Bearcats have the inside track to the playoff. It’s a wild year where seemingly anything can happen, and for the Irish to be relatively intact at this point is a blessing - we all remember where they were the last time a season like this happened. With these reasons for optimism, I hope you look ahead expecting a solid season where the Irish can (mostly) survive the chaos.