Analysis: How much of QB Buchner for Notre Dame moving forward is more art than science
SOUTH BEND — Forget the eye test. Polls-demoted Notre Dame is getting flummoxed by college football’s math test.
It’s not a complete lack of pretty numbers in the national statistics for the AP 12-ranked Irish (2-0) two weeks into a season that still has realistic ambition to be a reloading one even if its small sample size reeks of rebuilding.
Heading into the first matchup, Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC), with former annual rival Purdue (2-0) since 2014, Notre Dame is tied for the national lead in red zone offense. The Irish are a perfect 4-for-4 — all four of those scores being touchdowns — and up 100 spots from the end of last season in that statistical category.
They’re fifth in sacks, sixth in tackles for loss — heights the previous 11 head coach Brian Kelly-coached teams have never so much as sniffed. Current snapshots of fewest penalties per game (14th out of 130 FBS teams), punt coverage (13th) and turnovers gained (24th) are all nice trajectories.
The two most relevant rankings in terms of where Kelly can coax real bottom-line growth and improvement are these — 12th in passing offense and 17th in team passing efficiency.
But this isn’t just about building off what the Irish so far do well. It needs to be a blend that includes what Notre Dame should be doing well.
And that’s why freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner becomes such a central figure in the conversation.
Buchner made his college debut in the second quarter of Saturday’s 32-29 rally past Toledo, then played intermittently the rest of the way. The heretofore third-stringer completed all three of his pass attempts for 78 yards and a TD, and rushed seven times for 68 yards (9.7 ypc average).
It’s not that Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan is part of the problem. It’s that he’s not enough of an answer by himself to offset Notre Dame’s reconstruction of its offensive line, and its related rankings — sacks allowed (125th) and rushing offense (109th).
Coan’s minus-27 yards on 27 carries reflects that. The only two times in the Kelly Era in which ND’s No. 1 QB finished in negative numbers were 2011 and 2013, both seasons current ND Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees started most or all of the games.
Even when Notre Dame has had dual-threat QBs starting, getting more creative and aggressive with those quarterbacks running the ball was its best antidote to a loaded box from opposing defenses and the stifling of its traditional running game.
How much to use Buchner, moving forward, is probably more art than science and also incumbent on him not just flashing his running prowess but continually gaining a greater handle on the entire offensive playbook.
The defensive remedy for the Irish, meanwhile, seems to require a heavier dose of patience than change. The Irish are getting the reward (sacks, tackles for loss, turnovers forced) for being an attacking scheme, but not without too much risk.
A nation’s worst four plays yielding 60 yards or more is the most alarming, but so are the national rankings in scoring defense (111th), third-down defense (90th) and, especially, rushing defense (104th).
Run defense (the Irish were 16th in 2020) should be this team’s trump card, actually, even with the attrition at linebacker factored in. Sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho, who can move around the defensive formation, will help when he returns from his undisclosed unavailability.
Short of that, it’s more a matter of mental growth and familiarity with the scheme and its philosophy over physical shortcomings, just as it was in defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s first season at Cincinnati four years ago before the Bearcats became consistently elite on that side of the ball.
Rejecting O-line realignment
With opening-day starting left tackle Blake Fisher out another seven weeks with a knee injury and replacement Michael Carmody exiting Saturday’s game in the first half with a sprained ankle, Kelly was asked postgame whether moving center Jarrett Patterson to left tackle made more sense than playing with a third option there.
The third option, incidentally, is sophomore Tosh Baker, a high-pedigreed prospect with a bright future. Freshman Joe Alt is next in line. Kelly and O-line coach Jeff Quinn want to leave grad senior tackle Josh Lugg on the right side.
“We don't need Jarrett Patterson at tackle,” Kelly said. “He's really not set (up) to be a tackle. What we need is to keep working with those guys and get them better.
“Maybe we’ve got to move the pocket a little bit. Maybe we’ve got to do some things to help them a little bit, but it's going to be Carmody, Baker, Alt, going to be Lugg. Those are our guys, and maybe we've got to get a (second) tight end in there.
“We've got options to figure this thing out. It's not rocket science. Those kids are good, young players, but they're young. We can win with those guys. We’ve just got to figure it out. We'll get it figured out.”
Sophomore Michael Mayer has three TD catches for the Irish in two games. The school record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season is six, shared by Cole Kmet (2019) and Ken MacAfee (1977). Mayer’s next TD will nudge him into a tie for fifth-most in a season.
With 16 catches for 120 yards, Mayer in two games has exceeded the production for the entire season of the 2016 Irish tight end corps (12 for 159). He’s fourth nationally in receptions per game among all offense players and 23rd in receiving yards per game.
• ND junior linebacker and first-time starter JD Bertrand ranks eighth nationally in tackles per game (11.5) and on Saturday became the first ND player to record double-digits tackles in consecutive games since safety Alohi Gilman in 2018.
Bertrand attributes his leap in playing time and production (he had seven career tackles coming into the season) to trusting the learning process at ND as well as the words from older brother John Michael Bertrand, Notre Dame baseball’s ace lefty starting pitcher.
“ He’s been awesome,” JD said of John Michael, who will be back with the Irish in the spring for a sixth year of college and second at ND since transferring from Furman.
“Even (Tuesday) he knew I was going to do media, and I just shot him a text. He shot me something back, like ‘Stick to this. Stick to that.’ He’s just a good person to lean on.
“After a game, a lot of times I’m a perfectionist, so I remember a lot more of the bad plays than the good plays. He’ll sit there and go, ‘Tell me what you did well. Tell me what you need to do better. Tell me what you learned.’ And then (I) go from there and keep moving on.”
• Irish junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey is tied for 10th nationally in sacks per game (1.5).
• Notre Dame was expected to face four or five of college football top QBs in 2021, and so far that remains in play — but not the four of five so far that were projected to be.
Skewed competition and small sample sized aside, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder — as expected — is thriving. He’s fourth nationally in passing efficiency (206.4) and first among Irish opponents.
But then comes Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (6th, 196.4), Georgia Tech replacement QB Jordan Yates (8th, 190.7), Purdue’s Jack Plummer (13th, 183.1) and Stanford’s Tanner McKee (171.9).
Off to relatively slow starts are North Carolina’s Sam Howell (44th, 151.2), USC’s Kedon Slovis (78th, 127.1) and Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz (95th, 110th).
• Game 2s in the Brian Kelly Era remained on a largely unimpressive track record, perhaps a sign of encouragement in the big picture. The Toledo win nudged Kelly's record in game 2s to 7-5, with four unimpressive escapes among the seven wins: 20-17 over Purdue in 2012, 34-27 over Virginia in 2015, 24-16 over Ball State in 2018 and Saturday’s 32-29 survival.
The Irish were in the national title/playoff picture deep into the season, though, in 2012, 2015 and 2018.
• Saturday’s Toledo game was the 38th of the Brian Kelly Era in which his Irish team trailed at halftime and the 11th time they overcame the deficit.
• Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea picked up his first head coaching victory on Saturday night. Vanderbilt’s 24-21 win at Colorado State was the Commodores first road triumph since 2018.
Who: No. 12 Notre Dame (2-0) vs. Purdue (2-0)
Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 8
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI