Five plays: Breaking down the key moments of Notre Dame's 24-13 loss to Cincinnati

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — A countless number of Notre Dame blunders allowed Cincinnati to beat the Irish on their home field Saturday. 

The No. 7 Bearcats came into Notre Dame Stadium, handed the No. 9 Irish their first defeat at home since a 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9, 2017 and ended the 26-game home winning streak with a 24-13 victory for Cincinnati. 

The game was filled with defining plays, but those moments may have been overshadowed by head coach Brian Kelly’s insistence on starting Jack Coan at quarterback. The Wisconsin graduate transfer struggled to protect himself behind a porous offensive line in the first four games, and that didn’t magically change Saturday against the Bearcats (4-0). 

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A week after a left ankle injury knocked Coan out of the Wisconsin game in the third quarter, Coan was unable to lead a consistent offensive effort for the Irish (4-1). By the time Kelly made the decision to put backup Drew Pyne into the game to start the second half, the Irish already trailed 17-0. 

Just as Pyne did in closer duty against Wisconsin, the sophomore quarterback showed a scrambling ability, a willingness to make quick decisions and a confidence that the offense lacked with Coan in the game. Pyne’s performance was far from perfect, but he still managed to finish the game with a better passing efficiency than Coan (110.5-98.1). 

In a flawed offense, Pyne might be best-suited to overcome the issues plaguing it. 

“It's all on the table,” Kelly said. “I'll be as transparent as I can with you guys about the quarterback situation. We're trying to figure it out too, and we know we can't continuously go into the game and just say, ‘All right, who's up next?’ We have to figure this thing out and build some continuity into it.” 

The decision Kelly makes about his starting quarterback may have a significant impact on how the Irish play Saturday at Virginia Tech (3-1). But before the focus shifts to the Hokies, here are the five plays that defined Notre Dame’s first loss of the season. 

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► Scoring summary:No. 7 Cincinnati 24, No. 9 Notre Dame 13

1. Ahmad Gardner’s interception of Jack Coan 

Cincinnati's Ahmad Gardner (1) intercepts a pass in the red zone during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

No one had any reason to second-guess Coan as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback with the way the Irish started their first drive. The Irish moved the ball down to Cincinnati’s six-yard line with nine plays for 69 yards including 46 passing yards from Coan. 

But after running back Kyren Williams was stuffed for no gain on first-and-goal, Coan made a critical error. When a delayed blitz by linebacker Darrian Beavers put pressure on Coan, the Irish quarterback threw a careless pass toward the end zone that went right to star cornerback Ahmad Gardner. 

Coan tried to slide right to give himself time, but he released the football off his back foot while being hit by Beavers and it didn’t come close to reaching wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. running to the left in the end zone. Gardner made the easy interception and ended Notre Dame’s first scoring threat and a chance to dictate the tone of the game. 

The Bearcats gained a boost of confidence from the interception, which was a glimpse of more sloppy play to come from the Irish. 

“He looked really good at times,” Kelly said of Coan, who finished 14-of-22 passing for 114 yards with one interception and was sacked once for a loss of seven yards. “It's hard to put much on Jack other than the interception. He's dealing with pressure in the pocket too.” 

2. Deshawn Pace’s interception of Tyler Buchner 

Cincinnati's Deshawn Pace (20) makes an inception during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

After three drives and no punts from a Coan-led offense, the Irish tried to change the pace with freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. His first drive was wrecked by a holding penalty on right tackle Josh Lugg, which negated a nine-yard run on third-and-2 by Williams. 

The Irish gave Buchner a second chance to lead Notre Dame’s next drive in the second quarter. A third-down mistake wrecked that drive too. Buchner dropped back to pass on third-and-7 from ND’s 25-yard line, but pressure from defensive end Myjai Sanders closed in on Buchner as he climbed the pocket and prepared to throw. 

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) gets hit by Cincinnati's Myjai Sanders (21) while throwing during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The Irish failed to handle a stunt from Cincinnati’s defensive line, which resulted in left guard Andrew Kristofic, left tackle Michael Carmody and running back Kyren Williams trying to block defensive tackle Curtis Brooks and left Sanders coming free after he disengaged from Carmody. Buchner’s throw was directed off course when he was hit by Sanders, and it made for an easy interception for linebacker Deshawn Pace. 

Pace returned the interception to ND’s eight-yard line to set up Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the game and take a 7-0.  

3. Chris Tyree’s muffed kick return 

Notre Dame’s Chris Tyree (25) drops a kickoff during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Kick returner Chris Tyree provided the play that changed the game in Notre Dame’s favor a week prior with a 96-yard return for a touchdown against Wisconsin. He provided a play that allowed Cincinnati to extend its lead in the second quarter on Saturday. 

Immediately following Cincinnati’s first touchdown — a one-yard pass from quarterback Desmond Ridder to tight end Leonard Taylor on third-and-goal — Tyree gave the football right back to the Bearcats. The kickoff bounced right off Tyree’s chest at ND’s seven-yard line and took multiple bounces in Cincinnati’s direction. 

Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook and Tyree both dove for the football, but their collision prevented either of them from recovering it. Wilson Huber, a linebacker from Indianapolis, was able to secure the football and put the Bearcats in prime field position at Notre Dame’s 17-yard line. 

The Irish defense claimed a small victory by holding Cincinnati to a 23-yard field goal, but the momentum was clearly with the team wearing red helmets and its red-clad fans echoing in Notre Dame Stadium. 

“Shout-out to our UC fanbase,” Ridder said. “When times were down for (Notre Dame) and you heard UC start chanting, it sounded like a home game.” 

The muffed return was the first of a number of special teams mishaps for the Irish including a pair of blocking penalties on Ramon Henderson during punt returns and Jonathan Doerer’s first missed extra point since Oct. 27, 2018. 

4. Desmond Ridder’s touchdown pass before halftime 

For all the calamities the first half offered, Notre Dame had a chance to enter the break trailing just 10-0 if it could manage one more stop of Cincinnati’s offense. Then Ridder shattered that hope. 

He needed just 1:08 for a five-play, 80-yard drive to extend Cincinnati’s lead to 17-0 with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Ridder did most of the difficult work on the drive until wide receiver Tre Tucker bailed him out with a 27-yard touchdown catch. 

"Obviously they made it difficult on him all day,” Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said of Notre Dame’s defense limiting Ridder, who threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns on 19-of-32 passing and rushed for 26 yards on 10 carries. “They did a good job of eliminating Desmond in his run game. He's just so consistent. If there's an inch, he's going to find it.” 

Ridder ran for a modest four-yard gain to start the drive. Then when he connected with Taylor for a 27-yard pass, the Bearcats knew they had a chance to score. A 22-yard pass to wide receiver Alec Pierce in a similar part of the Irish secondary to Ridder’s left put the end zone within striking distance. 

The touchdown pass came on the next play despite the ball being underthrown by Ridder. Irish safety Kyle Hamilton was closely trailing Tucker’s corner route from the slot, but he didn’t recognize the incoming pass in time. When Hamilton leaped and looked back, Tucker came back to the football for an easy catch. 

The Bearcats put the Irish on the ropes before they could regroup at halftime. 

5. Desmond Ridder’s game-sealing touchdown run 

Pyne, who finished 9-of-22 passing for 143 yards with one touchdown and was sacked once, gave Notre Dame a fighting chance. He cashed in a short field following a strip sack of Ridder by defensive end Isaiah Foskey that White returned to the Cincinnati 38-yard line. A 16-yard pass and an 11-yard run by Pyne set up a three-yard touchdown run by Williams. 

Then Pyne led an eight-play, 80-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter that cut Cincinnati’s lead to 17-13 following a 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Braden Lenzy. 

But Ridder had enough of the Irish comeback. He responded with a six-play, 75-yard drive to extend Cincinnati’s lead to 24-13 with 5:08 left in the game. Ridder stretched the field with a 36-yard pass to Taylor deep over the middle. Two plays later, he closed the drive with a six-yard touchdown run. 

Just like Notre Dame’s defense did late in the first half, it failed to make an important stop. 

“Ridder played well,” said ND linebacker Drew White. “He was able to make some explosive plays. He was a deep-ball threat. He was also able to use his feet a little bit.  

“Really at the end of the day, Notre Dame beat Notre Dame today. Made too many mistakes. Didn’t execute well. That was that.”