Instant observations: Late-game heroics can't hide O-line pains, QB puzzle as Irish escape

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

Bottom Line

The most tangible sign of progress for eighth-ranked Notre Dame after a jittery season opener six days prior would have been owning the line of scrimmage, or at least getting squatter’s rights to it.

Instead, the Irish got mixed results during its 32-29 escape from Toledo in Saturday’s too-close-for comfort home opener.

The Irish defense was gashed on a couple of big plays, but for the most part the front 7 penetrated, pushed and punished the plucky Rockets (1-1), especially after halftime. That is until Toledo cashed in on a Kyren Williams fumble, going 73 yards in seven plays and taking a late 29-24 lead.

The Rockets’ second option in its own QB tag tam, Dequan Finn, ran in untouched from 26 yards out with 1:35 left. 

The ND offensive line regressed, though, and prompted ND head coach Brian Kelly to try a new offensive wrinkle — freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner.

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) runs the ball next to Toledo's Maxen Hook (25) during the Notre Dame vs. Toledo NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The most athletic QB with the widest skill set on the Irish roster led Notre Dame on a 96-yard, five-play scoring drive in his first action of his college career. That gave the Irish a short-lived 14-6 second-quarter lead.

He also was instrumental in a fourth-quarter drive that led to a 48-yard field goal and an ND 17-16 lead. On the next Irish drive, Buchner found a wide-open Chris Tyree streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard TD connection.

Kelly played mix and match the rest of the way..

Given the offensive line’s growing pains and starting QB Jack Coan’s lack of mobility, Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees may have to reassess if Buchner should be more than a niche player.   

Coan did, however, lead the Irish 75 yards in three plays and 26 seconds as the Irish rallied late to extend their home win streak to 25 games — barely.

Big Picture

The Irish figure to slide in the polls even with the late-game heroics from Coan and tight end Michael Mayer, who caught a 15-yarder for the go-ahead TD with 69 seconds left.

Questions Answered

Tyler Buchner can definitely contribute. He finished with 68 yards on seven carries and completed all three of his passes for 78 yards and a TD. … Wide receiver Avery Davis apparently still can play a little QB too as the former backup quarterback connected with Kyren Williams a fourth-quarter two-point conversion. … Notre Dame for now seems to have enough depth and oomph at linebacker after losing seniors Shayne Simnon and Paul Moala and junior Marist Liufau to season-ending injuries the past couple of weeks. Freshman Prince Kollie’s unavailability Saturday for undisclosed reasons reduced the ranks to six. 

Questions Lingering

If you reopen it will they come? There were splotches of empty seats in the first game at Notre Dame Stadium since the 2019 season that could have been at capacity. Attendance was announced at 62,009. The last time Notre Dame Stadium was at capacity was Nov, 2, 2019, when the Irish drew 77,622 for a 21-20 win over Virginia Tech.

ND’s largest home crowd in 2020 was 11,011 for its Nov. 7 overtime upending of No. 1 Clemson, Crowds throughout college football were strictly limited in 2020 because of COVID-19 protocols. 

My Game Balls Go To

Offense: Michael Mayer. The sophomore had a game-high seven receptions for 81 yards and two TDs, including the game-winner.

Defense: Junior linebacker JD Bertrand hit double-digit tackles for the second week in a row, with 11. He had three tackles for loss, with a sack and recovered a fumble in the game’s final minute.

The Road Ahead

Notre Dame next Saturday faces Purdue (2-0) for the first time since a 2014 Shamrock Series game in Indianapolis and for the first time in Notre Dame Stadium since a 20-17 Irish escape in 2012. The two teams met every season from 1946 to 2014.