On Saturday the Notre Dame Fighting Irish took, among other things: their first regular season loss in nearly two years, their first home loss in over four years, and one of their more infuriating losses in an individual sense in recent memory – a game fumbled and thrown, quite literally, into the hands of the Cincinnati Bearcats early on. The Irish fought back, but it was too much to overcome and they fell 24-13. There is still plenty to play for this year for the Irish, so let’s talk about some things we saw that need to be cleaned up.
Big Plays Strike Again
The Irish defense was done no favors in this game, with their counterparts on offense and special teams spotting the Bearcats prime field position for their first ten points and the offense in particular grinding to a near-total halt for a large part of the action. And they did put together a good effort overall, holding a dangerous Cincinnati offense in check enough to keep the Irish in the game and even forcing a crucial turnover to give the offense a lift.
However, it is worth noting that this game also saw the return of a specter that has haunted the Irish defense for the entire season, which is a vulnerability to big plays. At key points late in the first half and the fourth quarter, the defense allowed chunk plays that put the Bearcats in or near the red zone, and were fortunate that missed field goals prevented more of them from being turned into points. Alec Pierce was the biggest culprit here, reeling in catches of 45, 44 and 27 yards and burning Clarence Lewis in man-to-man coverage on multiple occasions. Leonard Taylor and Tre Tucker also struck for 36 and 27, respectively (Tucker’s catch found the end zone, while Taylor’s put the Bearcats in the red zone on their final touchdown drive after the Irish had put them in a promising second-and-long).
Again, the Irish defense was not the main problem in this game and played a solid game overall. Even a solid defense will give up a score or two to a talented offense, and this unit shouldn’t have to be winning games by itself in the Ty Willingham mold. But there is clearly still work to be done, particularly at the corner position, to shore things up.
Last week’s game against the Wisconsin Badgers showed that special teams play can provide a huge lift to a struggling offense, with Chris Tyree’s kick return touchdown providing go-ahead points when it looked like the Irish could be down for the count. This week, however, Tyree fumbled away the ball to give the Bearcats a free three points. Elsewhere, a senseless block-in-the-back penalty from Ramon Henderson negated a big punt return from Kyren Williams that would have put an Irish offense that was down ten points in excellent field position. And, of course, there was Jonathan Doerer’s missed PAT, which didn’t end up mattering but could very well have, as a make would have put Notre Dame in a position to tie the game with a field goal.
Overall, apart from Jay Bramblett’s solid punting performance, the special teams in this game were a major shortcoming that set the Irish back when their help was needed most. Similar to the defense, we should not be expecting special teams to win games for Notre Dame week by week. We should, however, be able to expect them not to hand it away to the other team.
Drew Pyne Has to Start
Notre Dame’s fans and should be thankful to Jack Coan for his contributions early this season, particularly delivering them from a couple potentially humiliating upsets early in the season. However, if Coan is not the quarterback on this offense best suited to make a wide variety of throws against a competitive secondary, to finish drives or at least avoid soul-crushing interceptions in the red zone, or to step up in a crucible of pressure against a top-ten team, I’m at a loss for what exactly the benefit is of keeping him on the field.
Drew Pyne, on the other hand, provided a spark to the offense that helped them climb back into the game, moving the pocket and extending plays effectively while avoiding pressures that would have downed Coan. He delivered accurate passes at all levels of the defense (his stat lines for the day could have been far better without a series of drops, the most devastating of which came from Kevin Austin with no one around him downfield on a play that would have completely changed this game if made). While the remaining Irish schedule all looks very beatable, they will still need a more dynamic offense if they want to have a shot at running the table and getting into a New Year’s Six bowl. With Tyler Buchner clearly still being limited to a package role in this offense, Pyne has to be the guy in the main role to create that spark.
Folks, it’s always important to have perspective in life, and we should remember that things could be a lot worse. We could be the Oregon Ducks, who lost to the unranked Stanford Cardinal in a game they at one point had a 99.6% chance of winning. We could be the Clemson Tigers, who have gone from national title contenders to unranked ignominy in the span of five weeks – or, lest we forget, the Wisconsin Badgers, who now sit at a grisly 1-3. The Irish are 4-1 with a tough loss to a playoff contender, still in the top 15 with a slate of winnable games coming up – undoubtedly some changes need to be made, but there is still plenty of reason for optimism about this year. Go Irish!