Hansen: Notre Dame still very much in search of a new normal and maybe a QB tag team

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — The reinstatement of so many Notre Dame football traditions Saturday, including no restrictions at the turnstiles, never really felt like a total return to normalcy.

At least Irish head coach Brian Kelly better hope his eighth-ranked team’s second straight wonky and wobbly escape isn’t the program’s new normal.

Following the first road overtime win in school history six days earlier, Notre Dame may have mastered late-game heroics in Saturday’s home opener. The Irish scored the go-ahead touchdown with 69 seconds left in a 32-29 subduing of Toledo, after surrendering the lead just 26 seconds earlier.

In between, a Notre Dame Dame Stadium crowd of 62,009 — about 15,000 below capacity and about six times what the Irish drew during the height of COVID-19 protocols in 2020 — watched the Irish alternately spin their wheels, push a few right buttons, outright regress and introduce a new quarterback dynamic with the debut of freshman Tyler Buchner.  

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) is forced out of bounds by Toledo's Drew Rosi (89) 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.

“I can't even begin with the work that we have to do,” said the 12th-year Irish head coach, just one win away now from tying Notre Dame coaching icon Knute Rockne on the school’s all-time victory list.  

► Stats:Notre Dame vs. Toledo football team and individual statistics

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Actually, those plucking down cash to watch the game on Peacock’s premium streaming service, instead of regular/free NBC, might have spent most of the afternoon trying to figure out how to get a refund.

Notre Dame turned the ball over three times, including a pick-6 from starting QB Jack Coan right before halftime, and also ceded the ball on downs inside its own 50 on a fourth-and-1 run by Chris Tyree that went nowhere.

Toledo — a veteran team with 22 returning starters and 22 players who were in their fifth, sixth or seventh year of college ball — cashed in all four of those Irish miscues for points, including a Kyren Williams fourth-quarter fumble.

Toledo's Dequan Finn (7) at quarterback during the Notre Dame vs. Toledo NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Dequan Finn, the reliever in Toledo’s own tag-team QB arrangement, scored untouched on a 26-yard run with 1:35 left in regulation for a 29-24 Rockets lead.

“I think leading up to the game, everybody wants to hear about what a cool experience this is going to be for your kids,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said, “and what a great time it is to go to Notre Dame. Our kids don’t want to hear that. They want to go win the football game. They’re not here for an experience.”

Jack Coan vs. Tyler Buchner — or both? 

Coan was at his best early — on ND’s opening drive — and on its final one to surge ahead. 

Both concluded with TD passes to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer (7 catches for 81 yards, both team highs).

Coan was 4-of-4 for 54 yards as ND took a quick 7-0 lead, and 3-for-3 for 58 yards when it mattered most on the final drive. The rest of the game, the grad transfer from Wisconsin was 14-of-26 for 127 yards and was sacked six times.

He suffered a dislocated finger just before he threw the go-ahead TD to Mayer from 18 yards out.

“There was a break in the action and one of our trainers, Mike Bean, went out there and performed some kind of, I don't know, ‘pull-the-finger thing,” Kelly said “I don't know — what's the medical — is that the medical term?

“He pulled the finger, got it back in place, and the next play we were throwing the verticals. We went four vertical, brought the tight end to the backside hash, and Jack steps up. We're going to have Bean work on his hand more often.”

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan (17) throws the ball during ND’s 32-29 win over Toledo, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

And with that, the Irish moved to 9-0 against Mid-American Conference teams, extended their home win streak to 25 and their string of victories over unranked teams to 34.

Kelly knows he’s going to have to use Buchner, too, going forward, because of the combination of Coan’s lack of mobility and the offensive line’s lack of progress. It didn’t help that for the second week in a row, the Irish lost a left tackle.

Freshman Blake Fisher started the opener, but suffered a knee injury in the first half of that game that will keep him out eight weeks. Replacement sophomore Michael Carmody suffered an ankle sprain in the first half Saturday and was replaced by sophomore Tosh Baker.

“As you know from watching the game, we were trying to find ourselves offensively in the run game,” Kelly said. “We're transitioning as we speak. I felt like going to Tyler there, he would give us the versatility in the run game that we needed.”

Buchner entered the game in the second quarter, with the Irish up 7-6, and promptly led them on a 96-yard, five-play TD drive, with Williams covering the final 43 yards.

He also led a TD drive in the fourth quarter, hitting a wide-open Tyree streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard scoring play on the drive’s only play.

Students do pushups during the Notre Dame vs. Toledo NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The highest-ceiling, most athletic and by far least-experienced of the five scholarship quarterbacks on the Irish roster, finished 3-of-3 passing for 78 yards and ran for 68 yards on seven carries on Saturday.

“We just liked Jack's experience,” Kelly said when asked if he thought of plugging in Buchner for the final drive. “He's been there before. Not that Tyler couldn't have done it, but if you're looking  in the moment trying to win the game, it just made more sense to go with a guy that's been there.”

And moving forward?

“I think having them both keeps the defense off of what you're trying to do. I think we can blend both of them into what we're doing. But, you know, each week is a different week. We're trying to find a way to win the game today.”

The Irish defense made an overall step forward, but not without some alarming plays where it was gashed for big gains.

The most telling response from Kelly came when he was asked if this team was taking longer to figure out than he expected.

An 8.2-second pause preceded his answer. 

“Yes and no,” he said. “Yes in the sense that I think from a defense standpoint there is a little bit more to it than maybe I thought in terms of figuring some things out. And then offensively I thought we would get to a run game that we felt comfortable with sooner.

“We’ve got to kind of figure out where we want to go here. We've got some really good players, but this week will be, ‘All right, here is who we are and let's get to work.’”

Follow NDI nsider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI