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

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – Echoes of what the other guys had done earlier Saturday evening in a place that not many opponents can say the same since October 2017 bounced around the quiet concrete of Notre Dame Stadium. 

This was long after the No. 9 Notre Dame football team had retreated to their locker room, but before the band had marched their way up the tunnel and out into the night. This was after the public address system had blared the 1970s song “Dancing Queen” by ABBA around the stadium speakers. 

Thanks for that one. 

When all was relatively serene, you could clearly hear the group, probably clad in red and black and having a strong connection to that city school in southwestt Ohio. 

Notre Dame QBs Drew Pyne (10) runs the ball during ND's 24-13 loss to Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Uhhhhhhhh...uhhhhhhhh...uuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhh...UC!” came the familiar University of Cincinnati cheer. 

That followed four hours of “Let’s Go Bearcats!” from a spirited group that wasn’t intimidated by a sellout Notre Dame Stadium crowd. 

Neither were the No. 7 Bearcats. 

Out in the concourse, Irish fans who were encouraged to wear green – jerseys, shirts, whatever the wardrobe – left the place with envy. Notre Dame saw its 26-game home win streak shredded by quarterback Desmond Ridder and a confident collection of play-making Bearcats, who went back to Ohio with a 24-13 victory. 

Afterward, the Bearcats walked out of their locker room and toward their waiting buses to find grab-and-go meals from … Kentucky Fried Chicken. Nothing says huge program win like a three-piece from the Colonel. 

► Scoring:Cincinnati-Notre Dame scoring summary

► Statistics:Cincinnati-Notre Dame team/individual statistics

► Instant observations Did Notre Dame find a QB amid loss to No. 7 Cincinnati?

This one was close, like all Irish games have generally been this year, but it really wasn’t. You never had a feeling that Notre Dame (4-1) would make enough plays on either side of the ball. Especially not after Notre Dame failed in what coach Brian Kelly later classified as the basics – take care of the football. Make good decisions. Don’t turn it over. Don’t miss tackles. Don’t miss plays. 

Kelly considered this one a heavyweight fight two days earlier, but the Irish were basically pinned against the ropes and staggered following three turnovers in the first 18 minutes. At home. Ouch. 

Notre Dame missed a lot of plays when they were there to be made. Cincinnati, not so much, one of the reasons why it secured arguably its biggest victory in program history. Certainly the biggest since that guy named Kelly was on the sideline of Nippert Stadium in the Clifton section of the Queen City. 

Stepping to the post-game podium at home after a loss for the first time in 1,484 days – that’s how long it had been since the Irish last lost at home – Kelly didn’t need many words to break it all down. 

“We didn’t take care of the basics today,” he said. ”We weren’t efficient with the basics. We didn’t coach well. We didn’t play very well.” 

Didn’t win. 

Now it’s back to those basics this week. That means going back to the most basic element of the game. 

Who’s the quarterback? 

The previous Saturday, some 100 miles to the west and the sun still high in the sky, Kelly and the Irish boarded their charter buses for a return trip back to campus following a convincing, where-did-that-come from victory over what had been a ranked Wisconsin team believing it had not one, not two, but three quarterbacks who could help this program win. If it wasn’t Jack Coan at Florida State, or Tyler Buchner the following week tag-teaming with Coan against Toledo, it was Drew Pyne coming to the rescue for an injured Coan to bust open the Wisconsin game at Soldier Field. 

Kelly was confident that early evening in Chicago in all three. A week later, coming clear of the loss, he still may be confident in all three, but this no longer can be an ensemble enterprise. 

First order of business this week in preparation for Saturday’s visit to Virginia Tech has to be who is No. 1? Not 1 or 1A. Not 1 or 1B. Who’s the guy going forward? Because if you have three quarterbacks, well, you know the rest. 

“Clearly we can’t continue down this road,” Kelly said of the revolving door at the game’s most important position. “We’re going to have to sit down and figure this out.” 

Could Kelly stick with Coan, his starter through the first five games? Should he go with Pyne, whose perseverance has earned him a ton of respect from teammates? Does he look hard at Buchner? 

Armchair analysis? Pump the brakes a bit on Buchner. He’ll get there. He’s not there. 

“It’s all on the table,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to figure it out.” 

Kelly certainly isn’t going to solicit advice from the media, but here’s some – it’s Pyne time. Give the kid the keys to this car and see where he can take everyone. Take this season. Or at the least, take the next couple of weeks.

Coan's too one-dimensional (immobile) for an offensive line that really has no dimension. If the Irish could get chunk plays from the run game, that would be fine. Buchner's too green. He'll good time. Eventually. 

Pyne learned Saturday coming clear of the locker room at intermission that he would get the first drive of the second half. He got all the drives. Something about the Irish offense looks differently, feels differently, moves differently when No. 10 is in the game. Doesn’t mean that Coan’s Irish career is over after five games or that Buchner needs more seasoning (he just does). It just means that at this moment, for this team, moving forward for who-knows-how-many-weeks, it’s time for Pyne.

The last Irish player to the podium Saturday should be the first name on next week's quarterback depth chart. 

He was the spark in the second half that the offense didn’t have the first. He completed nine of 22 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown to Braden Lenzy on a pretty ball to the corner of the end zone. 

He moved differently than the other two quarterbacks. He played differently. You had to have seen that. 

“Drew kind of came in and gave us a spark we needed,” said tight end Michael Mayer, “He’s confident in his throws.” 

Confident in his everything, something he learned last year from Ian Book, who left as the winningest quarterback in school history. He did so because he stayed and worked through the tough stuff. While he was watching Book, Pyne also was studying him. How does he prepare? How much extra time does he put in after practice? How does he stay confident and sure of his place in the program? 

Pyne admitted Saturday evening that he’s spent a lot of time – actually, every other night the last couple of weeks – in the Basilica. Sitting. Thinking. Understanding what life is like as the Notre Dame quarterback and staying positive about wherever this journey leads. 

“I just always have stayed ready,” Pyne said. “That’s just the way I am.” 

That matters. If it doesn’t work out, he can slide back to being the backup, and still be ready if and when his name in a game is called. Make him the starter and see how it goes. There’s something about Pyne that makes you believe nothing about him will change. 

As a starter. 

As a backup. 

“No matter what the circumstances the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ll always be ready.” 

Time to roll back that Irish home win streak to zero and see where it now goes from here. Time to do the same with the quarterback job. 

Let’s see where it all goes. 

The Cincinnati fan section wears mostly red during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.