SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With a commanding 17-0 lead, Cincinnati seemingly had a chance to put away No. 9 Notre Dame for good at the start of Saturday’s second half. The No. 9 Bearcats (4-0) would eventually do so with a Desmond Ridder touchdown scamper to seal a 24-13 win, but at the start of the second half, a possible three-touchdown lead seemed like it would be too much for the Irish to overcome after their faltering offense gained 144 yards on 39 plays in the first half, a paltry 3.69 yards per play average. Notre Dame had put together only one sincere drive, its opening drive, and it ended with a deflating goal-line interception thrown by Jack Coan.
A 20-0 or 24-0 lead would assuredly doom the Irish (4-1), so as the Bearcats marched 58 yards on their first five plays of the second half, Notre Dame could see its unbeaten season slipping away.
At some point during that drive — marked by Bearcats senior receiver Alec Pierce hauling in a 45-yard reception and ending with a missed field goal — Irish head coach Brian Kelly apparently changed his mind.
After halftime, Kelly told ND on NBC sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen that Notre Dame would not change quarterbacks in the second half, flatly saying Coan was fine. There would have been no incentive to mislead Tappen, particularly not in an off-camera interview that would not get relayed to air until Cincinnati’s entire coaching staff was back engaged with the game and unable to access the NBC broadcast. There was no angle of gamesmanship for Kelly to insist he was sticking with Coan if his mind had already been made up otherwise.
Most likely, Kelly saw the Bearcats once again threaten to put the game entirely out of reach and a desperate need for a spark sunk in. Enter sophomore Drew Pyne (pictured at top).
“Obviously we got behind and felt like we needed to make a change, a spark there,” Kelly said after the loss that snapped a 26-game home winning streak. “That’s why we went with Drew there in the second half.”
Coan had completed 15 of 22 passes for 114 yards with 52 of those yards coming on six completions on Notre Dame’s first drive, a drive that calamitously ended with Coan throwing a jump ball to a Cincinnati defender at the goal line.
Kelly credited Coan for that drive’s distance more than he faulted him for its end.
“He led it very effectively when he was in there, in particular the first drive,” Kelly said. “He made a bad decision obviously.
“As we got to the half, clearly we thought, I thought, [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] thought that we needed to shift course quickly, and we did.”
Not at the half. After the half. Even Pyne did not know he was heading into the game until back on the field after halftime. This reporter failed to nail down exactly when Kelly told Pyne to get ready, as only so many follow-up questions are acceptable in post-game availability and walking Pyne through every beat of that sequence felt superfluous, but it was some point after the Irish had left the locker room and thus some point after Kelly talked with Tappen.
“After we ran onto the field, coach Kelly came up to me and told me I was going in,” Pyne said.
That sounds sooner than Cincinnati’s field-goal attempt, but whenever it was, that conversation occurring after halftime suggests a somehow unexpected shift, a spur-of-the-moment change in mind.
Coan had struggled in that first half. That was unquestionable. Kelly said he never wavered in starting him because the biggest reason Coan would have lost his starting gig was injury, and Wally Pipp’ing someone for something of a sprained ankle would be mildly extreme. But falling behind 17-0 to the Bearcats gave more reason for a swap.
“Drew came in, gave us the little spark we needed,” sophomore Michael Mayer said. “… He’s got confidence. You guys can see that when you watch him play. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the offense very well. He’s confident in his throws.”
Pyne completed nine of 22 passes for 143 yards with one touchdown, a throw of faith in senior receiver Braden Lenzy.
Pyne unquestionably moved the Irish offense more than Coan did, but he hardly did it efficiently. The offense averaging 5.63 yards per play in the second half was an improvement, but it remains far from sustainable.
Pyne brings “escapability,” to use Kelly’s word of choice that is so used in football circles it is now an actual word in broader dictionaries.
“He just has a confidence, a bit of a swagger to him,” Kelly said. “There’s no stat for that, just a sense and a feel.”
Then Kelly added an understated exclamation point to the quarterback question mark.
“He didn’t start, so it didn’t impress me that much, or he would have been the starter.”
If that line was meant glibly, it lacked Kelly’s usual smirking giveaway.
Starting or not, Pyne’s second half was an improvement compared to Coan’s first half. In that regard, perhaps Notre Dame’s success on the opening drive was Pyrrhic. It emboldened Kelly’s faith in Coan for longer than the Irish could afford Saturday, so long as to have the quarterback question linger into the second half rather than simply into halftime.
Kelly let that question linger further afterward.
“Clearly we can’t continue down this road of, who’s the flavor of the week here?” he said. “We’re going to have to sit down and figure this out and decide which direction we want to go. It doesn’t give us the kind of continuity and consistency in offense that we need.”
One would think that would have applied to entering the second half, too. And to be clear, some of this emphasized confusion stems from the fact that Tappen is a pro’s pro as a sideline reporter, and while the sideline interview is hardly a sacrosanct space, Kelly would have had absolutely no incentive to be duplicitous at that moment. Not to mention, Pyne was as unaware as anyone.
So let's just assume now #NotreDame will not declare a starting quarterback before taking the field at Virginia Tech in a week.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 2, 2021
“It’s all on the table,” Kelly said, including the thought of freshman Tyler Buchner’s ground-dependent package. “I’ll be as transparent as I can with you guys about the quarterback situation. We’re trying to figure it out, too.
“We know we can’t continuously go into the game and just say, who’s up next? We have to figure this thing out and build some continuity to it.”
Right now, just as when Cincinnati was driving down the field for a potential knockout blow, it seems to be just who is up next for Notre Dame at quarterback.