Notre Dame earned a much-needed road victory over Virginia Tech last night, coming from behind to win 32-29. It was the program's second 32-29 comeback victory this season.
At times the Notre Dame offense looked outstanding, and at times its own mistakes kept the game close and almost cost the Irish the victory. But when it mattered most, both in the first half when down 10-0 and in the fourth quarter when the Irish fell behind 29-21, the offense stepped up and did what needed to be done.
Here are my key takeaways from the victory.
1. Offensive Line Battles, Run Game Shows Up - The much-maligned Notre Dame offensive line finally made its presence felt this season. There were still plenty of mistakes in the game (see below) and the unit isn't where it needs to be, but against Virginia Tech it took a big step forward.
Notre Dame's blockers battled hard for 60 minutes. Even when they were getting beat it wasn't about a lack of effort or willingness to fight. It's still not a very well-coached unit, but for this game the unit showed a willingness to battle, scrap and claw throughout the game.
The line finally showing some life allowed the ultra-talented running backs to finally get going, as Notre Dame rushed for 180 yards in the win, which is by far the best ground performance of the season for the Irish offense.
Even more important is the fact that when the game was on the line and the offense needed to come back the line stepped up and gave quarterback Jack Coan the time he needed to get the ball out to the receivers as the Irish scored twice in the final four minutes to earn the win. The only blemish in the final two drives was the line's inability to convert a 3rd-and-1 that forced a long field goal.
We won't know if this is a one-off or a sign of things to come, but if it's the first step in the right direction the second half of the season could look a lot different - and better - than the first half of the season for the offense.
2. Notre Dame's Offensive Skill Is Really Good - Notre Dame did not have its best skill player (Michael Mayer) thanks to an injury last week and its most explosive player (Chris Tyree) played very little due to a turf toe injury. Despite that Notre Dame's skill players gave the Virginia Tech defense a lot of problems, racking up the most yards and points against the Hokies than any of its previous four opponents.
No one Irish skill player had a huge night, it was a group effort. Running back Kyren Williams was a difference maker in the run game and pass game, and when Tyree went down freshman Logan Diggs stepped in and performed quite well despite having never played a college football snap before last night. Diggs rushed for 29 yards on six carries and caught a pass for 15 yards to help the offense get the game-tying score.
No receiver had more than 70 yards, but Kevin Austin made two huge plays in the win (including a great play on the two-point conversion), Avery Davis was his usual money self and after getting shut out for the first three and a half quarters, Braden Lenzy came up with two clutch plays on the final two drives of the game.
The result was a return of big plays, which helped the offense post its highest yards per play (5.81) and yards per pass attempt average (8.5) in four games, and the offense also had its second highest yards per completion average of the season thus far.
3. Quarterback Situation Is Now An Even Greater Question - Not only did we not get any answers to the quarterback "problem," last night raised more questions than existed prior to the game. Instead of giving Jack Coan even a half to see if he could get the offense going, the Irish coaches replaced him after three series.
It wasn't Drew Pyne that replaced Coan, it was freshman Tyler Buchner, who promptly led the Irish to a pair of touchdown drives in his first three series in the game. Buchner faltered in the second half and had some crucial mistakes, but he also showed that when he's on he is very, very dangerous and the offense looks very different when he's in the game.
I'm not talking about it looking different in the way some discussed with Pyne, as if there is all of a sudden a pep in the step of his teammates, which is often a backup quarterback reaction from the team. It literally looked different. We saw power reads, zone reads, counters, option plays, quick pitches, bootlegs and a lot of other concepts that we just don't often see from the offense when other quarterbacks are in the game.
When Buchner went down, after failing to lead the offense to points on his final three drives (while also giving the defense points with his pick six), Coan came back into the game and calmly led the offense down the field on two scoring drives to fuel the comeback win.
So what do we do now? Is Coan still the starter with the hope that he can show all the time what he's shown in late game situations? Does Buchner become the guy as the staff looks to build around his elite talent, while also understanding he's going to make youthful mistakes? What about Pyne, who rescued the offense against Wisconsin and gave the offense a spark against Cincinnati?
We left last night's game with even more questions than we had before.
4. Third-Down Woes Continue - In 2020 Notre Dame was one of the nation's very best third-down offenses, ranking seventh in the nation. Through six games in 2021 the offense has been abysmal on third-down, and that continued against the Hokies.
Notre Dame converted just 3-12 third-down opportunities, its second worst performance of the season. Buchner went 0-5 with two interceptions on third-down throws and Coan took a sack on both of his two third-down drops in the game.
This lack of efficiency continues to plague the offense and must be addressed in the second half of the season.
5. Offensive Mistakes Almost Cost The Game - Notre Dame winning this game speaks to the resolve of the Irish players, but also their supreme talent.
If before the game I would have told you Notre Dame would not have Mayer or Tyree, would turn the ball over twice (including throwing a pick six), would lose points due to a false start on a 4th-and-1, would lose points to a clipping call on a third-down and would have one of its worst third-down performances of the season would you have predicted that Notre Dame would score 32 points?
I highly doubt it, but that's what happened, and it just shows how good this team could be. Imagine if Notre Dame could actually stop turning the ball over, stop making silly mistakes and play a clean game up front, at quarterback and the skill positions this unit could be very, very good.
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