For the second week in a row, the Notre Dame football team battled through adversity late in the game and pulled out a three-point victory by the skin of their teeth against a talented Toledo Rockets team.
Last Sunday night in Tallahassee, it was the Jack Coan show for Notre Dame offensively, with the Wisconsin graduate transfer throwing for a season opening program record 366 yards and four touchdowns. Against Toledo on Saturday, it was the tandem of the experienced Coan and true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner that led the Irish to their 25th straight victory at home.
After again getting the Irish off to a hot start with three completions and a touchdown pass to tight end Michael Mayer on the first drive of the game, Coan struggled to get Notre Dame’s offense rolling for the rest of the first quarter.
Thus, true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner, the San Diego native who enrolled early at Notre Dame in the spring, started the second quarter under center for the Irish.
In his debut drive as a college quarterback, Buchner led the Irish on a 5-play, 96-yard scoring drive that was capped off by a Kyren Williams 43-yard touchdown run. On Buchner’s first play from scrimmage from Notre Dame’s own 4-yard line, he kept the ball on a read-option play and gained 26 yards down the right sideline. On the next play, Buchner gained 11 more yards with his legs which set up the long Williams run.
According to head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was looking for a spark offensively by going to Buchner.
“I felt like by going to Tyler there he would give us the versatility in the run game that we needed at that time,” Kelly said. “Turned out that worked out pretty good and it gave us the shot in the arm that we needed.”
The Williams touchdown made it 14-6 Notre Dame, but two drives later Coan was back in at quarterback and made the first big mistake of his Irish career, throwing a pick-six into double coverage while looking for Mayer in the final minute of the first half. At the half, Notre Dame trailed 16-14 and Coan was 11-19 for 113 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
In the second half, Notre Dame again played both Coan and Buchner.
For Coach Kelly, the ability to play two quarterbacks allowed Notre Dame to switch up looks offensively.
“I think having them both keeps the defense off of what we’re trying to do. I think we can blend both of them into what we're doing,” Kelly said after the win. “Each week is a different week we're just, we're trying to find a way to win the game today.”
The back and forth seemed to work well for the Irish offense, as Coan engineered the first scoring drive of the fourth quarter that gave Notre Dame a 17-16 lead thanks to a 48-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal, and on the next drive Buchner found a wide-open Chris Tyree for a 55-yard touchdown pass to put the Irish up 24-16 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
By the end of the quarter, however, Notre Dame’s lead had evaporated and the Irish trailed Toledo 29-24 with 1:35 seconds left of game time, needing a touchdown to keep the home win streak alive.
It was Coan that gave the Irish what they needed. The Sayville, New York native executed a three-play, 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive in just 26 seconds of game time to give Notre Dame the lead back that they would hold until the final whistle. The drive was highlighted by a 34-yard heave to Kevin Austin Jr. down the right sideline on the very first play, and topped off by an 18-yard touchdown catch down the middle by Mayer.
After the game, Coach Kelly was pleased with Coan’s final drive performance.
“I thought he was poised in the pocket, and decisive with his throws in that last drive and that's the mark of a veteran quarterback,” Kelly said.
For Mayer, it wasn’t surprising to see how well Coan led the offense on that game winning drive.
“Jack was poised the entire game," Mayer said. "That’s what I saw from him all of camp, that’s what I saw from him the entire summer, and he’s going to be doing that the rest of the year, he’s very poised."
The final drive would have been impressive regardless of the circumstances, but Coan also dislocated his finger and had to get it readjusted on the sideline right before finding Mayer for the go-ahead touchdown pass. Coach Kelly said Coan got the finger back in place with the help of trainer Mike Bean, felt good enough to go back in and that was all there was to it.
“I think that just shows his grit, his intensity, and his mentality,” Irish running back Chris Tyree said of Coan. “I think that being able to show that grit is really important for our offense so I think that it was a great performance from him.”
By game’s end, Coan completed 21 of his 33 passes for 239 yards and two scores. The lone blemish on the night being the pick-six to end the first half.
Meanwhile, much in the same way that Coan was against Florida State, Buchner was the spark Notre Dame needed offensively in his debut in blue and gold. The freshman was 3-for-3 on his pass attempts for 78 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed seven times for 68 yards as well.
“He’s a baller, that’s pretty obvious to see when he comes in the game,” Tyree said after the game, also noting that the plan all week was to get Buchner and his running ability involved in the game.
Overall, more so than a quarterback competition it’s clear Notre Dame has multiple options at quarterback capable of making big time plays in close games. That’s a blessing more than it is a curse.
Kelly is confident with where the offense is headed in spite of the struggles.
“Consecutive weeks we put over 30 points on the board, so we got work to do on offense, you can't turn the ball over, let's start there,” Kelly said. “If we don't turn the football over today, we're going to put a lot of points on the board. So, if against Purdue, we play clean offense, don't turn it over, and really settle on how we want to run the football, that would be a good step forward.”
It may have taken two quarterbacks, but Notre Dame picked up its 25th straight win at home on Saturday despite trailing by five in the final two minutes. That alone is something to celebrate.
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