CHICAGO — The final score of 41-13 makes Notre Dame’s win against No. 18 Wisconsin look like a rout, and by the end there was nothing but tragic comedy to be had, but the truth of the matter is, the No. 12 Irish (4-0) won a hard-fought, old-fashioned game.
Trailing 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame was likely hoping for nothing more than a 17-13 win. That may have felt ambitious.
The Irish had gained 32 yards in the third quarter on 13 plays, losing one turnover and with three possessions losing yards. Nothing after halftime indicated Notre Dame would find offensive success against Wisconsin’s defensive front.
Enter Chris Tyree.
CHRIS TYREE COAST TO COAST☘️#CFB
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 25, 2021
“We know that he could do it, we know that he has game-breaking speed,” senior receiver Kevin Austin said. “For him to show that on display, it was a reminder for all of us on the offensive sideline that this is the type of game it was going to be, the type of game that we need to have to beat a team like this.”
In that regard, Tyree’s 96-yard kickoff return touchdown set up Austin’s second touchdown catch a few minutes later. It also counts as the official game-winning score, a play set up by a halftime decision from special teams coordinator Brian Polian.
“We went to a field return, so we were able to get him moving back to the field and caught a crease and he used his speed from there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday evening in Soldier Field. “We had been going sideline return. It just didn’t have enough working room, so Brian at halftime, he said, ‘Listen, we’re going to try to go to the field. It’s going to be an all-or-nothing situation’
“When you go to the field, you’re stretching and you’re blocking out longer, and that’s where you tend to see a holding or something like that. But we were able to catch a crease and the rest, obviously he is a very fast and talented player.”
In other words, Polian recognized how difficult Notre Dame’s offensive day had been and would be. At halftime, the Irish had gained just 150 yards on 44 plays, including a loss of two yards on 19 total carries. Manufacturing field position, or even a score, would be worth the risk of an all-or-nothing play, particularly since the only chance it would have at happening at all would mean Wisconsin had cut into Notre Dame’s tenuous lead.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Kelly awarded game balls to both sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne and junior cornerback Cam Hart. With all due respect to Pyne, it was Hart’s play that may have won the game for Notre Dame.
Up until now, Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz has been inconsistent plenty, but he has always avoided outright disaster. His previous pair of multi-interception games beget close losses, not utter debacles.
His meltdown began with picking on Hart in the second quarter. After drawing a pass interference flag on Hart on a 3rd-and-9, Mertz tried to make the same pass three plays later facing a 3rd-and-10.
“The play prior, I got there a little early on kind of a dig route,” Hart said. “My coaches were just like, they’re gonna come back to it, be ready or be alert on the double-move. Next play, came back to the same play, tried to get it in, I jumped in front of it.”
The resiliency of the moment was one thing, but the actual play made deserves just as much praise.
You love to see it. First career INT for @CamHart_ 😤#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/VaMWt7dYL4
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 25, 2021
Then in the fourth quarter, with the Irish still clinging to only a 24-13 lead and Wisconsin about to cross midfield, Mertz tried to beat Hart for another first down.
“After the interceptions, you see your whole defense — after in practice, we do that so often, it’s not unexpected or anything like that, but just to see it come to fruition in a game, it’s crazy,” Hart said. “Now we’re just having fun out there and understand the importance of playing free.”
The interceptions returned for touchdowns from junior linebacker Jack Kiser and fifth-year linebacker Drew White gave the proceedings a laugh-track, but their chances likely never would have come if Hart had not shown the perks of playing free, both inspiring them and getting into Mertz’s head.
DEPTH OF THE GAME
Rumors swirled throughout the week that Notre Dame may be without fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish. To date, few players have been as crucial to the Irish defense, if not also under the radar as that may as well be part of the job description for a defensive tackle.
Without Hinish, past Irish teams would have needed to panic.
Not anymore, not with sophomore Howard Cross and junior Jacob Lacey both getting through the line right away in the first quarter. Cross notched a three-yard tackle for loss on Wisconsin’s second drive, while Lacey stuffed a 4th-and-1 rush attempt at the line of scrimmage near the end of the quarter.
They both finished with two tackles, highlighted by a tackle for loss apiece.
Four total tackles may hardly seem like a big deal, but again, that is the job description of a nose tackle.
CURIOSITY OF THE GAME, YET AGAIN
Soldier Field's listed capacity is 61,500. https://t.co/ujUwdQ0od1
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 25, 2021