Hansen: Kelly enjoying figuring out the missing pieces as No. 12 Notre Dame rolls on

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly after Notre Dame drubbed Wisconsin, 41-13, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Fashioned with what he referred to as a “sticky Gatorade haircut,” Brian Kelly couldn’t escape an otherwise electric launch into history Saturday without a grating postscript.

“I knew we couldn't get through it without a quarterback controversy (question),” said the new king of the coaching victory mountain at Notre Dame, shortly after his 12th-ranked Irish finished off Kelly’s win No. 106 with 31 fourth-quarter points.

“It just attaches to my shoe like nothing else.”

► James Analysis:Five plays: Breaking down the key moments of Notre Dame's 41-13 win over Wisconsin

► ND Column:Noie: Big play, Drew Pyne tag team to give Brian Kelly historic Notre Dame win

To be fair, what the 59-year-old Kelly does next with his quarterbacks is arguably the most compelling storyline to advance out of the 41-13 canceling of Wisconsin and its College Football Playoff aspirations, Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

In a city where Knute Rockne’s family immigrated to from Norway when he was a 5-year-old, where he left his job as a 22-year-old postal worker to enroll as a freshman at Notre Dame and where one of this 105 victories unfolded against Wisconsin in 1929, Kelly flashed one of the qualities Saturday repeatedly that helped him traverse a milestone that had stood for over nine decades.

Adaptability.

Adapting to essentially a third-string quarterback, sophomore Drew Pyne, on Saturday. To a third- and fourth-string left tackle tandem. To rotating left guards. To winning a game by four touchdowns in which the Irish (4-0) amassed 242 total yards — fifth-fewest of the 12-year Kelly Era — and rushed for a net of three yards, admittedly against the nation’s No. 1 rush defense.

The latter is the lowest total of the Kelly Era, 29 fewer yards than the previous low of 32 logged in the 2012 BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama, and a mere 15 more than the school-record low of minus-12 accumulated in 35 carries against Michigan State in 1965.

“I think everybody has a process,” Kelly said. “Everybody talks about process. I think you stick with what your process is, but you have to be able to change to who your players are and what their strengths and weaknesses are from year to year, and adapt. 

“Like if you can’t adapt to 18- to 21-year-olds — my son’s here today. He keeps me up with all the slang. I’ll get something on a text, and I’ll have to text him and say, ‘What does that mean?’ And so you have to adapt. You have to stay current.”

In the last three weeks, Notre Dame’s defense has gone from disheveled to current to, this week, ahead of the curve.

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) defends Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson (84) during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

First-year coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense on Saturday forced five turnovers, including a pick-6 each by linebackers Jack Kiser and Drew White in the game’s final 2:13. And they limited Wisconsin (1-2) to 1-of-14 on third down and got a critical fourth-down stop early when the Badgers were trying to coax a 3-0 edge into double digits.

All of which helped keep the nation’s No. 1 team in time of possession from its typical ball-hogging ways. The Irish actually held a slight edge (31:23 to 28:37) in winning its 10th Shamrock series game in 10 tries and remaining unbeaten in games played in Chicago (11-0-2).

And they did it without starting nose guard Kurt Hinish, scratched from participating after landing this week in concussion protocol.

Among the individual defensive standouts Saturday were junior cornerback Cam Hart, with the first two interceptions of his career; defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, with five tackles, two tackles for loss with a sack and a key strip of Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, which Isaiah Foskey ended up recovering.

Sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho had a tackle and two quarterback hurries in his first collegiate start. And the nation’s fifth-leading tackler — junior linebacker JD Bertrand — added a team-high eight to his total, as well as a quarterback hurry. 

“Look, everybody’s been trying to like peg teams early on, like who are they?” Kelly said. “We’re still trying to figure out ourselves, but everybody (supposedly) already had us figured out as to who we were.

“I just know that it’s a resilient group that believes they’re going to win. There’s some talent on this football team. It's young. There’s some inexperience, but there’s such a strong commitment to their preparation.

“I’ve seen teams that can’t get out of practice mode. And then they try to perform, and then they look like they’re still in practice. This group does a really good job of practicing and preparing. And they have a real good way about them of flipping it.”

That includes running back Chris Tyree on special teams, who started the fourth-quarter onslaught of 31 unanswered points with a 96-yard kickoff return for a TD. It was the first ND kickoff return that produced points since 2016.

Despite hanging the highest point total in a regulation game on Wisconsin since its 59-0 loss in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game to eventual national champ Ohio State, Notre Dame’s offense is the aspect of the team with the steepest growth curve.

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan (17) hands off to Kyren Williams (23) during ND's 41-13 conquest of Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

► Scoring summary:Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin at Solider Field

► Game stats:Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin game statistics

Former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan started for the Irish and endured relentless pressure, getting sacked five times but completing 15-of-29 passes for 158 yards and a TD. And outplaying the player who replaced him at Wisconsin and coaxed his eventual transfer, Mertz (18-of-41 for 240 yards and 1 TD with four interceptions and a lost fumble).

Ironically, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was asked after the game if he was contemplating a QB change himself, and he didn’t dismiss the notion. Mertz entered the game 95th nationally in passing efficiency (110.0 rating) and will likely slide further, with an 81.6 rating against the Irish.

Coan, meanwhile, left in the middle of the third quarter of a 10-10 game with a leg injury and did not return. Kelly called the injury a soft-tissue injury, when a high ankle sprain had been feared, and anticipated Coan would be available for the Notre Dame Stadium showdown with No. 8 Cincinnati (3-0) next Saturday.

Freshman Tyler Buchner, Coan’s tag-teammate in wins over Toledo and Purdue the past couple of weeks, was unavailable because of a tight hamstring. So Pyne came in for his first game action this season.

He finished 6-of-8 for 81 yards and a TD to Kevin Austin, one of two scores for the senior receiver on a day when he recorded a season-high six receptions.

Kelly said Buchner is expected back in the mix next week. So where, he was asked, does that put Coan, Pyne and Buchner in terms of roles?

“Jack Coan is our starter,” Kelly said. “And so, there's no question about it. If he's physically able, he'll be our starter against Cincinnati."

The twist in all this was there was a time when Kelly and the Irish were chasing Mertz. In the 2019 recruiting cycle, the Irish received an early verbal commitment from Reno, Nev., standout Cade McNamara.

But after eight months of being committed, McNamara reneged and ended up signing with Michigan. Notre Dame then tried to flip Mertz, who was already verbally committed to Wisconsin.

When they couldn’t do so, they targeted Wake Forest commitment Brendon Clark, who did eventually sign with ND. He’s option No. 4 these days at QB after a knee injury and long rehab nudged him down the depth chart.

That Notre Dame’s offense is still a puzzle a third of the way through the season — even if Kelly insists the QB equation isn’t — seems like a more welcome development to Kelly than dealing with the fuss over the Rockne record.

“I mean no disrespect to Knute,” Kelly said, “but I'm just glad it's over with, and we can move on to trying to beat Cincinnati.

“We’ve got a long way to go still, but they’re getting better each week. I’m having fun coaching them. They're not perfect by any means, but they’re going to be better in November, and that’s the nice part about it. And that’s what energizes you as a coach. 

“We're not a perfect team, but I like coaching them.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI