Notre Dame is clearly incapable of playing a ho-hum game in 2021, or even a game that is merely close rather than riddled with quarterback questions and capped by a dramatic comeback.
Even for Brian Kelly, the Irish quarterback dynamics in Saturday’s 32-29 win at Virginia Tech may have reached a new level of absurdity. Kelly benched his veteran starter after a dismal first quarter only for his promising freshman to backslide into the mistakes of youth before injury forced that veteran starter back into the fray. At that point, with No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1) trailing by eight points late in the fourth quarter, Jack Coan seemed to have the odds stacked against him.
But at no point did he flinch, proceeding to complete five of six passes for 58 yards and then converting a baffling two-point conversion by finding senior receiver Kevin Austin to tie the game at 29. After the Hokies went three-and-out, Coan again showed impressive poise, completing two quick passes for 35 yards to put the Irish into field-goal range.
Fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer took that chance to hit his second game-winning field goal of the year, both on the road, even as a fan used some version of a laser to try to distract him, per Kelly. As his head coach protested that illegal distraction to officials, the veteran specialist eventually told Kelly, “Coach, let’s just kick it.”
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) October 10, 2021
“I’ve been in a lot of games, coached a lot of games, but I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a group of guys that had such resolve and mental toughness, that regardless of the situation, they just kept playing,” Kelly said. “… As a coach, what I take from these games is watching a guy like a Jack Coan come in, under those circumstances, and rise above it.”
Those circumstances was a reference to Notre Dame’s whole game, but specifically, to its quarterbacks. Though Coan did not make any egregious mistakes while he struggled in the first quarter, those three drives gained a total of 17 yards, going three-and-out twice on possessions that lost yards. There was no sign of promise that would discourage Kelly from inserting freshman Tyler Buchner.
After Buchner’s first drive led to a quick touchdown, the notable moment was when he took the field on a second drive. Kelly had said Buchner would play in his usual situational role, no matter who Notre Dame started at quarterback, but the second consecutive drive implied something more than a situational substitution, and Buchner delivered.
“We have to have a running game, we have to run the football, we have to have a different mentality about the way we’re doing things,” Kelly said. “[Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] and I talked, I said, ‘Leave [Buchner] in. He’s playing. Commit yourself to your play sheet. He’s playing and he’s not coming out, call the game that way.’”
Counting that first drive, the Irish scored three times in quick order with Buchner at the helm.
“He did some really good things and then he did some things that are inexperience,” Kelly said. “… He’s getting there, but he’s not there yet, and the maturation process continues.”
Indeed, Buchner’s inexperience allowed Virginia Tech’s defense to score, courtesy of a gift of an interception to Hokies cornerback Jermaine Waller which Waller returned for a touchdown and a 22-21 lead entering the fourth quarter, and Buchner was lucky to not have thrown another pick-six. When he did eventually throw a second interception, he also suffered an apparent ankle injury.
Re-enter Coan, a move that may have been coming regardless of the injury.
“[Buchner] needed help today,” Kelly said. “We had to go to the bullpen. Enter Mariano Rivera today, enter Sandman. [Coan] closed it out for us.”
Drew White: "Jack (Coan) is a stone cold killer."
— Irish Sports Daily (@ISDUpdate) October 10, 2021
Without sophomore tight end Michael Mayer (groin strain), senior receiver Joe Wilkins (MCL tear) and sophomore running back Chris Tyree (turf toe) throughout the fourth quarter, not to mention Buchner, Notre Dame had little choice but just to keep playing with what it had. Coan made the most of it. Even junior running back Kyren Williams missed the closing moments after a blow to the head necessitated the Irish doctors work through concussion testing with him — he was not concussed, only frustrated to not be playing.
“Just do my job,” Coan said to ACC Network sideline reporter Kelsey Riggs immediately after the win. “I have a lot of great playmakers and linemen around me. … You continue to stay focused and help out as much as you can.”
Coan finished with 108 yards on 9-of-12 passing, with 7-of-9 and 93 yards of that coming in the waning minutes.
“It’s all about winning, doesn’t matter how pretty it is,” he said.
Buchner went 6-of-14 for 113 yards, adding 67 yards on 12 rush attempts. His rushing helped create both space and a mindset change for Williams, who took 19 carries for 81 yards, including one hard-fought touchdown.
“We were popping,” Williams said. “… It wasn’t two yards, it wasn’t really negative (plays), we found runs that were productive and we stuck to them. Shoutout to the coaches and the O-linemen for doing what we do best and giving us running backs a chance.”
#NotreDame have a tough rushing day today?
"Today was like a coming out party for us!"
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 10, 2021
The Irish rushed for 185 yards on 41 rushes (sacks adjusted), an average of 4.51 yards per carry.
How could Coan go from the textbook definition of ineffective to leading two clutch drives with nary a mistake to win the game?
“It’s a combination of things,” Kelly said. “Things start to slow down a little bit, guys get a little bit tired, he sees the game a little bit differently, he settles down a little bit.
“You still have to make those throws. You still have to be decisive. You watched what I watched. He was decisive, the ball came out of his hands, the reads were correct, and it looked like he was shooting fish in the barrel with the timeliness of the ball coming out of the hand compared to where it was earlier.”
When push came to shove, Coan’s true nature revealed itself. Not only was that the accuracy and efficiency usually seen in Notre Dame’s practices, but that was the mentality that led the Irish coaching staff to pursue Coan in the transfer portal and one that quickly won over the Notre Dame roster.
“He has that look in his eye, a lot of confidence in him,” fifth-year Irish linebacker and captain Drew White said. “Says a lot when he goes in at the end of the game there, has that look to him. There’s some guys that just don’t have it. He’s got the ability to be clutch and lead game-winning drives.”
3:21 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Raheem Blackshear 7-yard rush. Parker Romo PAT good. Virginia Tech 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 80 yards, 3:54)
10:35 — Virginia Tech field goal. Romo 19 yards. Virginia Tech 10, Notre Dame 0. (14 plays, 59 yards, 6:17)
6:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tyler Buchner 3-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Virginia Tech 10, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:44)
0:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 8-yard pass from Buchner. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 10. (9 plays, 80 yards, 0:59)
0:00 — Virginia Tech field goal. Romo 52 yards. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 13. (5 plays, 46 yards, 0:24)
8:53 — Virginia Tech field goal. Romo 26 yards. Virginia Tech 16, Notre Dame 14. (11 plays, 61 yards, 6:01)
4:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 10-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Virginia Tech 16. (4 plays, 29 yards, 1:56)
0:50 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Jermaine Waller 26-yard interception return. 2-point conversion attempt intercepted by Bo Bauer. Virginia Tech 22, Notre Dame 21.
3:55 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Braxton Burmeister 19-yard rush. Romo PAT good. Virginia Tech 29, Notre Dame 21. (8 plays, 56 yards, 3:43)
2:26 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 4-yard touchdown from Jack Coan. 2-point conversion attempt good, Kevin Austin 2-yard catch. Virginia Tech 29, Notre Dame 29. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:29)
0:17 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Notre Dame 32, Virginia Tech 29. (7 plays, 45 yards, 1:39)