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Brian Kelly Is Making Do With This Notre Dame Team So Far

The Irish certainly have their flaws, but this program continues to find ways to win en route to a 4–0 start in 2021, and that reflects back on the coaching.
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CHICAGO — Brian Kelly is now the all-time Notre Dame leader in victories, putting No. 106 in the books Saturday against a Wisconsin team that collapsed in ghastly fashion in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field, resulting in a 41–13 Irish win. The fact that a guy who arrived in 2010 as a fancy offensive strategist got this milestone victory with three non-offensive touchdowns is perfect, because Kelly has become, above all else, a guy who wins games by any means necessary.

Notre Dame put 41 points on the scoreboard while rushing for three yards. Notre Dame won going away with its third-string quarterback playing most of the second half, coming in when the game was up for grabs. Notre Dame hung 31 on the Badgers in the fourth quarter while only running 12 offensive plays. Then it celebrated by blasting Wisconsin’s favorite song, “Jump Around,” in the postgame locker room.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on the sideline vs Wisconsin

Are the 4–0 Fighting Irish good? Eh. They’re certainly not great. At No. 12 entering the day, they’re overrated. If they somehow wander into the College Football Playoff again this season, it could result in another avert-your-gaze blowout.

But after another weekend of upset carnage, 4–0 is 4–0. Say this much for the Irish: they found ways to beat the middling competition that they faced this September. (Purdue is the only opponent to date that has a Power 5 victory on its résumé.)

A poorly coached Notre Dame team would have lost at least one of these September games, whether it was the overtime escape against horrible Florida State or the white knuckler against Toledo or this slog at Soldier Field, which the Irish trailed 13–10 before blowing it open in the fourth. Notre Dame is not poorly coached. Kelly could well be on his way to a fifth straight season of double-digit victories with his most flawed team since 2016.

“Everyone’s trying to peg teams early on,” Kelly said. “Like, who are they? We’re still trying to figure ourselves out. I just know we have a resilient group that believes they’re going to win.”

Kelly said it’s been a fun process of discovery watching the pieces come together with this team. He’s gone through four offensive tackles and three QBs and at times every facet of the team has looked bad—and then looked good. It has, at the very least, not been dull.

“We’ve got a long way to go still,” Kelly said. “But I’m having fun coaching them. We’ll be better in November. … Last year we knew what we had. [This year] we’re trying to figure it out as we go.”

Really, the Irish need to be better in October. Because Cincinnati comes to South Bend next Saturday. The Bearcats are by far the best team Notre Dame has faced thus far, and perhaps the best team they’ll face all season.

The Irish did Cincinnati a big favor by pulling this game out, because they now present a juicier target for a team that needs all the eye-catching wins it can get. Notre Dame will be both highly beatable and highly ranked, the perfect combination.

Who plays quarterback for the Irish in that game will be an interesting question. Kelly has had roughly a million QB controversies in his career, and he did his best to squash what would be the latest one.

“Jack Coan is our starter,” Kelly said. “If he’s physically able, he’ll be our starter against Cincinnati.”

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It’s unclear whether he will be physically able, though. Coan went out with an ankle injury early in the third quarter, although Kelly said his x-rays showed no fracture and that there isn’t the customary swelling of a high ankle sprain. He’s hopeful Coan will be available, but that remans to be seen.

Backup Tyler Buchner was a scratch with a hamstring issue, so it was up to third-stringer Drew Pyne to enter the fray behind a leaky offensive line and against a vicious Wisconsin defense. Pyne came into the game having attempted three career passes, but did good work against the Badgers: 6 of 8 for 81 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions.

Pyne was bumped down the depth chart by the arrival of Coan from Wisconsin, but as Kelly noted, he did not opt for the transfer portal. Pyne stuck around, paid his dues, got his chance and walked out of Soldier Field with a slice of Notre Dame glory. You can tell it meant something to him; when he left the field, he turned around for one last look at the stadium, soaking it in.

Pyne’s efficiency rating (201.3) was nearly double Coan’s (108.9). And both were way better than the guy Wisconsin chose as its QB over Coan, Graham Mertz (81.61). He’s had a brutal start to the season, and it bottomed out here.

Mertz threw four interceptions, the last two of which were returned for touchdowns, and lost a fumble. For the season he now has six picks and one TD. “To put it all on Graham, that would be unfair,” coach Paul Chryst said after this debacle. “I think there’s a lot of areas we need to be better.”

That’s true. Special teams surrendered a kickoff return touchdown. The Wisconsin secondary gave up a few big plays in the passing game. The running backs made nobody miss and didn’t have a run longer than 10 yards.

But come on. Mertz’s play in the Badgers’ two losses has been miserable. Chryst has little choice at this point but to give someone—anyone—else a chance. He’d clearly love to have a Drew Pyne on the pine to plug into the lineup.

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One thing about Kelly through the years: his backup QBs are almost always ready to perform when given the chance—which one reason why he’s had so many QB controversies. Despite this promising performance from Pyne, you can understand why Kelly didn’t hesitate in declaring his support for Coan. A guy making his first career start against Cincinnati’s defense would not be ideal.

If the Irish can upset the Bearcats—yes, it would be an upset—the rest of the schedule looks manageable. Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina, Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford have all been beaten at least once.

It would be the most Brian Kelly thing ever if one of his more flawed teams somehow slaloms through the season undefeated. But give the winningest coach in Notre Dame history credit for even getting this far with a perfect record. He earned that sideline Gatorade bath Saturday.

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