Immediate Overreactions: Notre Dame Barely Survives Again While Struggles, Injuries Mount
Notre Dame eked out a victory for the second week in a row with a 32-29 win over Toledo in the 2021 home-opener. However, the Irish struggled to run the ball again and gave up big plays that nearly allowed a lesser talented team to pull off the upset. Two weeks in, the Irish are still searching for answers and are starting to run out of time before the schedule toughen up.
When the Notre Dame offensive line struggled last week against Florida State, I tried not to overreact since it was the first game with four new starters for the Irish. But, unfortunately, the offensive line struggled even more today against Toledo, a MAC opponent.
Notre Dame gave up six sacks to Toledo and couldn’t get the ground game going until they inserted freshman Tyler Buchner in at quarterback – more on him later. After the first drive of the game, Coan couldn’t get comfortable in the pocket because he was under siege. Regardless of how many new starters there are or injuries, it’s never going to be OK to be under siege against a MAC opponent.
The injuries compounded with what Brian Kelly referred to as a sprained ankle. Sophomore Tosh Baker came in and struggled early but did eventually settle in a little. Still, it was a bit of a rough debut for him. 5th year senior Josh Lugg didn’t fare a whole lot better on the right side.
Where Notre Dame goes from here, I don’t know. Kelly was asked about moving Jarrett Patterson to tackle following all of the injuries, but he quickly dismissed it. Week one struggles on the road against an ACC opponent with some talent on its defensive line are understandable. Week two struggles, at home, to a MAC opponent? Not so much.
With the Notre Dame offense struggling in the first half, Brian Kelly inserted true freshman Tyler Buchner for a spark. He provided it. He led the Irish on a 96-yard touchdown drive, thanks largely to his legs and the threat of the run. With the offensive line struggling, inserting a mobile quarterback made a difference. It was just one drive, though, and Buchner didn’t get back on the field until the fourth quarter.
A week after lighting up the Florida State defense and earning player of the week honors, Jack Coan struggled. He never got comfortable in the pocket, and as a result, he missed numerous opportunities and made some costly mistakes. His first-quarter fumble resulted from a breakdown in protection, but his pick-6 at the end of the first half was all on him.
For all of Coan’s struggles, he came through in the clutch when it mattered most. A play after dislocating his finger and having it popped back in place, he delivered the game-winning touchdown.
Where Notre Dame goes from here? I have no idea. Buchner clearly had a reduced package and provided a spark, but can the offense thrive with Buchner if a defense has time to prepare for him? I don’t know. Can Coan survive behind the offensive line as it is now? I don’t know that either. Kelly and Tommy Rees have some big decisions to make at quarterback now. I will be surprised if Coan doesn’t get at least one more chance against Purdue next weekend, but Coan could have a short leash after seeing what Buchner could add to the mix.
The Notre Dame defense gave up a few players early, but for the most part, it had played pretty well for the first three quarters. Toledo only scored nine points on the Irish defense, with the other seven coming off of the pick-6 from Coan. But then the 4th quarter happened, and the Irish allowed Toledo to score 10 points, including a go-ahead touchdown in the final three minutes.
A week after giving up 18 points to Florida State, letting up 10 to Toledo, and needing to be bailed out by the offense, was not ideal. There are still clearly some growing pains with the defense, and for as much as Brian Kelly wants to say it’s just because the Irish are learning to play a different style of defense, there’s more to it than that.
Marcus Freeman tried to use his “dollar package” featuring the three-man front again this week, and again it wasn’t effective. With the injuries at linebacker and some questions in the secondary, the strength of this defense is still the line. Notre Dame and Freeman will have to lean on that strength more.
JD Bertrand led Notre Dame in tackles with 11, including three for loss and a sack. He was a menace for Toledo all game culminating with the fumble recovery on Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s game-sealing strip-sack.
The Notre Dame linebacking corps has been ravaged by injuries over the first two weeks and has not had the production it expected from some other starters, but Bertrand had a great afternoon.
We knew that Notre Dame would give up more big plays in Marcus Freeman’s offense given its aggressive nature versus Clark Lea’s bend, don’t break approach. But, two games in, we are seeing that come to fruition more than we imagined.
Again, they are still learning and mastering Freeman’s defense, but the sheer volume of big plays allowed is concerning. Much better offenses are coming up on the schedule, including next weekend. We became used to Clark Lea’s defenses keeping points down, so the shift is jarring. The tradeoff is supposed to be more negative plays, and while Notre Dame did register 5.0 sacks, they forced just one turnover. Granted, one turnover was stolen, and Cam Hart did have an INT hit him in the hands only to fall to the ground, but just one turnover was registered.
Hopefully, we’re witnessing the reverse of Brian Vangorder, who started off with some stifling defensive performances only to be exposed halfway through the season. If the big plays continue at the current rate, though, there will be more reason to be concerned.
The wrong side of replay for a second week in a row
It shouldn’t have mattered at the end of the day, but it almost did. On Toledo’s first drive of the game, it looked like Kyle Hamilton had his third interception of the season. It was called an interception on the field, and much like the fumble review last week, it did not appear there was indisputable evidence to overturn the call on the field. Alas, it was.
It did look like the ball might have hit the ground first, but the standard for review is supposed to be indisputable, and that standard wasn’t met.
Notre Dame won a game they used to lose
Admit it. You thought Notre Dame would lose it when Dequan Finn raced 26 yards, untouched into the endzone for a go-ahead touchdown with 1:35 remaining. I know I did. This is the kind of game Notre Dame lost for the better part of the last 20 years. They didn’t today, though, and while there was a whole lot of bad from this game, that is undoubtedly the biggest positive of all from today.