Notre Dame’s Saturday should not hinge on its starting quarterback. Whether Jack Coan is healthy enough to start or not, the No. 9 Irish (4-0) will not get a mulligan against No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0). The winner Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC) will immediately become a Playoff frontrunner in October, whether starting an early-round draft pick, a graduate transfer or an undersized sophomore. And the loser will be able to kiss that title dream goodbye.
Framing this game as Playoffs-or-lose risks seeing the forest but not the trees. Neither Notre Dame nor Cincinnati would yet be expected to finish the regular season unbeaten even with a win tomorrow. Simply enough, too many games remain.
But lessons learned are supposed to be forward-looking, a task that becomes difficult when the weekend’s approach may vary wildly depending on Coan’s health, which was progressing better than Irish head coach Brian Kelly expected on Wednesday, with Coan leading the two-minute drill in practice. However, Kelly is notoriously optimistic in public when it comes to injury recoveries so that assessment comes with a large grain of salt.
“[Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne] and Jack have kind of split the first-team reps,” Kelly said Thursday. “And we’ve continued to work [freshman Tyler Buchner’s] package that he’s traditionally had in weeks past. We’re getting all three of them ready right now.”
With Buchner presumed fully recovered from a tight hamstring, Notre Dame will trot out a two-quarterback look no matter Coan’s health. The two passers will be quite different, obviously, with Buchner likely still a run-first option intended to sow some ground concerns for the Bearcats defense, lest the Irish offense be entirely one-dimensional.
“Each one of them is so different in that they bring different traits and the offense has to gear toward what their strengths are and what your offensive capabilities are,” Kelly said when discussing his experience using multiple quarterbacks, not exactly a rarity in his career. “… It was easier for me at different junctions to use guys that were dissimilar, (rather) than similar, because you can clearly carve out what they were going to do.”
In that respect, Notre Dame is well set.
When @JacCollinsworth asked WR Braden Lenzy to discuss the differences between #NotreDame's QBs:
"I'll take the easy route. Jack is the most experienced veteran presence. Buch is probably the most athletic, best runner. I would say Drew is a little funny, Drew is a little wild."
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 30, 2021
Kelly admitted Pyne may have more escapability than Coan, even when Coan is fully healthy, but then pointed out Coan has more experience with reads and pressures, equally crucial to the position and equally vital when playing behind a struggling offensive line.
While sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody (sprained ankle) may return to action this weekend — either in a full-time role or splitting time with sophomore Tosh Baker and/or freshman Joe Alt — there is little reason to think the Irish offensive line will magically coalesce this weekend. Relying on Buchner to manufacture rushing yards will remain a necessity.
Notre Dame ranks dead last in FBS in yards/rush before contact (0.63). The next worst P5 team is Washington, almost double at 1.13. Meanwhile, since the start of 2020, Cincinnati is allowing 1.69 yards/rush before contact — 17th-best in the country.
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) September 27, 2021
Bluntly, Notre Dame will need to manufacture points against the best defense it has played yet this season. That has become the challenge for second-year Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, something he has leaned into by focusing on his personnel more than anything else.
“He puts a little more of his own spin on things,” senior receiver Braden Lenzy said to Jac Collinsworth on this week’s episode of the ND on NBC Podcast. “It’s definitely more play-calling toward players rather than play-calling toward the set plays, just putting players into what he’s envisioning for a play.
“He’s building plays around the players, the personnel he has. He’s made our jobs easier and played more to our strengths, set things up to allow more free access and things like that.”
When Lenzy mentions “free access,” he is referring to default holes in defensive coverages, essentially spots the opponent gives up so as to prevent bigger plays. In theory, those plays are available no matter whom the Irish start at quarterback, hence that game-time decision on Coan’s injury not creating an excuse for Notre Dame to lean on.
Defensively, the Irish dominance a week ago has assuaged most concerns. Even without fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish for a second week, Notre Dame should meet the challenge of Cincinnati fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. He is less likely to gift the Irish with five turnovers — Ridder has thrown two interceptions this season; the Bearcats have lost six turnovers — but there are other ways for Notre Dame to create points out of thin air.
Continued aggressiveness on punt and kick returns, for example, should help the Irish flip field position. Some will read that and roll their eyes, but the suggestion goes beyond thinking of another 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from sophomore running back Chris Tyree. When the offense could not find any consistency whatsoever against Wisconsin, junior running back Kyren Williams returned three punts for a total of 20 yards. Two of those pushed Notre Dame past its own 20-yard-line, and the third set up an Irish drive from the Badgers’ half of the field.
In a top-10 matchup between two teams already with reason to think about the Playoff, those small margins may swing a season. Controlling field position, relying on turnovers and taking the easy yards offense may be Notre Dame’s best offensive approach most weeks, and especially when it might be looking to an unproven “wild” card in his first career start.
The Irish may not have their starting quarterback, or they may, but regardless, that swing will go in only one definitive direction.
KELLY ON PYNE COMPARED TO COAN
“I would say probably just a little bit more escapability. I think more than anything else, he just has an ability to find people on the move a little bit more than maybe Jack. Jack’s going to be in much more of a progression read. They’re much more similar than dissimilar. Jack’s probably a little bit more experienced relative to seeing things — third-down pressures and things like that. There’s kind of a give-take there in terms of what each guy brings to the lineup.”
When Kelly refers to those pressures, he is referring to plays like Pyne’s second series against the Badgers. On the first play after Williams returned a punt past midfield, Pyne did not diagnose a blitz, leaving a linebacker unblocked on his blind side, leading to a strip sack and Wisconsin taking over possession fewer than 40 yards from the end zone.
Pyne may have gone 6-of-8 for 81 yards in his spot duty, but his showing was far from mistake-free.