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

Tom Noie
ND Insider

CHICAGO – One big play and one Drew Pyne. 

Notre Dame got a definitive dose of both at just the right time as the No. 12 college football team in the country found a way to again make it all work Saturday, this time against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field (41-13) in the latest installment of the Shamrock Series.

Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin Jr. (4) and Drew Pyne (10) celebrate scoring during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

► Kelly tops Rockne:Brian Kelly now tops on Notre Dame's all-time wins list, but knows Rockne’s the standard

► 20 questions with Brian Kelly:20 questions with Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly

This one was once close. Late. No, really. The Irish even trailed in the fourth quarter. No, really.

A late Jack Kiser Pick-Six may say otherwise. Drew White saw that Pick-Six and snagged one for himself. But it really was close. Seriously.

Try to convince someone of that and they'll think you spent too much time at a pre-game tailgate. Or the United Club in the stadium. Or both.

It was victory No. 106 for Brian Kelly in his Notre Dame coaching career, which pushed him past Knute Rockne and first in school history. Kelly celebrated the moment by getting flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct late in the game.

No word on whether he'd have to run laps for that one.

"I'm just glad it's over with," Kelly said afterward of the buildup toward his milestone moment.

Tyree returned a kickoff early in the fourth quarter 96 yards – you could see the seam opening from Michigan City – and Pyne, plugged in for injured starter Jack Coan, led a scoring drive soon afterward to bust open another tight contest.

How about 31 unanswered points in 13 minutes? The Irish took them and ran with them, ran all the way back to the Bend.  

Notre Dame’s Cam Hart (5) intercepts a pass intended for Wisconsin's Chez Mellusi (6) during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Living somewhat on the edge again for another Saturday, Notre Dame moved to 4-0 and made it look somewhat easy at the end. It wasn’t. Tyree made sure of it. It was the surge of big-play momentum that this game needed, that this Irish team needed.

 "It was like the game-changing play, honestly, coming out of the half and having that and then putting the defense back out on the field with a lot of energy and intensity," said Irish cornerback Cam Hart. "That changed the game a lot."

Flipped it completely around, because it got goofy something serious after that. Nobody expected the Irish to go for 41 points. They did.

Before the Tyree return, this one was anything but easy. It was hard for the Irish offense. It put a lot of pressure on the defense. But it again was the grit and the experience and the been-there mindset of a team that’s gone to the College Football Playoff two of the last three years to figure it out.

When it was again time to flinch, the Irish didn't. The Badgers? Yeah, they did. Afterward, their Camp Randall Stadium anthem – "Jump Around" was played really loud in the Irish locker room. Take that, Bucky.

In the end, they may remember this one as the Drew Pyne game. Put it in the hands of the sophomore from New Canaan, Connecticut who basically was third string two weeks ago and let him go play. He went and played. Can’t say the same for Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz. He had chances. He took shots. A lot came up empty and incomplete and, in the end, in the end zone in the hands of an Irish defender.

Notre Dame remained undefeated – 11-0-2 – all-time at Soldier Field dating back to the days of black-and-white photography and when the old cement and steel stadium held upward of 130,000 fans. Not even half that (59,571) saw this one. 

This was the first Irish visit to Chicago since 2012. It was a great day to be on the lakefront with a kickoff temperature of 63 degrees and a relatively clear fall sky with a bit of a breeze. Good to take a walk or ride along the water or just sit and soak it all in. Watch football inside one of the smallest NFL stadiums? Depends on what you like. 

Chunk plays and first downs and sustained drives? This wasn’t the game for you. Defense and timeouts and punts and a lot incompletions and changes of possessions and of down time? Yeah, this was all yours. 

As bad as the Irish offense looked in the first half – and it was bad to the tune of (-2) total rush yards – their defense delivered. Drive after drive, which saw Wisconsin go three-and-out three times. Notre Dame may have had trouble moving the ball, but Wisconsin really had trouble moving the ball. 

Until the third quarter, when it moved the ball. Rather easily to tie it at 10. 

While running the ball was an issue for the Irish, the Badgers had issues with, well, just about everything. Mertz wasn’t able to get comfortable, because the Irish defense seldom let him. Wisconsin also couldn’t run the ball, because the Irish defense wouldn’t let it. 

Notre Dame limited Wisconsin to three points and 88 total yards in the first half. 

The deeper this game got in the first half, the more the consensus became that one touchdown – any kind of touchdown – might be enough. Whoever crossed the goal line with the ball first just might win. Yeah, that was wrong.

Notre Dame broke the field goal/punt trend with a pretty Kevin Austin grab of a Coan offering in the corner of the far end zone to make it 10-3. The Irish offense wasn’t really good – three three-and-outs – but if it could only hit on a handful of chunk/big plays, it might be their day.

Oh did it become their day. 

It all took some getting used to. Notre Dame was designated the visiting team, but wore its home uniforms. Explain that one. 

The early kick time took some adjustment. It was odd to see Irish players going through their pre-game workout routines on the field – at just after 9 a.m. local time. It also was odd walking the concourse of Soldier Field and having to dodge a vendor pedaling margaritas – really large ones – before it was even 10 a.m. 

But that’s early-morning life in the big city when there’s a big game in town. Where else can you get a rib sandwich a bag of chips and a bottle of water for 20 bucks? 

The tailgate lots south of the stadium were filling in – and up – way before 9 a.m. Some people looked as if they hadn’t gone to bed from Friday night. 

Anyone Irish was feeling mighty fine later in the afternoon after this one. This easy one.