Folks, there is no shame if you woke up with a pounding in your head this morning, because the Notre Dame Fighting Irish remain undefeated at 4-0 after an emphatic 41-13 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers. This was a riveting game to watch as it remained close for three quarters, only for a sudden and completely unexpected fourth-quarter rout to turn what had been a low-scoring rock fight into a 28-point drubbing.
Every now and then, a game happens that somehow puts you through all the emotions of the college football fan experience - the pregame nerves, the futility-induced frustrations, the suspense of a close game, the dread of an impending loss, the elation at a sudden turn of events, the satisfaction of a sound win - at once. This was one of those games, and Irish fans should absolutely be savoring it. But future games still beckon, with a top-ten clash against the Cincinnati Bearcats coming to South Bend next week. Let’s look at three things from this game that Irish fans should take into the week to follow.
And thankfully, this time it killed for Notre Dame. When the Irish have found themselves overmatched in past clashes with the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers, the speed and athleticism of those teams on the perimeter and in the backfield has been one of the key separators. This time, it was the Irish who possessed such an advantage, and while it was limited by continued offensive line struggles, it was still one of the key reasons the Irish emerged victorious.
When the Irish quarterbacks were given time, their receivers had their way with every defensive back not named Faion Hicks. Kevin Austin had the biggest day, taking in a deep ball in for one touchdown and racing through the Badgers’ secondary for another, while Avery Davis and Michael Mayer moved the chains frequently against a defense that simply could not keep up with them when the Irish quarterbacks had time to throw. And lest we forget the moment that completely changed the game, and gave us a delightful Gus Johnson moment:
NINETY. EIGHT. BIG ONES! (Technically 96, but who cares. We love you, Gus). Speed like Chris Tyree’s gives you the chance to score even when your quarterback is injured and your offensive line is in shambles. Getting these guys the ball in space despite those limitations has to be a massive focus area for Tommy Rees and co. moving forward.
Notre Dame’s Defense is Playing the Marcus Freeman Way - and Loving It
In retrospect, it was inevitable that there would be some struggles as the Irish defense transitioned from Clark Lea’s disciplined team defense to Marcus Freeman’s freer, more aggressive philosophy, and we saw those on the field in the first couple weeks. What we yesterday was a team that had thoroughly embraced that new philosophy and was implementing it with gusto. The Irish front seven played with consistent physicality and aggression, controlling the line of scrimmage and pushing into the backfield even when facing jumbo packages, thus shutting down Wisconsin’s running game. That put the game in the hands of Graham Mertz.
While most of us expected Kyle Hamilton to be the one to make Mertz pay in that situation, the Badgers made a point of avoiding him. Unfortunately for them, this meant targeting Cam Hart, who was ready and willing to step up. Hart made two crucial interceptions, both of which led to Irish touchdowns, the latter of which was essentially game-sealing. With Mertz backed into a corner with no choice but throw, the Irish closed in and feasted with two pick-sixes that turned a sound victory into a blowout.
One of the biggest things I noticed throughout this dominant defensive performance was the confidence and even joy that the Irish defenders were playing with. This was a team that appeared to have fully embraced its new philosophy and learned to play together under it, and was absolutely loving it. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Drew Pyne Is No One’s Afterthought
Coming into Saturday’s game, most Notre Dame fans likely assumed Drew Pyne would be a career backup. With Jack Coan the starter for 2021 and the highly recruited Tyler Buchner waiting in the wings, Pyne had become something of an afterthought in the Irish fanbase. I was guilty of this personally as well, and I will admit I saw his entry into the game with Coan and Buchner both hurt as a possible death knell for the Irish in this game.
Turns out we were all wrong, because Pyne came out firing, proving poised and more than capable of leading his team to victory. As a smaller quarterback behind a suspect offensive line against a nasty defensive front, he showed incredible confidence and pocket presence. His movement allowed more routes to develop for Irish receivers, who were able to gain separation and pull away for the Irish.
The broadcast crew made note of Pyne’s childhood admiration for Brady Quinn (his wearing #10 is not a coincidence), and while he is significantly smaller than the Irish legend, you can see some of Quinn in his playing style - the aforementioned movement, similar release point and throwing mechanics, and most of all, a readiness to take the ball in adverse circumstances. Brian Kelly has already said Jack Coan is still the starter and will play next week against Cincinnati, and Pyne will still have to earn that spot if he is to get it in the future. But he has announced himself as more than capable, and at the very least he had himself a day to remember forever. Ya did good, Drew.
Bonus takeaway: Part of what made this game so enjoyable was the broadcast crew. I can’t get enough of Gus Johnson’s excitement and palpable love of the game, and Joel Klatt does a good job as the color commentator as well. With NBC doing us dirty and putting the Irish on Peacock, it could be high time for savvy Jack to think about revisiting that contract and making a deal with Fox. Either that or find out what those two guys are being paid and find a way to make NBC double it, because that was one of the best-called Notre Dame games I’ve seen in years.