With quarterback Tyler Buchner out for the season, what's next for Notre Dame?
SOUTH BEND — Just when it couldn’t get any worse for a Notre Dame football team that has fallen (and can’t get up) from No. 5 to out of the national rankings entirely for the first time since 2017 following an 0-2 start, it got worse.
Not Notre Dame- joins-the-Big Ten worse, but close.
Still in search of their first win, in search of their identity, in search of just about everything entering Week Three, the Irish move forward without starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, who has played his last game in 2022.
Buchner suffered a left shoulder grade 5 (clavicle) sprain, Freeman said, that will require him to sit and watch for the next four months. He's scheduled for surgery Tuesday. Head coach Marcus Freeman made the expected announcement on Buchner’s injury status Monday during his usual meeting with the media at Notre Dame Stadium.
Down the tunnel and out on the field two days prior is when Notre Dame’s season — and Buchner’s career in the short term — slid south. Late in the 25-21 loss to Marshall, which was a 20.5-point underdog, Thundering Herd linebacker Eli Neal chased down Buchner and drove him hard to the turf on a second-and-four play.
While making the tackle, Neal pinned Buchner’s left arm next to the quarterback’s body, then landed hard on Buchner’s left shoulder. Crack.
It was difficult to see what had happened standing in the north end zone, but watching television replays later showed Buchner getting up and attempting to rejoin the huddle. Next play. But his left shoulder just hung there, and when it just hangs there, it’s clear that something’s seriously wrong. Doesn't take a doctor or a trainer or anyone else to see that.
Buchner left the game, backup Drew Pyne entered, cheers cascaded from the stands (rough crowd) and an Irish season that was about to take an unexpected turn as it was would take another.
"The last 36 hours has been a reality check to all of us," Freeman said.
Having not started a game since 2019 — thanks COVID-19 — Buchner was perhaps the one player this team couldn’t afford to lose for any reason, let alone a season-altering/ending injury. He was that important. Not because of his game experience or his current stats (62 yards and two touchdowns rushing, 378 passing yards), but because of his dual-threat ability.
He gave the offense a dimension it didn’t have last season under veteran Jack Coan, who was a stand-in-the-pocket statue. Running was never an option last season. If all else failed this season, at least the offense could lean on Buchner’s legs. Just let him go.
Late Saturday, it finally seemed he’d found a balance between running and passing.
His skill also was cause for concern. Each time Buchner took off and encountered traffic, you kind of cringed at the collisions. Just don’t get hurt. Buchner hadn’t proven that he could do what running quarterback have to do — stay healthy. He battled nagging injuries last season, then missed the spring game when he tweaked an ankle simply by walking down the stairs.
It seemed only a matter of time until we heard what we heard Monday about Buchner.
Post-Ohio State, Buchner left for the locker room with his right foot taped. Freeman said afterward that he had an ankle issue. Not a big deal. Now the left shoulder. A bigger deal. That he was hurt on a run play was ironic. Forget Rule One of protecting the football. Rule One for runners like Buchner is to stay healthy. He couldn’t make it through eight quarters.
The rest of the regular season goes up for grabs. The Irish offense? Maybe grab-bag.
Ask anyone around the program in August the top four players that the offense had to have for it to make a run at another double-digit win season. The answers were obvious — Buchner, wide receiver Avery Davis, tight end Michael Mayer and offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson.
Davis was lost for the season — and his career — with another knee injury suffered during a non-contact drill early in August camp. Patterson was lost with what was termed a sprained foot late in August camp. He made his first start on Saturday. Now Buchner.
Can we throw some Bubble Wrap around Mayer? Please?
When Buchner earned the starting job early in preseason camp, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was quick to praise Pyne. He insisted that there weren’t 15 (why 15?) players more important to the program than his backup quarterback. Now, there may be no more important player in the program than Pyne.
He’s the guy. He’s the starter. He has to make it all work. That’s the quarterback life in South Bend. Behind Pyne? Don’t look. Just hope. Maybe pray. Notre Dame is two injuries away from turning to Ron Powlus at quarterback. No, not that one.
Where this leads/leaves Buchner also slips into the great unknown. Ask former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire what happens when a starter is lost for the season with injury and then tries to return. On second thought, don’t ask Zaire.
The team’s starter to open 2015, Zaire suffered a season-ending broken ankle the second week at Virginia. He started once more — the 2016 home loss to Duke — in his Irish career. On Saturday, Zaire jumped on Twitter to term the scheme run by Rees as a “JV offense.”
Ouch. Salty. Still.
Winless and reeling and in need of something good for just about everything, Notre Dame turns to Pyne, who makes his first start Saturday at home against California (2-0). This week in practice, the 5-foot-11½, 198-pounder from New Canaan, Connecticut gets handed a Vise-Grip, a can of WD-40 and a couple rolls of Duct Tape and is asked/tasked to fix a unit that ranks 117th in the country in total offense (302.0 yards per game).
Monday’s weather around town matched the mood about the Notre Dame program. It was gray. It was cloudy. It was cool. It felt like fall, and around these parts, we know what comes after that. A long, cold, winter. It was a good day to crawl back to bed and pull the covers up for a couple hours. Maybe it will all be better later. Tomorrow or the day after.
Summer, and those warm vibes that enveloped this football program for so many months felt so far away. Another time. For another team.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
California (2-0) vs. Notre Dame (0-2)
- When: Saturday at 2 :30 p.m.
- Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind.
- TV/Radio: NBC/Peacock, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
- Line: Notre Dame favored by 11 points
- Series: Notre Dame leads series 4-0
- Last meeting: ND 41, Cal 8, Sept. 23, 1967 in South Bend