Notebook: No. 12 Notre Dame not satisfied with narrow victories to start season

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Every goal the Notre Dame football program set for itself remains in play two weeks into the season. The No. 12 Irish (2-0) can still make a run to the College Football Playoff and win a national championship. 

But those goals seem further away after narrow victories over Florida State and Toledo than they did before the season. This particular 2-0 start for Notre Dame requires more self-reflection than chest-puffing, and the Irish players understand that. 

“They have a standard,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Winning is not simply their standard. They want to be champions. They know that this performance the last couple of weeks was good enough to get a win, but it’s not going to take them to a championship level.  

“They know, we know; as coaches we have to coach better and they have to play better. I don’t think there’s anybody in the building walking around going, ‘This is the best 2-0 football team we’ve ever had before.’” 

► Analysis:How much of QB Buchner for Notre Dame moving forward is more art than science

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

The Irish have thrilled with exciting finishes, but they're not satisfied with barely winning the first two games of the season. Pictured, Kyren Williams celebrates the final two-point conversion against Toledo with wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. lifting him up.

Kelly can point to Notre Dame’s 2018 season as an example of how the Irish can keep heading in the right direction despite early struggles against lesser teams. That 2018 team barely beat Ball State, 24-16, in the second game of the season. The following week, the Irish eked past Vanderbilt, 22-17. The Cardinals (4-8) and Commodores (6-7) both finished that season with losing records. 

Notre Dame eventually ran through the 2018 regular season with a 12-0 record before losing to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Course-correcting that season required a quarterback change from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book in the fourth game. The Irish have already shown a willingness to play both quarterbacks Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner this season, but the biggest issues in 2021 may be elsewhere on the team. There’s plenty of room for improvement all around. 

“There’s no panic,” Kelly said. “We have to get better. We know the things that we have to work on. We are transitioning some personnel. We’re committed to playing to a higher standard.” 

A victory over Purdue (2-0) on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) will likely demand that higher standard. The Boilermakers have playmakers on both sides of the ball starting with defensive end George Karlaftis and wide receiver David Bell. 

Slowing them down will be a challenge for the Irish, but one in which they have a full week to prepare. Playing at Florida State on a Sunday night to open the season changed Notre Dame’s typical schedule. 

“I’m happy that we’re back into a routine for the first time this year,” Kelly said. “Last week’s routine was not great. We got in at 4:30 (a.m.) on Monday.  

“I wasn't going to make any excuses last week, because I wasn't going to take any. But it wasn't a great week. It's not a great week to come back on against a really good MAC football team.  

“So, we're happy that we’ll have the normal week and we have to up our level of preparation. It's not about upping your level on Saturday. It's about what you do on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and that has to be better.” 

The reasons for concern about Notre Dame’s 2021 outlook could also be the motivation for a turnaround. At least from the opposing sideline, the last two weeks can be seen as moments that made the Irish stronger. 

“They've had to work for the last two wins,” said Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, “which actually from their standpoint really is a good thing, because it gives them a chance to see the few things they need to work on to get better. But they found a way to win. That's what winning football teams do.  

“There have been a couple other top-10 teams in the country that haven't been able to do that the last week or two, and they have, so give credit to them for pulling out victories.” 

How the quarterbacks will be juggled 

Graduate senior Jack Coan remained as the listed starting quarterback on Notre Dame’s depth chart Monday after he delivered the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Michael Mayer to beat Toledo, 32-29, Saturday. 

But freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner, who rotated into the game periodically starting in the second quarter, showed the impact he can have on the offense. The decision of when to put Buchner into the lineup will remain Kelly’s to make. 

"Ultimately, I'm going to put the quarterback in the game, but (offensive coordinator) Tommy (Rees) and I are on the same page. If he had a serious objection based upon what he had in his mind, then I would go with him. But we were on the same page that when we were backed up (on the four-yard line against Toledo), we were looking for Tyler to go in at that time.” 

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) gets pulled down by Toledo's Maxen Hook (25) 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.

The difference Buchner brought to the offense was clear from his first snap in the second quarter. Buchner rushed for 26 yards on the first play and added unpredictability to the play calling. The running game accounted for 81 of the 96 yards on that touchdown drive, which ended with a 43-yard run by running back Kyren Williams. The Irish were sitting on negative-one rushing yard prior to the drive. 

“The plan all along was to get Tyler some work and that was going to enhance our running game as we transition a little bit there,” Kelly said. “I can't disagree with that he helps our running game. We still are in a process of fine tuning what we really want to be relative to the running game, and we're getting closer to what we feel like is going to be our staple plays.” 

Sophomore Drew Pyne remained listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, which seems a bit dubious, but Kelly said he’s not afraid to play Pyne if Coan wasn’t available. 

“They’re all very capable of running our offense,” Kelly said. “Circumstances really dictate how you would move in that direction, but I don’t know that there’s one second of hesitation between Tom and I relative to what Drew’s capable of doing and how he can run our offense.” 

Updating player availability for Purdue 

• Starting left tackle Michael Carmody was knocked out of Saturday’s game against Toledo with a sprained ankle, but the Irish have yet to determine how long he will be sidelined. He may be able to play Saturday and be asked to block Karlaftis, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection at defensive end last season. 

"We're going to hold off on making that decision,” Kelly said. “It's not a, 'Hey, he's definitely out.' He has an ankle sprain, and he's going to play against one of the best pass rushers. So, we're not going to put him out there if he's hobbling. But he felt pretty good (Sunday). The report was better than we had first thought.” 

• Sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho, who was unavailable for the first two games, made his return on this week’s depth chart. Kelly said the coaching staff will know for sure on Tuesday if Botelho will be available to play this weekend, but that’s what he’s anticipating. 

Kelly has declined to provide details on Botelho’s absence. The Irish first declared him unavailable 90 minutes prior to the season opener against Florida State, which could be an indicator that Botelho has been sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols. Botelho was not seen on the sideline Saturday and appeared to be watching the game on TV from an Instagram story he posted following the game. 

• Kelly said senior running back C’Bo Flemister and freshman linebacker Prince Kollie will remain unavailable. Like Botelho, Flemister  missed the first two games. However, Flemister was on the sideline at Saturday’s game. Kollie, who was declared unavailable 90 minutes prior to the Toledo game, was not spotted on the sideline. 

Extra points 

• Kelly knows that his first game as Notre Dame’s head coach was a win against Purdue, but he wasn’t exactly ready Monday to present any trivia from that 23-12 home victory on Sept. 4, 2010. 

"I can't remember what I had for breakfast,” Kelly joked. “It's been a long time. I honestly don't remember the circumstances of the game itself. I think that would tell you a little bit about how big of a moment it was for me in my first game at Notre Dame. But I knew about the rivalry. I knew about Purdue. I knew about it's always a tough game. 

• The attendance of Saturday’s Toledo game (62,009) fell well short of Notre Dame Stadium capacity (77,622). Tickets remain available for this weekend’s matchup with Purdue too. 

But Kelly hasn’t spent much time concerning himself with the attendance numbers. 

“How much time do I really have to worry about getting fans in?” Kelly said. “Would I like 76,000 or what capacity is? Yeah. But we’re living in a time where there’s electronic tickets, there’s COVID.  

“Did people see it as a marquee matchup? I don’t know.  

“I have so many problems that I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis that I have to hope that our marketing people and everybody else take care of that. I don’t want to be in here when we play other teams and there’s more (opposing) fans in the stands than our fans. That’s when I’ll really be concerned.” 

How to watch Notre Dame vs. Purdue 

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 

TV: NBC 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 8 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.