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

Tyler James
ND Insider

CHICAGO — By the end of the game, Notre Dame’s defense seemed to be toying with Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz. 

After the Irish finished returning a pair of Mertz interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame’s defense accounted for more points than Wisconsin’s offense in a 41-13 Irish victory in Chicago’s Soldier Field. 

The 66-yard interception return by linebacker Jack Kiser and the 48-yard return by linebacker Drew White put an exclamation on a dominant defensive performance and a hard-fought victory for the No. 12 Irish (4-0). 

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But the outcome against the Badgers (1-2) was in doubt for most of the game. These five plays defined the Irish performance before the late onslaught. 

1. Cam Hart’s second-quarter interception 

Notre Dame cornerback Cam Hart knew where Mertz wanted to throw the football. He just needed to make sure he didn’t arrive there too early. 

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.

When Wisconsin wide receiver Kendric Pryor wanted to bend his route inside, near the first-down marker, on a third-and-10 play close to midfield, Hart beat Pyror to Mertz’s pass and intercepted it.  

Three plays prior, Hart was flagged for pass interference on a similar route from Pyror. 

“My coaches were like, they're going to come back to it or be alert for a double move,” Hart said. “... They came back to the same play and tried to get it in. I just jumped in front of it.” 

That was the beginning of a generous day for Mertz, who threw four interceptions, two of which were grabbed by Hart. In the moment, Hart’s first interception set Notre Dame’s offense up at its own 49-yard line with a chance to take its first lead of the game.  

The Irish offense responded with a five-play drive that ended with a 36-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Coan to wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. 

2. Drew Pyne’s third-quarter fumble 

Wisconsin battered Coan until it knocked the Irish starting quarterback out of the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter. That left sophomore Drew Pyne to step in as his replacement as freshman Tyler Buchner remained unavailable with a right hamstring injury. 

Pyne learned quickly just how much pressure was being applied by the Wisconsin defense. On the first play of his second drive, Pyne was hit in the back by defensive Rodas Johnson hard enough for the ball to bounce away from Pyne. Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn recovered the football to secure Notre Dame’s only lost turnover of the game. 

The pressure was the product of a poor play and apparent miscommunication on the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line. Left tackle Tosh Baker seemed to think left guard Andrew Kristofic would provide help on Johnson to the inside. Instead, Johnson rushed through relatively clean and leveled Pyne. 

Notre Dame’s offensive line continued its struggles against the Badgers. Coan was sacked five times before leaving the game. Pyne’s fumble was the only time he was sacked in less than two quarters of action for him, but it was a meaningful blow. 

On the ensuing drive, Wisconsin took a 13-10 lead with a 27-yard field goal by Collin Larsh with 14:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. 

3. Chris Tyree’s 96-yard kickoff return touchdown 

Maybe Notre Dame took some motivation by Wisconsin’s tradition of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” being played between the third and fourth quarters. Or maybe sophomore running back Chris Tyree finally found an opportunity to show what an electric kick returner he can be. 

Notre Dame’s Chris Tyree (25) returns a kick during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Immediately following Wisconsin’s go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter, Tyree caught a kickoff from Jack Van Dyke at the four-yard line on the right side of the field. The Irish set up a return to the wide side of the field to Tyree’s left and a clear lane formed for him to exploit. 

Tyree’s speed took care of the rest. He jetted through the opening and returned the kick 96 yards to put Notre Dame back in front. 

“We went to a field return, so we were able to get him moving back to the field and caught a crease, and he used his speed from there,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had been going sideline return. Just didn’t have enough working room, so (special teams coordinator) Brian (Polian) at half said, ‘OK, we’re going to go to the field. It’s going to be all-or-nothing situation.’ 

 “When you go to the field, you’re stretching out, you’re blocking longer, and that’s where you tend to see a holding or something like that. But we were able to catch a crease, and the rest, obviously, he’s a very fast and talented player.” 

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

► Stats:Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin game statistics

Tyree entered the game with just one return of 19 yards. The other 17 kickoffs in the first three games resulted in 12 touchbacks, four fair catches and one penalty for a kick out of bounds. 

But Wisconsin was giving him chances to make a play. He returned the game’s first kickoff for 16 yards and then followed that with a 20-yard return later in the first quarter. Wisconsin’s third kickoff went for a touchback before Tyree got his chance for the game-changing return. 

Tyree's return was the first Notre Dame kick return for a touchdown since C.J. Sanders (92 yards) against Army in 2016.

4. Jayson Ademilola’s strip sack of Graham Mertz 

Notre Dame defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola gave Wisconsin’s offensive line fits all day. So fittingly, Ademilola made the biggest defensive play of the game in the fourth quarter. 

The senior started the third-and-11 play lined up as a defensive end with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa aligned inside of him. But at the snap, Ademilola angled himself inside to allow Tagovailoa-Amosa to loop around the edge. Wisconsin’s offensive line handled the stunt well at first, but then Ademilola overpowered left guard Jack Nelson. 

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When Ademilola freed himself from the block, he found Mertz in a vulnerable position and knocked the football loose. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey recovered the fumble to set the Irish up at the Wisconsin 46-yard line with a chance to expand a 17-13 lead. 

The sack was one of Wisconsin’s 13 failed third-down attempts on 14 opportunities. 

“I really give credit to our defensive lineman,” Hart said, “going out there on third down and having that dog mentality just to get after the quarterback. That makes it a lot easier on the back end for us.” 

5. Kevin Austin Jr.’s second touchdown catch 

The first touchdown reception for Kevin Austin Jr. was the more impressive highlight. The senior wide receiver hauled in a perfect pass from Coan to beat cornerback Faion Hicks. 

Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin Jr. (4) celebrates scoring during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

But Austin’s second touchdown reception, this one thrown by Pyne, may have been more meaningful. The 16-yard touchdown on second-and-14 gave the Irish a 24-13 lead and control of the game with 9:34 remaining. 

Austin provided the security blanket that Pyne needed in the sophomore’s first extended, high-leverage action of his career. Austin kept the drive alive earlier with consecutive catches of four yards and seven yards on second-and-9 and third-and-5, respectively. 

Then Pyne saw Austin coming free on a crossing route near the 10-yard line. Pyne led Austin up the field and allowed Austin to accelerate into the end zone past safety Collin Wilder. 

"I’m always trying to be the guy to go in and try to make plays happen,” Austin said. “With the quarterback situation, and having Drew in and not Jack in the moment, it was the same type of conversations that we’ve had — just trust your throws, trust me, trust all the receivers on the team that we’re going to make the play and come down with the ball.” 

After failing to catch a pass last weekend against Purdue, Austin rebounded as a playmaker and steadying force in the offense with six catches for 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns.