Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish are, remarkably, still 2-0 after surviving a hideous home opener against the Toledo Rockets. The Irish offense, which spent most of the day hemming and hawing about whether it even wanted to play football, trailed inside of two minutes before finally bearing down. Jack Coan executed an efficient final drive and found Michael Mayer for the go-ahead touchdown, and a J.D. Bertrand fumble recovery sealed the deal. And there was much rejoicing.
If week one’s narrow escape felt exactly like Notre Dame’s 2016 loss to the Texas Longhorns, this one was tracking almost as closely with the 2014 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats. A Notre Dame team brimming with talent nonetheless succumbed to frequent and near-total system failures on both sides of the ball, allowing a determined and capable underdog to hang around in Notre Dame Stadium until a brutal fumble by a normally reliable Irish running back handed them a chance to win. However, just as in week one, the 2021 Irish managed to avoid the final catastrophe that awaited their past counterparts, and still sit undefeated with hopes of better things to come.
Somewhat mercifully given how embarrassing it was, this game was streamed exclusively on Peacock rather than being broadcast on national television. In my completely unbiased non-homer judgment, I’ve concluded that the Irish were thrown off by this and that caused their erratic play on Saturday. With that in mind, let’s go over the challenges the Irish faced in this game, which were definitely Peacock’s fault and will be fixed moving forward in bigger games. Amen.
Code Red on the O-Line
The Irish offensive line moved in the wrong direction on Saturday, continuing to struggle in the running game while regressing in pass protection against one of the smallest defensive fronts the Irish will play all season. Things went from bad to worse when Michael Carmody left with an injury and young Tosh Baker was forced into action at left tackle. The blind side became a sieve for the Irish quarterbacks and missed assignments ran rampant all over the line, allowing the Rockets to rack up a ridiculous six sacks that routinely stalled promising drives.
Even after the injuries it has endured, the Irish line is still made up of highly talented players who have the potential to form a solid unit. Certainly a better one than we saw on Saturday, at any rate. The problems on the line - missed assignments, failure to pick up pressures, etc. - are all things that can be fixed; but they must be fixed, now. There is no longer any room for error or time for delay as the heat turns up on this schedule. If the offensive line plays this way against the Wisconsin Badgers, Cincinnati Bearcats or Virginia Tech Hokies, the Irish will lose. Whether it’s position shuffling, improved communication or simply better mental preparation, the Irish front has to find a fix and find it fast.
Maybe We Have Two Quarterbacks?
I imagine Tyler Buchner expected to see some playing time yesterday, albeit under different circumstances. Regardless, he got it. The offensive line struggles detailed above gave the Irish running backs little room to run, and with Jack Coan a non-factor from the quarterback position, in came Buchner to shake things up. The true freshman impressed in his limited action. He made a few impressive completions - including a beautiful RPO that led to a Chris Tyree touchdown - ran the ball effectively, and appeared physically ready for college ball. Perhaps most importantly, he forced Toledo to change the way they attacked the Irish running game, creating more running room for Kyren Williams in the second half.
But when the chips were down and the Irish desperately needed a touchdown, it was Jack Coan who came in and led them down the field. We saw both the best and worst of Coan on Saturday, as two ruthlessly efficient touchdown drives bookended a day that otherwise consisted of stalled drives (not always Coan’s fault - see the offensive line above), missed deep balls, and a horrific pick-six that was a primary reason Toledo nearly won this game. The Irish still have tremendous weapons in the passing game - Michael Mayer and Kevin Austin were excellent, with solid efforts from Braden Lenzy and Avery Davis as well - and Coan has shown he has the ability to find them, but his inconsistent play and Buchner’s strong showing leave Irish fans with more questions than answers.
In his last year prior to coming to Notre Dame, Brian Kelly coached a Cincinnati team that made brilliant use of a two-quarterback system. His varying attempts to replicate that in South Bend (Rees-Hendrix, Golson-Rees, Golson-Zaire, Kizer-Zaire) have been short-lived and mostly ineffective, but Saturday indicated - and Michael Mayer’s postgame comments confirmed - that he has planned to make it a part of the offense this season. Let’s hope for better results than we’ve seen in years past.
The Defense: Improving, But Still A Question Mark
Marcus Freeman’s defense came in for criticism for a second straight week, much of it deserved. The defense again allowed an underdog to score multiple touchdowns late in the fourth quarter and nearly steal a win, and that is absolutely on them. But let’s also remember that same defense held Toledo without an offensive touchdown for the first 52 minutes of this game, and the Rockets would have never led without the aforementioned pick-six.
It was primarily the Irish offense that allowed Toledo to hang around on Saturday, with long periods of futility and back-breaking turnovers that allowed the Rockets to possess the ball for just over 30 minutes. And during that time we saw a lot more of the defense we were promised - attacking, aggressive, getting pressure (five sacks, four QB hurries, 11 TFL’s) and generally giving Toledo’s quarterbacks a miserable day - than we did the week prior. Yes, they broke in the fourth quarter - but that wouldn’t have mattered much and may not have even happened if the offense had been competent and the Irish entered that quarter up 35-9. And, when most needed, they got the job done, forcing a turnover to seal the deal. We all need silver linings in life and this is mine - the Irish defense improved in this game, and I think we can expect to see more improvement as they learn to play together in Freeman’s system.
It’s been a heart-pounding couple weeks, and next week’s matchup against the Purdue Boilermakers no longer seems like a sure thing, let alone the games to follow. As fans, all we can do is what the team is doing right now - take things one week at a time, and take solace in not yet becoming a victim of what is shaping up to be a wild, upset-filled 2021 in college football.