Analysis: Five plays that defined Notre Dame's 32-29 victory over Toledo

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Big plays and dramatics followed Notre Dame down to Tallahassee, Fla., and back South Bend way. 

The No. 8 Irish (2-0) gave their fans a little too much excitement during Saturday’s home opener. The 32-29 victory over Toledo (1-1) in Notre Dame Stadium was filled with big plays for both teams just six days after Notre Dame’s 41-38 overtime victory at Florida State. 

The Toledo offense registered two runs and two passes of more than 20 yards. Notre Dame’s offense logged four passes and two runs of more than 20 yards. And that doesn’t include the key defensive plays for both teams and the three turnovers forced by the Rockets. 

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In an unnerving victory for the Irish, these were the five plays that defined the outcome. 

5. Toledo stops Chris Tyree on fourth-and-1 

Notre Dame’s struggles in the running game were underlined late in the second quarter Saturday. With the Irish leading 14-6 with 5:06 left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly kept Notre Dame’s offense out on the field for a fourth-and-1 from its own 40-yard line. 

The Irish looked to assert some physical dominance with a push up front. Kelly had some reason to be confident in the running game. The last Notre Dame drive ended with a 43-yard touchdown run by junior running back Kyren Williams. 

But Williams wasn’t on the field for fourth-and-1. Sophomore speedster Chris Tyree (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) lined up in the backfield and was asked to power through the middle of the line. He was able to gain three yards on a third-and-2 in the first quarter, but he wasn’t able to reach the marker this time. 

Linebacker Dyontae Johnson stuffed Tyree near the line of scrimmage for no gain. Former Notre Dame linebacker Jonathan Jones disrupted the play in the backfield by sneaking through the left side of the Irish line. 

Notre Dame doubled its rushing output at Florida State (65 yards) with 132 on Saturday. The Irish needed backup quarterback Tyler Buchner, who rushed for 68 yards, to help the cause against Toledo. 

Williams led the Irish with 78 rushing yards and his one touchdown. Tyree managed only 12 yards on seven carries. 

4. Toledo’s pick six of Jack Coan 

The Toledo offense couldn’t find the end zone in the first half. Thrice the Irish forced the Rockets to settle for a field goal in the first two quarters.  

Then Toledo cornerback Chris McDonald took matters into his own hands. He stepped in front of a Jack Coan pass intended for tight end Michael Mayer, intercepted it and returned in 27 yards for a touchdown. 

Sep 11, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Toledo Rockets defensive back Chris McDonald (13) gestures as he leaves the field at halftime of the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. McDonald had an interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

All of a sudden, the Rockets led 16-14 with 46 seconds left in the first half. 

“We tried to throw the pivot into (Mayer) and he was double covered,” Kelly said. “(Coan) got picked six. There was inside/outside bracket coverage on (Mayer), and I would too. We have to be able see that and work through our progressions.” 

Coan became a little too predictable in targeting Mayer. He completed three passes to Mayer on the first drive of the game, which ended with a four-yard Mayer touchdown. Clearly, Coan trusted Mayer in a two-minute drill, but he looked at Mayer the whole way and McDonald read it. 

“I'm still shocked right now,” McDonald said postgame. “It was a little curl route. I undercut it and trusted myself and I got to the end zone.” 

The Irish need to find a little more variety in the passing game beyond Mayer, who led the offense with seven catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns. His 16 catches through two games are seven ahead of Williams in second place and eight ahead of wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. in third. 

3. Chris Tyree’s touchdown catch from Tyler Buchner 

Toledo learned quickly of Tyler Buchner’s running ability. His very first snap as a college quarterback resulted in a 26-yard run. With the Irish backed up on their own four-yard line early in the second quarter, the freshman Buchner took the shotgun snap from his own end zone, faked a handoff to Williams and sprinted down the right sideline for a successful first impression. 

Buchner’s legs were clearly on the minds of Toledo’s defenders in the fourth quarter. His threat to keep it and run, left Tyree wide open on a run-pass option for a 55-yard touchdown.  

Notre Dame’s Chris Tyree (25) runs for a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 32-29 win over Toledo in an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Buchner faked a handoff to Williams to the right and started left. That was the same direction Tyree ran in motion at the snap. Justin Clark, Toledo’s cornerback on that side of the field, blitzed at Buchner and left Tyree with no one near him. Buchner didn’t let the pressure bother him and hit Tyree 10 yards downfield. 

Getting the ball to Tyree in the open field is typically a smart idea. No one was able to track him down as he blazed down the sideline to put Notre Dame up 24-16 with 10:57 left in the game. 

The less-athletic Coan might not have been able to execute that play as well as Buchner. That’s an example of the Irish opening up the playbook with Buchner in the game and not limiting his options. 

“We thought we had this package,” Kelly said, “and then we started just calling the plays that were installed for everybody.” 

The dual threat of Buchner should force Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to figure out how to keep him involved in the offense. His running threat helped Notre Dame’s offensive line significantly. 

2. Dequan Finn’s go-ahead touchdown run in the fourth

Toledo’s backup quarterback is pretty fleet of foot too. The Irish should have known better when Dequan Finn entered the game on Toledo’s third-and-1 with 1:40 left in the game. But instead of keeping track of Finn, Notre Dame fell for the fake handoff to running back Bryant Koback. 

Finn had nothing but green turf in front of him by the time he turned the corner for a 26-yard touchdown. The Rockets led 29-24 with 1:35 remaining in what could have been a massive upset. 

The big run felt all too familiar for the Notre Dame defense. The Irish allowed a 67-yard run from Koback, who finished with 21 carries for 122 yards and one touchdown, earlier in the fourth quarter. That’s why he drew so much attention on third-and-1. 

“We were trying to make sure we got some kind of (tackle for a loss) or negative snap,” said Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand.  

Bertrand, who tallied a game-high 11 tackles, couldn’t prevent Finn from turning the corner as he was pinned inside on a block by tight end Drew Rosi. 

“It’s just that execution piece,” Bertrand said. “It’s something we need to see on film and be able to correct from there.” 

Toledo might have limited Notre Dame’s ability to make a comeback if Finn decided to go down before reaching the end zone. The Irish already used two of their timeouts before the touchdown. Toledo could have tried to drain more clock knowing it only needed to kick a field goal to take the lead while trailing 24-22. 

“I'm not going to ask that kid (to do that) in that situation,” Toledo head coach Jason Candle said. “First of all, great play by the kid to pull the ball off the rusher and get the touchdown. Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe you can make that argument. But we got a score there, and you have to win the football game.”

1. Michael Mayer’s game-winning touchdown catch 

Notre Dame’s star tight end knew he would be open. What he didn’t know was his quarterback was getting his dislocated finger popped back into place before the game-winning touchdown pass. 

Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87) celebrates as he scores a touchdown in front of Toledo's Dyontae Johnson (2) during Notre Dame’s 32-29 win over Toledo in an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Mayer ran the same route earlier in the drive and broke open, but Coan was looking elsewhere by the time it developed. The two made sure they didn’t miss the opportunity again on first-and-10 from the Toledo 18-yard line with 1:13 left in the game. 

Early in his route, Mayer stepped left as if he would be cutting to the outside then shifted his direction back inside. By then it was too late for Johnson, who was flagged for pass interference covering Mayer on the previous play, to recover. Mayer gained inside position and set Coan up for a pass that just needed to lead him slightly to score. 

Coan’s pass wobbled a little, but that can be explained by the finger incident that was quickly addressed on the sideline. Notre Dame athletic trainer Mike Bean popped the finger in place after Coan ran closer to the sideline to get it fixed without leaving the game for a play. 

That allowed Coan to deliver the game-winning throw with 1:09 left on the clock. A two-point conversion gave Notre Dame a 32-29 lead. 

The experience of Coan, who started 18 games at Wisconsin before a graduate transfer to Notre Dame, convinced the Irish to stick with him on the final drive despite some shakiness earlier. The poise he displayed on the final drive – completing all three of his passes for 58 yards on the 75-yard, penalty-aided drive that took only 26 seconds -- was what they expected from Coan. 

“That’s what I saw from him all of camp,” Mayer said. “That’s what I saw from him the entire summer. He’s going to be doing that the rest of the year. He’s very poised.” 

Toledo attempted to slow down Mayer by putting a linebacker and safety over the top of him throughout the game, but the Rockets left him in one-on-one coverage with the game on the line. That proved to be a costly mistake.