Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense, big-play threats will need to shine for QB Jack Coan to beat his old team today

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And so end Notre Dame’s warmups, the trailers before the feature film, the interlude at a bar before the party really begins.

Sometimes warmups include a gear malfunction, the trailers all look lackluster, the scouted-only-online bar has a dampening vibe. And sometimes expected routs against Florida State, Toledo and Purdue become an overtime thriller, a one-possession win and a fourth-quarter decision.

But eventually, the main event always begins, the opening credits roll, the guests arrive at the open bar. And No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1) awaits the No. 12 Irish (3-0) at Soldier Field in Chicago today (12 ET; FOX). 

Now for the twist: Did you ever expect Notre Dame’s first big test of 2021 to draw comparisons to the typical Navy game?

The Badgers methodical approach grinds a game down much like the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack does. When the Irish face Navy, they anticipate having seven possessions, any more than that count as luxuries. The triple-option’s ability to simply eat away six, eight, 10 minutes in an average possession shortens the game.

Wisconsin does not take things to that extreme, but they have rushed 58 and 55 times, respectively, in their first two games. Penn State enjoyed 11 genuine possessions, while Eastern Michigan was held to 10.

“If you think about this as (similar) to a Navy game, scoring touchdowns is at a premium,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Kicking field goals is not going to get it done for you. Scoring touchdowns, being really efficient on the offensive side of the ball and when you get matchups, you better win those matchups.”

Easier said than done.

The Nittany Lions and Eagles combined for 13 three-and-outs against the Badgers’ defense, which actually served to inflate those possession counts.

Wisconsin will hold the Irish in check as much as possible, unless they very much don’t. Penn State changed the entire dynamic of their season-opening slog with a 49-yard touchdown pass early in the second half. The Badgers’ diligent defense is not invulnerable to the big play, the exact offensive aspect Notre Dame struggled with last week while also relying on this season.

“Did [the Irish receivers] make [big plays] on Saturday? No,” Kelly said. “They didn’t make them to the level they’re capable of, but you’re going to have those things happen. We were still able to overcome and make big plays in other positions.”

Indeed, junior running back Kyren Williams broke two long touchdowns to spark Notre Dame against the Boilermakers, part of the Irish relying on explosive scoring plays (touchdowns of longer than 20 yards) for 28 percent of their total offense this season.

If Notre Dame can continue to find a couple big plays, then it may compromise all of Wisconsin’s Navy-esque game plan.

“Part of this game is we’re going to have to make some big plays, there’s no doubt about it,” Kelly said. “That and get off the field (defensively) against a team that wants to control the ball.”

That latter want is not usually the driving concern against the Midshipmen. Endure the option until a tackle for loss forces Navy into a second- or third-and-long and then capitalize on the triple-option’s lackings. That is not as surefire a strategy against the Badgers, which are still a far cry from the Midshipmen despite these comparisons, but it is still a Notre Dame key. Badgers junior quarterback Graham Mertz three a pair of interceptions against Penn State; forcing him into obvious passing situations could prove disastrous for Wisconsin.

“Like anything else, it’s getting behind the chains,” Kelly said. “Negative plays, getting off from what you want to do. … It’s important to try to get them off-schedule.”

Again, easier said than done, especially if this week’s rendition of vague message board speculation proves accurate. Irish Illustrated confirmed Saturday morning that fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish will be unavailable for Notre Dame.

The Irish will turn to junior Howard Cross and perhaps move either senior Jayson Ademilola or sophomore Rylie Mills over from three-technique tackle to Hinish’s nose guard position. All three of those names are exceptionally capable, but shortening the rotation along the defensive interior could play into Wisconsin’s favor given those expected 50-plus rushing attempts.

Adding in junior Jacob Lacey will help the cause, but with Hinish out, there is only so much Notre Dame can do to replace him, his experience and his intensity.

Some of that needed intensity may come from sophomore Vyper end Jordan Botelho, who was unavailable for the season’s first two games and last week was not quite yet in-shape enough to play defensively. Immediately after beating Purdue, Kelly said he anticipated Botelho’s legs getting the needed step this week to play more against Wisconsin, and he doubled down as the week went along.

“Jordan is much further along than he was last week,” Kelly said. “Just getting back on the practice field, didn’t really have his legs underneath him last week. He should play a much more important role in what we do defensively. You’ll see him on the field. He will register many more snaps on the defensive side of the ball.”

For all of Kelly’s coach-speak flaws, when he slips into verb tenses with the future definitive look of will, it is not by accident. Those answers become realities.

Adding Buchner to Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s havoc-dependent approach should pay off with chaos.

As much as tackles for loss upset an offense rushing the ball 50-some times, turnovers can collapse those offensive game plans because of their struggle to come back quickly. Notre Dame has forced seven turnovers already this season. A couple more could prove timely, even — or especially — if they come backed up against the goal line.

The Badgers have turned only 50 percent of their trips into the red zone into touchdowns, multiple turnovers being their primary undoing. When the Irish have gotten the ball in such a position, they have turned to freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner.

It may not be until the first such moment that the health of Buchner’s “tight” hamstring reveals itself — “We’ll add more to his load with the expectation of preparing him for his role at quarterback on Saturday.” — but if that does not arrive, then it will simply (and obviously) mean more work for Jack Coan.

This column may be titled “Things To Learn,” but one thing “Not To Learn” will be if Wisconsin made the right choice between Coan and Mertz. There never was a choice. Their careers overlapped as much as competing at the same track meet means a distance runner ran against a sprinter, as much as a trailer overlaps with the feature film, as much as a customer at the interlude bar was invited to the wedding.

The Coan Revenge Game narrative has no traction among those who matter.

“We can make as much as we want and make it a story,” Kelly said. “In the building, it’s not that much of a story to him.”

The story is the actual race, the actual movie, the actual reception. Coan and Notre Dame are there, finally.