SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even in Notre Dame’s 24-13 loss to No. 7 Cincinnati on Saturday, a few moments stood out to remember. Most notably, senior receiver Braden Lenzy’s contested touchdown catch halfway through the fourth quarter was not only an impressive snag, but it also gave the No. 9 Irish (4-1) hope, bringing them back to within three points—wait, nope, four points after fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer missed the point after attempt.
Notre Dame began the second half lucky to be down only 17-0. Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne’s two touchdown drives gave the Irish hope, even as the offense was still only mediocre after halftime, averaging 5.63 yards per play and gaining no yards on a momentum-stalling three-and-out between those touchdowns.
His second third-quarter appearance in two weeks, Pyne treated stepping in as a performance substitute against the Bearcats just as he did when replacing starter Jack Coan as an injury substitute last week against then-No. 18 Wisconsin.
“It’s what can I do to go help my teammates, go out there and execute whatever play [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] calls,” Pyne said after completing 9-of-22 passes for 143 yards. “My heart didn’t drop, there was no nerves, there was no anything. Same calm I had the whole entire first half.”
That ease and confidence may be Pyne’s best characteristics given his statistical play has not separated him from Coan by much thus far.
That confidence in himself begat confidence in Lenzy, despite the two clearly not being on the same page on an earlier crucial fourth down, Notre Dame’s first drive of the second half stalling out at the Cincinnati 30-yard-line when Pyne read an option route one way and Lenzy another. Going back to Lenzy on a red-zone shot paid off for Pyne.
“Braden works really hard in practice — he probably runs harder, he’s really fast, he does that every single day in practice,” Pyne said. “Sometimes we don’t connect in practice, but he’s always running his butt off, so it’s awesome to see him finally come down with one.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s play of the game is not a highlight. It is a lowlight, to be charitable.
As bad as Coan’s goal-line interception was in costing the Irish a scoring opportunity, and as bad as freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner’s poor pocket presence deep in his own territory was in leading to another interception and excellent Bearcats field position, the most egregious Notre Dame turnover was Chris Tyree’s fumbled kickoff return.
The way the ball hit Tyree and caromed through his arms suggests his eyes were already ahead of him, looking for a crease to provide fireworks for a second week in a row. That type of aggression from a kickoff returner is vital when the corresponding offense is as moribund as the Irish attack has been for weeks now, but that aggression cannot come at the expense of possession.
“We turned the ball over on offense, special teams, didn’t cover very well (on defense), and we didn’t coach very well today,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… Cincinnati was the better football team today.”
Tyree’s oh-so-avoidable gaffe gifted the Bearcats possession inside the 20-yard-line. The Irish defense held them to a field goal, but the damage was done. Notre Dame had dug itself a hole too deep to come out of.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Cincinnati fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder finished with 297 yards and two touchdowns while completing 59.4 percent of his passes and running for 26 yards and the game-sealing score on 10 carries. He played like a veteran with mastery in all facets of the game.
“He played one hell of a game today,” Irish junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said. “He was just able to make the plays when we just couldn’t.”
Ridder tortured Notre Dame with his down-field shots, especially in completing three passes of at least 22 yards on a touchdown drive just before halftime to take a commanding 17-0 lead. He finished with five passes of at least 22 yards.
“It’s what I expected,” Kelly said. “We were more concerned with the deep ball, and the deep ball I thought he threw exceedingly well. That’s what hurt us today. He made a couple nice throws.”
That 32-yard touchdown pass to Lenzy gave the Irish an explosive score in each of their five games this season, but it was the first game in which explosive score yardage made up less than 10 percent of Notre Dame’s production (9.4 percent, to be exact). The previous low had been 14.9 percent last week against the Badgers, and on the season the Irish had gained 26.4 percent of their yardage on touchdowns of at least 20 yards (now down to 23.2 percent).
Managing just one such play against Cincinnati is an obvious issue — Fewer big touchdowns equal fewer points, duh — but when the offense has struggled to maintain drives, the need for explosiveness is even more vital against a stout defense like the Bearcats’.
#NotreDame's first three games: Eight touchdowns of 23 yards or longer, making up 28.7 percent of their total production.
ND's last two games: Two explosive scores, 36-yard TD to Kevin Austin last week, 32-yard TD to Braden Lenzy yesterday. 11.7 percent of total production.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 3, 2021
Notre Dame sophomore left tackle Tosh Baker was ruled out before the game — an injury, per Irish Illustrated’s reporting, not a pandemic issue — forcing sophomore Michael Carmody back into the starting lineup despite a plaguing ankle sprain. When freshman Joe Alt took over for Carmody, Notre Dame was very literally playing a fourth-string left tackle who was a high school tight end a year ago, all because of injuries to the first three left tackles. (Freshman Blake Fisher has been out since before halftime in the season opener with a meniscus injury that Will Likely cost him the season.)
Baker’s status moving forward should be updated Monday.
Fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish did not play against Cincinnati, but Kelly said last week that Hinish is cleared to play against Virginia Tech this coming Saturday (7:30 ET; ACC Network).
Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer came up limping in the fourth quarter, apparently tweaking “pretty badly” a groin injury that has been bothering him for a month.
“He’s just a warrior,” Kelly said.
Mayer still caught eight passes for 93 yards, including 52 yards after the catch, increasingly the only reliable piece of the Irish offense.
Today was the first home loss for all of #NotreDame's roster except for the fifth-years. And even Avery Davis, Jonathan Doerer, Drew White, Kurt Hinish, Josh Lugg and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had all suffered only one loss in South Bend in their careers before today.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 2, 2021