Noie column: It never should've gone to overtime, but No. 9 Notre Dame survives

Tom Noie
ND Insider

TALLAHASSE, Fla. —  Good enough to get out of town with a win, but nowhere near it to sustain success over the next three months.

That's where the No. 9 Notre Dame football team found itself as Sunday became Monday after the Irish withstood a furious Florida State comeback for a 41-38 overtime victory at steamy Doak Campbell Stadium.

"We've got work to do," said Irish coach Brian Kelly, stating the oh-so obvious. "You're going to build off this and be better."

This one never should've gotten to where and how it ended after the Irish roared back from a 20-17 second-half deficit with three unanswered touchdowns – bang, bang, bang! – and a 38-20 lead.

Time to start thinking about a happy trip back and Saturday's home game against Toledo? More like time for the Irish to hold on for their collective lives before graduate kicker Jonathan Doerer helped sidestep a possible 0-1 start with a 31-yard field goal in overtime.

Florida State had the ball first and the chance to take a lead but missed a field goal. Late last month, Doerer talked of never having a chance at a game-winner in his collegiate career. Never. Not one. The last winner he kicked was back in high school. He finally got his chance Sunday, and made the most of it. Got a game ball for his effort.

The same cannot be said for the Irish defense, which was gashed by a Florida State offense that kept coordinator Marcus Freeman and his guys guessing – and back on their heels – for a lot of the night.

Notre DameÕs Jonathan Doerer (39) kicks the game-winning field goal during Notre DameÕs 41-38 overtime win over Florida State in an NCAA football game on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Florida.

Pockets of humid condensation creeping across outside of the ninth-floor windows of the press box made it difficult for the media to see one big chunk of the field in the second half. But you didn’t need a fog-free view for what Notre Dame did — on both sides of the ball. 

Good on offense, not that good on defense after allowing 442 yards. Unwatchable at times in the fourth quarter. Inconsistency from front to back to all the way around.

This one looked to get sideways in a hurry — from the Irish trailing 20-17 and maybe their faithful starting to wonder (worry?) to 38-20 before the fourth quarter arrived. Three scores and 21 points in barely seven minutes. By then, some of the 68,316 and decided they’d seen enough and headed elsewhere. 

Too bad. It suddenly flipped back into a contest. A waaaaay too close of a contest. Some game pressure on the guys from up north. Notre Dame clung to a 38-35 lead with 5:36 left. That’s a lifetime, especially on a hot night when the Irish defense was on the field for a whole lot of plays. 

How would a team that’s gone 43-8 since 2017 with two trips to the College Football Playoffs respond? How about six yards in three plays to give the ball back to the Seminoles with 4:15 remaining. Oooof.

Again, a lifetime of time. Notre Dame was lucky to hold Florida State to a field goal, which tied it at 38 and sent it to overtime. 

► Welcome to the Irish:Grad transfer QB Jack Coan throws 4 touchdowns in debut

► Going overtime:Defense struggles as Notre Dame survives Seminoles

Jack Coan looked every bit the seasoned graduate-student starter. First start in an Irish uniform? Looked like his 31st. Tight end Michael Mayer looked every bit the future NFL pass catcher. Wide receiver Kevin Austin looked ready to be that deep-threat gamebreaker this program has lacked. 

The defense? A chance to be a problem in time. But on Sunday, it was the problem. Couldn’t make that one play to get off the field. Best they could do was get it to overtime. 

Notre DameÕs Justin Ademilola (9) celebrates after a big stop during the Notre Dame-Florida State NCAA football game on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Florida.

Yeah, former quarterback Ian Book was really good. Record-setting win good. Coan? How about 26-for-35 for 366 yards and four touchdowns and a passer rating of 194.1 (it was well over 200-plus into the fourth quarter) in his first Irish start. 

He might be better than Book right now. How’s that for a one-game overreaction?  

Let’s see how the rest of this season unfolds. We heard all August how nothing seemingly rattles Coan. Nothing much did Sunday, not even a few fumbled/bobbled center snaps. He just kept playing. 

Afterward, Coan was all business. Not so much as a smile in the post-game presser. Just a night's work for him. Kind of.

"It was a little too exciting for my liking," Coan deadpanned. "A little too stressful."

Make that a lot stressful. On everybody. And on deadline. Paper bag. Deep breaths. Repeat.

Notre Dame finished with 366 passing yards, 65 rushing yards. The best Irish teams usually flip-flopped those final numbers. Now instead of three yards and a cloud of dust, it a third down fade route to the end zone for another score. 

This one — this start — couldn’t get here quick enough. It’s always like that with night games. Covering the Irish on the road is an exercise in passing/killing time. You sleep late. Get in a run. Take a nap. Go for a walk and grab a to-go sandwich at the sub shop down the road from the hotel. Read a book. Take another nap. Shower and get ready to go to work and kickoff still seemed half a day away. 

It’s plenty time to think of what might happen in the ensuing four quarters. Irish offense going to pick up where it left off from Book? The defense going to cut it loose? We didn’t know what we were going to see Sunday. That’s how first games go. It’s a process, one that Notre Dame worked through after a perfectly-scripted opening drive. 

The offense needs some fine-tuning. The defense needs to be better, except for free safety Kyle Hamilton who did more Kyle Hamilton stuff with two freak-like picks.

"It," Hamilton said, "was a grind."

This was different/more than anyone saw all preseason. More than the 30-minute practice viewing window for the media. More than the two full practices we saw last month. This one was different. This was real. This one was juiced inside steamy Doak Campbell Stadium, where the temperature at kick was a cool (not really) 84 degrees with a heat index of 90. 

Kelly wanted his guys prepared enough and focused enough heading into this one that they wouldn’t go running for the tunnel at the first hint of adversity — or the first sound of the famed Florida State war chant. That was going early and often — like 23 minutes before kickoff — and nobody from Notre Dame checked out, at least as anyone on the ninth floor of the press box could tell. 

The tricky part about openers is you never know. Would Notre Dame look more like Alabama (dare to dream) in the opener? Or Oklahoma. Nobody expected Notre Dame to lay an opener egg along the lines of Washington (loss to Montana), Georgia Tech (Northern Illinois) or Vanderbilt, where former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s head coaching debut was promptly spoiled in a 23-3 home loss to East Tennessee State. Woof. 

One longtime Florida State athletic department official insisted the Seminoles had a real chance. To win. Two minutes and 11 seconds into the season, those odds looked even longer following a 41-yard Coan to Mayer touchdown pass on fourth-and-one. 

Heck of a drive and a heck of a start. A haze still lingered in the west end zone from the pre-kickoff fireworks, and the Irish were already up 7-0. 

Great drive in many ways, but in another, maybe not so great. Kind of allowed the Irish to think the rest of the night would be that easy. They could coast. It wasn’t. They didn’t. 

Following the five-play, 75-yard drive to start, the Irish managed only 51 yards on 14 plays the next three. They couldn’t convert on third down. They dropped passes. They bobbled/fumbled snaps. 

They also found themselves in a tie game, then trailing in a game.

"We know how to fight," Coan said. "We know how to win close games." 

However this one ended, the clock already was ticking toward the next one for the Irish. Last time Notre Dame opened on Labor Day Weekend — two years ago Monday — it had the luxury of easing back into the day-to-day and week-to-week season routine. The Irish had a bye week after that win, and had 12 days between games. 

Not this week, when work toward Toledo likely started even before the Notre Dame charter cleared Northern Florida air space. Notre Dame wasn’t schedule to campus until close to 4 a.m., with the home opener closing quickly. 

There’s a lot to do, a lot to clean up, a lot to build on heading into Saturday. 

This season almost took a turn no one saw coming. 

Plenty of time to look more like a Top 10 team.