Things We Learned: A ‘freer,’ but ‘not perfect’ Notre Dame on display for the world

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Shamrock Series - Notre Dame v Wisconsin
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CHICAGO — If that is how Notre Dame has played and behaved in practice the last month, the outside world had no way to know it. The No. 12 Irish (4-0) not only exploited every conceivable Wisconsin fourth-quarter mistake to its absolute extreme in a 41-13 rout on Saturday at Soldier Field, but they also never tensed up in the first three quarters.

In the season opener, Notre Dame let the first three quarters of success bleed into a relaxed and nearly costly fourth quarter. Against Toledo, the Irish mistakes seemed to get into their heads, only to lead to more mistakes, giving up the third and fourth plays of 60 or more yards in just two weeks. And when facing in-state rival Purdue, Notre Dame’s offensive miscues essentially eliminated their most potent players from the game plan.

That was the version of the 2021 Irish the outside knew, a team battling its own neuroses as much as any opponent’s schemes and not a group willing to take blow after blow from a top-20 team without flinching, an offense willing to adjust its default approach to reduce the effectiveness of its opponent’s best unit, a defense enjoying its own aggressiveness because the payoffs are many and luxurious.

Apparently, that is who Notre Dame has been all along.

“I wouldn’t say expected, but that’s what we do every day,” said junior Cam Hart after his two-interception afternoon. “Go out there and have fun, play together.

“I feel like it’s finally on display for the outside world.”

Those practices have emphasized chaos, as in causing turnovers, breaking up passes and bothering the quarterback. The Irish forced five turnovers against No. 18 Wisconsin (1-2), broke up two more passes, hurried Badgers junior quarterback Graham Mertz five times and sacked him once (senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, forcing a fumble). The havoc was constant.

“Even earlier this week, we emphasized playing free,” Hart said. “Try to go out there and not think so much, play with intensity.

“I feel like we did that and executed well.”

Even if Notre Dame had not returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the closing moments — relegating Mertz to punchline status despite his supposed counterpart, Irish quarterback Jack Coan left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury — the defense would have been credited with executing well. Wisconsin may not be an offensive juggernaut, but its game plan has worked for years: Run, run and run until the game is over.

The Badgers had run 58 and 55 times in their previous two games, but their ball control could not expand past 28 rush attempts against Notre Dame because those runs were so stymied. Nine Wisconsin drives lasted four plays or fewer. Eight of them failed to gain just 10 yards. The Badgers converted one of 14 third downs.

That is the Irish defense now on display for the outside world.

Offensively, Notre Dame may not have appeared smooth or efficient, but it was at least flexible, willing to adjust its usual running focus to counteract Wisconsin’s intentions. That alone was a shift on display for the outside world.

“We were going to be challenged by their front, which we were,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We knew we had to go and throw the football around, which that was the game plan. Come out, throw it and try to make some plays down the field.”

Maybe hoping for big plays downfield was ambitious. Notre Dame gained more than 20 yards on a snap only twice, but frankly, once may have been enough. When Coan connected with senior receiver Kevin Austin for a 36-yard touchdown, the Irish had put the Badgers into enough of a deficit that their ball-control approach would be threatened.

Austin finished with 76 yards on six catches with two touchdowns, a statement game after eight targets last week resulted in no catches.

“We’re non-stop,” Austin said. “We’re gonna continue to grind, we’re gonna continue to fight, no matter what quarter it is, what down it is, no matter how bad we’re down, no matter what the case may be, we’re going to keep driving, keep fighting, to get to our goal.”

That kind of focus will be necessary for the offense. Notre Dame’s offensive line struggles were once again on display for the world. Some credit should go to the Wisconsin defensive line, respected before the game and it lived up to that billing, but some fault also lies with the Irish. 

A willingness to tinker, though, changed the dynamics and its mere existence opens the door for more improvement throughout the season. Junior Andrew Kristofic played a decent amount at left guard, subbing in for junior Zeke Correll — “He gives us a better matchup to the interior physicality that Wisconsin has.” — and freshman Joe Alt rotated with sophomore Tosh Baker at left tackle. 

Notre Dame did enough, just enough, to keep moving. Even as it lost its quarterback, it kept moving.

With freshman Tyler Buchner sidelined by a hamstring bother, Coan’s leg injury — soft tissue, per Kelly, but not a high ankle sprain — forced sophomore Drew Pyne into his first extended time. The neurotic and uneasy version of the Irish seen throughout the first three weeks of September may have come undone at that point.

But not this Notre Dame.

“Drew doesn’t miss a beat,” Austin said. “We have a next man in mentality, and that’s the motivation you have to go into that moment when you step in.”

Fitting with Hart’s claims of practice enjoyment, Pyne inspiring confidence comes after he still takes 40 percent of the reps during the week, despite Buchner’s increased role in the offense.

“We were able to focus a lot of the reps on [Pyne] and when you see him prepare, you have that confidence that you can put him in the game,” Kelly said.

Pyne showed some mobility behind that patchwork offensive line, though he still lost 16 yards with the ball in his hands while gaining 81 when throwing it, completing six of his eight attempts. But to be clear, before anyone gets carried away, Kelly would not entertain the idea of renewing the quarterback competition between Coan and Pyne, nor necessarily should he.

“Jack Coan is our starter and there’s no question about it,” Kelly said. “If he’s able and physically able, he’ll be our starter against Cincinnati.”

Whoever starts at quarterback for the Irish next week, he will have to double down on this version shown to the outside world, a version where the offense did not try to do too much, where the defense did not let its day be defined by one or two bad plays, where the special teams existed beyond Jonathan Doerer’s and Jay Bramblett’s feet.

“We were able to put enough plays together through a variety of different things on offense, special teams and then defense,” Kelly said. “It’s a complete game and we were able to win this thing going away, playing complete football defensively, taking the football away, special teams, and then doing enough on the offensive side of the ball to secure a really good victory.”

That much did not change. Notre Dame’s offense still strives to do “enough” to win. It is unlikely to create the victory on its own.

But that too may yet change. The defense has proven improvement in-season is possible. It needed to.

“We have a long way to go still,” Kelly said. “But they’re getting better each week. I am having fun coaching them.

“They’re not perfect by any means, but they’re going to be better in November and that’s the nice part about it. That’s what energizes you as a coach. We’re not a perfect team, but I like coaching them.”

For at least one more week, that imperfect team held onto its perfect record by revealing more of what it is at its core, and that includes those flaws. Improvement in November may be too late given the October gauntlet awaiting the Irish, but a week ago, that would have been expected of this Chicago trip, too.