Hansen: Poetic and pragmatic, Cincinnati sends Irish back in search of an identity

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND -- The sizable red-clad splotches of humanity in Notre Dame Stadium broke out in a brief chorus of “O-VER-RA-TED” with roughly five minutes left in the biggest road win in University of Cincinnati football history.

It wasn’t like they lacked sheer numbers or, especially, audacity. Neither did the seventh-ranked team they rooted on to a 24-13 victory in what was supposed to be a green-out at Notre Dame Stadium.

The non-upset — the Bearcats were a 1 ½-point Vegas favorite over No. 9 Notre Dame — was as pragmatic for Cincinnati (4-0) as it was poetic.

It kept the Bearcats alive in the conversation to be the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff, though the octane in their schedule falls off unmistakably in the weeks ahead, so style points are now their best friends.

► Analysis:Noie: Time for Notre Dame to go back to basics and figure out a starting quarterback

► ND vs. UC:Noie: Time for Notre Dame to go back to basics and figure out a starting quarterback

And to do so against the coach, Brian Kelly, who they perceived abandoned them for ND in December of 2009, was particularly sweet for the UC fan base. So was the notion former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock perhaps had both the best game plan and in-game adjustments among the four coordinators Saturday in a battle of familiarity between the two staffs.

If Notre Dame (4-1) emerges with a stable solution at quarterback for the balance of the season, after its season-long timeshare grew to a record three QBs on Saturday, the Irish will have some solace to drag from their effective elimination from the CFP picture and the end of the nation’s second-longest active home win streak, at 26.

“We aren’t going to let one game define the rest of our season,” Notre Dame linebacker and captain Drew White vowed.

But what will actually define it?

Notre Dame QB Drew Pyne (10) calls the offense the play during Notre Dame's 24-13 loss to Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

At the top of the list is what Kelly opts to do with the ever-changing QB picture. Grad senior Jack Coan, the starter in the five games, and freshman Tyler Buchner, the tag-teamer in three, combined to throw two interceptions and produce zero points in a first half in which UC took a 17-0 command.

Against the nation’s No. 2 pass efficiency defense, Coan produced a season-low pass-efficiency rating of 98.1 — on 14-of-22 passing for a season-low 114 yards — after opening with what still is a season high of 194.1 in the Sept. 5 season opener at Florida State.

In fact, his rating has dropped in each succeeding week.

Buchner’s efficiency rating was minus-100 on two attempts Saturday, and his rushing was a non-factor (8 yards on 4 carries) for the first time in a game in which he has played.

Sophomore Drew Pyne, debuting last week at Wisconsin in relief of an injured Coan and in place of a then-injured Buchner, played every snap but one in the second half Saturday against UC.

Buchner came in for that one second-half play — to boos, no less — and scrambled back to the line of scrimmage for a net zero gain.

Pyne’s pass-efficiency mark of 110.5 and 41 percent completion rate (9-of-22), though, don’t do justice to the fire he brought to the offense in leading both touchdown drives and throwing for 143 yards.

“Jack progressed to the point where we felt that he was at 100 percent, and he didn't do anything to lose his job in the Wisconsin game,” Kelly said of how Saturday’s QB shuffle evolved. “He got hurt. So we felt like he got the first shot at it.

“Tyler, as I had mentioned, was going to be part of the rotation. Then, obviously, we got behind and felt like we needed to make a change and (get) a spark there, and that's why we went with Drew in the second half.”

And moving forward?

“It's a good question. It's a fair question,” Kelly said. “Clearly, we can't continue down this road of who's the flavor of the week here.

“We're going to have to sit down and figure this out and decide which direction we want to go, because it doesn't give us the kind of continuity and consistency in offense that we need.”

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) celebrates a first down during Notre Dame's 24-13 loss to Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

► Scoring:Cincinnati-Notre Dame scoring summary

► Stats:Cincinnati-Notre Dame team/individual statistics

Tight end Michael Mayer seconded that notion in a way, when asked about the team’s offensive identity.

“We’re still searching for it,” said Mayer, who led ND with eight catches for 93 yards but aggravated a lingering groin injury.

First-year Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense showed some cracks after two surging performances, and a mostly impressive first-half against his old team.

Admittedly, UC fifth-year senior Desmond Ridder will be one of the best — if not the best — QBs the Irish face this season.

Particularly deflating, though, for the Irish was a 75-yard, six-play UC scoring drive in the fourth quarter after Notre Dame closed to within 17-13 on Pyne-to-Braden Lenzy 32-yard connection with 8:20 left.

Ridder covered the final six yards on a keeper around end to account for the final margin with 5:08 left.

“I think Notre Dame beat Notre Dame today,” White said.

That doesn’t mean the better team didn’t prevail.

With so much newness coming off a playoff season in 2020, this Irish team was always going to be in a race against time. It had the look and potential of a team that seemed to be on a trajectory to play its best football in November, but it needed to be good enough in late September and all of October to handle its toughest matchups.

And the urgency to become that is still there, with a road test at Virginia Tech (3-1) next week, then USC (3-2) and North Carolina (3-2) in prime time at home after a mid-month bye.

The USC game on Oct. 23 will also be a pivotal weekend to show off in front of some of the key remaining 2022 recruiting targets as well as some key 2023s (juniors).

Saturday’s visitors list was loaded with elite 2023 prospects. They and the first sell-out crowd at Notre Dame Stadium since Nov. 2, 2019 couldn’t have missed the area in greatest need of repair since the season kicked off.

The offensive line.

Even though the O-line surrendered a season-low two sacks and the nation’s 122nd-ranked rushing attack showed pluck and efficiency at times, the unit with four new starters to start the season and four different featured left tackles hardly hinted that a significant evolutionary step is imminent.

Sophomore Tosh Baker, the starter at left tackle the past two weeks, was unavailable for unspecified reasons on Saturday. Sophomore Matt Carmody, out for the past two weeks with an ankle injury, returned and started.

Freshman Joe Alt finished, though. Andrew Kristofic, meanwhile, subbed in at right guard and vaunted freshman guard Rocco Spindler made his college debut.

“We were trying to give ourselves a chance,” Kelly said of the moves. “We were trying to do anything we could to protect. It seemed that we did a better job in the second half, but we clearly struggled. It's something that we're well aware of, we're working on.

“Like I’ve said, there's no waiver wire. There's nobody getting traded. We're working, and we've got to coach the guys that we have and we've got to get them coached better and put them in better positions to succeed.”

The bye week likely offers the best opportunity to recalibrate.

And that really goes for all aspects of the team, not just the interned message board scapegoats coached by Jeff Quinn.

As far as the ND quarterbacks, what happens the balance of this season won’t necessarily dictate what happens at the position in 2022, but it’s hardly insignificant.

Suddenly, the option who as recently as August didn’t seem good enough for either the long term or the short term is at least showing the resiliency in leadership in the present to coax the Irish through a difficult month.

“We’re all really close. There’s no controversy between us,” Pyne said of his fellow QBs. “There’s never any sign of doubt between us. Whoever’s on the field, we all have each other’s backs. We’re all just trying to get better.

“The biggest thing for me is always keeping a positive attitude. Notre Dame is such an incredible university. I’ve gone to church almost every other night for the past couple weeks.

“Just sitting in the Basilica by myself thinking about the day, thinking about the week and having a positive attitude at all times. Just preparing every single week with those guys. Having confidence in ourselves is the most important thing.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI