Instant observations: Defense evolves as Notre Dame finishes off Badgers for milestone win

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Cam Hart (5) celebrates an interception during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Bottom Line

Brian Kelly’s actual milestone — passing Irish legend Knute Rockne — almost felt like an afterthought in the context of the evolution of his 12th Notre Dame football team.

The Irish defense set the tone, limiting Wisconsin to 1-of-14 on third down and 0-of-1 on fourth down, and forced five Badger turnovers in a 41-13 beatdown of No. 18 Wisconsin, Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

► Kelly milestone wins:Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly's milestone victories

► Rockne milestone wins:Legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne's milestone victories

Linebackers Jack Kiser and Drew White put the finishing touches on Kelly’s 106th Irish victory with late pick-sixes as 12th-ranked Notre Dame (4-0) overwhelmed the Badgers, 31-3, in the fourth quarter. 

Complementing the most impressive performance of first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense was third-string QB Drew Pyne’s relief performance of injured starter Jack Coan, running back Chris Tyree on special teams, and a redemptive day by senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (6 catches, 76 yards, 2 TDs).    

Big Picture

The Irish start a grueling five-game stretch of their schedule with some much-needed tangible improvement and momentum and looking like a team that could work its way into the College Football Playoff discussion if they can keep that going.

Questions Answered

Freeman’s defense showed that its incremental step Sept. 18 against Purdue was real. … Pyne flexed ND’s quarterback depth on a day when Coan suffered an injury and freshman tag teammate Tyler Buchner was unavailable. … Austin and tight end Michael Mayer rebounded from unproductive performances against Purdue … ND showed it could win a game with minimal help from the running game. Its net 3 yards rushing is the lowest of the Kelly Era and 15 more than the school record for fewest in a game. 

Questions Lingering

What will Notre Dame’s QB picture look like next week against Cincinnati? Can the offensive line make meaningful strides in the run game? Has Freeman’s defense arrived for good?

My Game Balls Go To

Offense: Drew Pyne. The sophomore came in for injured starter Jack Coan midway through the third quarter. He completed 6-of-8 passes for 81 yards and a TD with no interceptions. 

Defense/Special Team: Defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, cornerback Cam Hart and kickoff return man Chris Tyree. Ademilola amassed five tackles, including two for loss with a sack. He stripped the ball from Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz with 12:14 left in the fourth quarter and the Irish cashed it in for a TD and a 24-13 lead. Hart intercepted two Mertz passes. Tyree returned a kickoff 96 yards to give the Irish the lead for good.

The Road Ahead

Notre Dame (4-0) next Saturday clashes with the team coach Brian Kelly left for the Irish in December of 2009, No. 8 Cincinnati (3-0). The Bearcats had the weekend off. Former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who holds the same position for UC, and ex-ND wide receiver Michael Young return to Notre Dame Stadium for the second-ever meeting between the two schools and first since 1900. 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI