The one nice thing about the 2020 season was there was no quarterback controversy, and I must admit, I rather enjoyed that. Whatever your opinion is or was of Ian Book, there was no debate that he was the man for the 2020 Irish football team.
There were quarterback debates in 2019, 2018, 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Most were legitimate, some were fans just being frustrated with the starter. But the lack of continuity, production or anything else positive about the position for much of Brian Kelly’s tenure has been a driving force behind much of the offensive struggles the last decade.
Notre Dame enters the bye week with a great deal of uncertainty at quarterback, which currently has far, far more questions than answers. The deeper we get into the season more and more questions arise, but if the Irish want to finish the season on a strong note and get the offense rolling the coaches must find an answer.
When Jack Coan transferred from Wisconsin the thought was that for at least a season there would be no quarterback controversy, and that thought was hammered home when he threw for 366 yards and four scores in the 41-38 season-opening win over Florida State.
Quarterback play has mostly been a mess since that game, outside of a few strong final drives/second halves by Coan.
Coan led the offense to a touchdown drive to open the contest against Toledo and again had the Irish in Rocket territory on drive two before he was hit from behind on a cornerback blitz. That play changed the momentum of that game, and in many ways it changed the trajectory of the Notre Dame offense for 2021.
What if the offense had been prepared to pick up that corner fire? What if the play-call had a blitz beater built in? What if the cornerback fell and Coan was able to get a throw off? What if somehow that drive ended with another score and all of a sudden the Irish are up 14-0 on Toledo?
I think often about that play, much like I do the first drive of the Notre Dame-Miami game back in 2017.
That what if game is ultimately pointless, because the reality is Coan has not been the same quarterback since that moment. Well, he hasn’t consistently been that player, and the result is the offense often sputtering when he’s in the game.
Three series after the fumble against Toledo, Kelly said he made the decision to put freshman Tyler Buchner into the game. Like he did against Virginia Tech, Buchner immediately led the offense down the field on a scoring drive.
Since the opener not a game has gone by where Notre Dame hasn’t played at least two quarterbacks in a game, something that continued in the win over Virginia Tech. No quarterback has proven to be able to consistently move the offense.
Buchner was again inserted into the lineup against Purdue before going down with an injury.
An interesting note about that game. Coan went 7-14 for 81 yards in the first half when the game plan was built around Buchner also being part of the rotation, and 39 of his 81 yards were on just one throw, a touchdown to Kyren Williams. He missed two potential big throws in the game on attempts that you’d expect him to hit, and throws he’s made consistently earlier in the season and during his time at Wisconsin. It was clear the rush was getting in his head, or maybe he was pressing too much knowing he was going to have fewer series with another quarterback rotating in.
Buchner was injured on Notre Dame’s final series of the first half against Purdue and it was known he wouldn’t be available in the second half. In that second half, when the quarterback position was all his, Coan went 6-9 for 137 yards and a touchdown, and had another would-be 39-yard touchdown pass dropped in the end zone.
Against Wisconsin, Coan continued to play erratically and the offense struggled to consistently move the football. Buchner was also still recovering from the injury he sustained against Purdue, so it was Coan’s gig, at least until he was injured in the third quarter with the scored tied 10-10.
With Buchner already out the reins were turned over to Drew Pyne. The sophomore showed incredibly poise in a tough spot, and after losing a fumble on a blindside hit that gave Wisconsin a 13-10 fourth quarter lead, Pyne went 4-4 for 45 yards and a touchdown the next time he stepped on the field.
Pyne finished 6-8 for 81 yards and a score in that game, a 41-13 Irish win that was fueled by three fourth quarter touchdowns by the Irish defense and special teams.
Coan struggled again in the first half against Cincinnati, completing 6-11 passes for just 55 yards as the Irish fell behind 17-0 to the Bearcats. He was replaced by Pyne in the third quarter, and Pyne did some good things in the game, but he also had his own issues in the game, completing just 9-22 passes for 143 yards as the Irish fell to the Bearcats by a 24-13 score.
And then we have the game against Virginia Tech. Coan began the game and went 2-3 for 15 yards, and he was sacked twice in just three series. The first was a bad play by the line and the second was on Coan. Kelly stressed that Coan was his starter, but his definite starter got just three series against Virginia Tech before Kelly told OC Tommy Rees to go to and stick with Buchner.
Buchner led the offense to a pair of touchdowns on his first three series, turning a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead. The talented freshman completed 5-8 throws for 101 yards and a touchdown and added 26 yards and another score on the ground in the second quarter.
Virginia Tech adjusted at halftime and Buchner struggled mightily in the second half, completing just 1-6 passes for 12 yards while throwing two interceptions. His first interception was returned for a score and allowed Virginia Tech to take a 22-21 third quarter lead.
Coan came off the bench with the Irish trailing 29-21 and was brilliant. The veteran completed 7-9 passes for 93 yards and a score on the final two drives of the game to lead the Irish to a come from behind victory. It was a similar finish - and identical final score - the Toledo game.
So here we are, six weeks of the season are done and Notre Dame’s quarterback depth chart is a mess. It’s obvious Notre Dame doesn’t have much of a plan for the quarterbacks, or if they do there isn’t much rhyme or reason to it. Kelly all but admitted that after the win over Virginia Tech.
“We're trying to figure this thing out as we go,” Kelly said of the quarterback position.
His comments following the loss to Cincinnati weren’t any more reassuring.
“Clearly we can’t keep going down this road of who is the flavor of the week here,” Kelly said of the quarterback situation. “We’re going to have to sit down and figure this out and decide which direction we want to go. It doesn’t give us the kind of continuity and consistency on offense that we need.”
Following those comments the Irish went right back to what we have seen for weeks, the starter gets 2-3 series, struggles and then another quarterback gets action.
Obviously the hope is that Coan’s strong finish against Virginia Tech is the springboard to a strong second half of the season, which would certainly stabilize an unstable position.
It’s obvious that Buchner, although supremely talented and the future of the position, is not quite ready. Maybe that happens at some point this season, but is Notre Dame willing to take the risk of dropping a game while Buchner gets caught up to speed? And how quickly could Buchner get up to speed should the staff decide to make that ultimate shift.
Pyne has become a fan favorite of sorts, with many hoping he would get the start against the Hokies, but he didn’t take a snap. It’s obvious that Kelly doesn’t have much faith in Pyne’s ability to be the starter right now, nor does he think Pyne has earned a shot at the job.
“Look, he didn’t start, right,” Kelly said following the loss to Cincinnati. “He didn’t impress me that much or he would have started.”
It was shocking to see Kelly offer such a harsh criticism of Pyne, especially after some of the positive things he has done when thrust into the mix and also due to the positive attitude and leadership that he has shown. But it was also a moment of honestly from Kelly, and that honesty is Pyne isn’t really in the mix to be the starter.
But Notre Dame cannot continue with this back-and-forth quarterback situation, and Kelly has even made that clear. We all know this to be true, but what we don’t know is who will they settle on, will the staff be at all patient with whoever they decide to roll with or will they convince themselves during the bye week that they can in fact continue to play musical chairs at quarterback?
We won’t know the answer to the for almost two weeks, but it will certainly give us plenty to talk about during the bye week.
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