Notre Dame has a decision to make. Rather, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had a decision to make, one he had made by Monday afternoon.
Who will start at quarterback for No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) at Virginia Tech (7:30 ET; ACCN)? Kelly has opted to keep quiet his choice between Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne, but it was a choice made from the outset of the week, one that weighed Coan’s experience in hostile road environments against Pyne’s mobility and limited effectiveness to date.
“Of the guys, who gives us the best chance to win,” Kelly said Thursday. “This is still about winning football games, so when we added all those things up, that’s how we came up with the decision.”
Trying to handicap Kelly’s choice is an exercise in overthinking every aspect of football. Coan does have far more experience than Pyne, but he has also inarguably struggled this season. Then again, Pyne has not exactly set the world afire, averaging just 7.5 yards per attempt and completing only 50 percent of his passes.
We appear headed for a Drew Pyne era, and he's clearly outperformed Coan and seems to be a better fit with OL. Still, Pyne has had 7 of 26 pass attempts broken up and will have to balance creating enough offense w/ avoiding turnovers. pic.twitter.com/he5Si5YRcv
— Michael Bryan (@michaelbryanMB) October 5, 2021
The better handicap this weekend is how many quarterbacks the Irish will play. Freshman Tyler Buchner may still see a cameo as a ground-based threat, but otherwise, Notre Dame needs to commit to either Coan or Pyne and stick with the decision.
“It’s important to really rally behind one quarterback,” Kelly said. “… We need an established singular offensive structure, but if we feel like we need to add to it to be better at moving the football, I wouldn’t say Tyler Buchner is out of the options of playing in any game this year.”
Focusing on one quarterback gains even more importance as the Irish receivers ranks dwindle. Senior Joe Wilkins will miss the rest of the year with an MCL tear, while sophomore tight end Michael Mayer has measured his workload this week in an attempt to be full-go this weekend with an abductor strain.
A timeline for how #NotreDame got to 6 available scholarship WRs:
-Winter: Jafar Armstrong, Micah Jones transfer
-Spring: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, Jordan Johnson, Jay Brunelle transfer
-In-season: Lawrence Keys leaves, Xavier Watts moves to defense, Joe Wilkins season-ending injury
— Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_) October 7, 2021
“We’ve done a little bit (more) each day,” Kelly said. “We’ll do a little bit more today in the red zone with him and in third down, which are obviously key components to his effectiveness for us. It’s been a good progression for us and we feel pretty optimistic that he’s going to be able to help us on Saturday.”
With or without Mayer at something near full-strength, Notre Dame will need to deploy freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie more often. Kelly pointed to a lack of a rotation as part of the cause of some drops late last week, and with even fewer receivers on hand now, that rotation will become more a necessity.
“[Styles has] got to play more and he will play more, and Deion as well,” Kelly said Monday. “The volume of reps for those guys out on the perimeter is such that they need a blow. They need to get an opportunity to feel strong in the third and fourth quarter, so that’s why you’ll see more of those guys.”
But aside from those receivers, aside from Mayer’s health, aside from the rotating injury list at left tackle — sophomore Michael Carmody (sprained ankle) practiced this week while classmate Tosh Baker was in the concussion protocol, and Kelly volunteered the possibility of junior Quinn Carroll seeing some playing time — the Irish need to find an answer at quarterback.
Well, again, Kelly insisted he had settled on an answer. The world just does not know which quarterback it is yet. Many around here will want to assume Pyne based on Coan’s struggles, but they overlook Pyne’s own inarguable shortcomings and the perks of a veteran behind center. Either way, Kelly’s greatest mistake in the past was trying to choose two quarterbacks. Picking one and sticking with him, not only for this week but for at least a few weeks, will be vital to reviving the 2021 season.
“First of all, you have to address why you fell short,” Kelly said. “Where did we fall short in our preparation? Where did we fall short in our process? That’s where we start. Then, once we identify that, we close the book and move on, and we trust our process and go back to it and commit to it. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Notre Dame fell short against Cincinnati for more reasons than quarterback play. A struggling offensive line again could not create push. Fumbling a kickoff return is always a crippling error. Dropped passes, caused by fatigue or mere lack of concentration, are avoidable mishaps. But flipping quarterbacks without an inherent plan compounded the issues. Changing the quarterback after halftime so casually that the backup did not know about the change until the second half had begun is not the process behind stability.
The Irish reset will start with a decision at quarterback, a decision that was made a week ago, but one the world continues to wonder about.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be a big surprise,” Kelly said Thursday. “Virginia Tech has seen all three of these guys play.”
This tweet from the last time ND played in Blacksburg has been getting more attention this week. I’m definitely looking forward to being back down there this week. https://t.co/WDX2MYdhaN
— Robert Franklin (@TheRobFranklin) October 7, 2021