SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame disproved one of the oldest football anachronisms in its dramatic 32-29 win over Toledo on Saturday. Supposedly, if you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t really have any quarterbacks. Yet the No. 8 Irish (2-0) needed two quarterbacks to escape the Rockets’ upset bid, which would have been the third-biggest upset loss of Brian Kelly‘s Notre Dame tenure.
“Turned out it worked out pretty good,” Kelly said. “It gave us the shot in the arm that we needed.”
Starting quarterback Jack Coan bookended an otherwise rough day with matching 75-yard touchdown drives in which he never threw an incompletion and twice found sophomore tight end Michael Mayer in the end zone. The opening drive suggested Notre Dame may enjoy a rout. The latter solved a moment of Irish angst.
After freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner had led three scoring drives, Toledo put Notre Dame behind once more with a 26-yard scramble into the end zone with only 95 seconds remaining. The Irish had a choice to make: Turn to the neophyte who found success thus far, albeit on the ground in a change of pace role, or the veteran who has shown some downfield passing aptitude but so far had simply been knocked around by the Rockets.
Kelly chose Coan.
“We just like Jack’s experience,” Kelly said. “He’s been there before. Not that Tyler couldn’t have done it, but if you’re looking for, in the moment, trying to win the game, it just made more sense to go with the guy who had more experience.”
Coan connected with senior Kevin Austin for 34 yards and then with Mayer for six more before Buchner was almost forced back into the game. Coan’s throwing hand bounced off a pass rusher’s helmet on the Mayer completion, askewing a finger. He ran to the sideline, a trainer yanked the appendage back into place, and Coan found Mayer once more for the 18-yard game-winning score.
“He was poised in the pocket and decisive with his throws in that last drive,” Kelly said. “That’s the mark of a veteran quarterback.”
For 57 minutes, though, Coan did not have the mark of a veteran quarterback, in no small part because the Irish offensive line could not keep defenders from the backfield. Until Buchner stepped in, it seemed Notre Dame’s offense may consist of only quarterback hurries and sacks, mixed in with a strip-sack that set up a Rockets field goal. Coan could not evade pass rushers long enough to find his receivers, sacked six times and hassled many more.
So in came Buchner.
While Coan is not a literal statue, his general lack of mobility compounded the Irish offensive line’s struggles. Toledo did not worry about Coan scrambling, which allowed its pass rushers to charge forward without hesitation. His 21-of-33 passing for 239 yards and the two scores was undone by not only the lost fumble, but also an interception returned for a touchdown and six sacks losing 37 yards.
Against Buchner, charging forward could lead to misreading a designed run and suddenly the Irish could enjoy a 26-yard run, exactly what happened on Buchner’s very first snap. His next gained 11 more yards.
“We knew Tyler was going to have some packages this season,” Mayer said. “What he did today, he’s been doing all camp, he did all summer, didn’t surprise me at all. He’s very capable of that. You guys saw him today.”
Suddenly the Rockets’ defense needed to play a bit more honestly, and for the first time all day, if not all season, junior running back Kyren Williams found space. His 43-yard score staked Notre Dame to a lead it would lose by halftime due to the Coan interception, but Williams’ score also gave a glimpse of what the Irish offense could be.
“We’re trying to find ourselves offensively in the running game,” Kelly said. “We’re transitioning as we speak. We’ve lost another offensive lineman early in [sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody with a sprained ankle], so we’re trying to find a run game. We’re backed up there.
“I felt like going to Tyler there, he would give us the versatility and the run game at that time.”
The Irish offense would be that way again momentarily at the start of the fourth quarter when a pair of Buchner rushes moved Notre Dame into field goal range and a Jonathan Doerer 48-yard field goal grabbed the lead, and then once more when Buchner flipped a pass a few yards to sophomore running back Chris Tyree only for Tyree to blaze 55 yards to the end zone.
Buchner’s previous runs had forced Toledo’s defenders to account for him on the edge, rather than simply drift with Tyree. At that point, Tyree’s speed could do the rest.
The Rockets kept coming, scoring just minutes later to remain within two of the Irish, but Freeman’s high-risk, high-reward defense disrupted the two-point conversion attempt with an aggressive blitz. That success was later undone when Toledo’s backup quarterback, more a mobile option for certain situations than a backup, took off on a 26-yard scoring run to take the five-point lead with only 1:35 remaining.
Then Kelly made his choice, which one of the two quarterbacks would get the blame or glory of the final drive. Coan had not found a rhythm in 57 minutes, while Buchner had shown spurts intermittently, but Notre Dame turned back to Coan.
“Jack’s a great character kid,” Kelly said. “He just wants to win, he stayed ready and knew that — we told him [the Buchner moments] is something that we’re going to do to help the football team win today.
“He was prepared and ready to get back in there and help us in that last drive. He was outstanding.”
Coan turned back to Mayer for the win, one sealed by Freeman’s havoc-dependent defense forcing a fumble (fifth-year end Myron Tagoaviloa-Amosa) recovered by junior linebacker JD Bertrand.
I remain surprised by choosing Coan, but more than that, impressed by Coan's ability to come in focused on that final drive. https://t.co/g19Dd2QvwP
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 11, 2021
12:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 4-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Toledo 0. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:15)
10:06 — Toledo field goal. Thomas Cluckey 31 yards. Notre Dame 7, Toledo 3. (7 plays, 69 yards, 2:39)
4:14 — Toledo field goal. Cluckey 32 yards. Notre Dame 7, Toledo 6. (6 plays, 42 yards, 2:49)
9:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 43-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Toledo 6. (5 plays, 96 yards, 2:13)
1:04 — Toledo field goal. Cluckey 23 yards. Notre Dame 14, Toledo 9. (10 plays, 35 yards, 4:00)
0:46 — Toledo touchdown. Chris McDonald 27-yard interception return. Cluckey PAT good. Toledo 16, Notre Dame 14.
12:25 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Notre Dame 17, Toledo 16. (13 plays, 55 yards, 6:11)
10:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 55-yard pass from Tyler Buchner. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Toledo 16. (1 play, 55 yards, 0:09)
7:48 — Toledo touchdown. Bryant Koback 8-yard rush. Two-point conversion attempt no good. Notre Dame 24, Toledo 22. (6 plays, 89 yards, 3:03)
1:35 — Toledo touchdown. Dequan Finn 26-yard rush. Cluckey PAT good. Toledo 29, Notre Dame 24. (7 plays, 73 yards, 1:51)
1:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 18-yard pass. Two-point conversion good, Avery Davis pass to Williams. Notre Dame 32, Toledo 29. (3 plays, 75 yards, 0:26)