SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took an abysmal start, Notre Dame’s expected quarterback of the future suffering a sprained ankle and then an off week, but the closing two drives at Virginia Tech may have finally shown the Irish what offense they need to run this season, just in time to install the new approach during the idle week.
Notre Dame covered 130 yards on 14 plays in those game-tying and -winning drives against the Hokies, a bit better than opening with two drives totaling 144 yards on 24 plays in Saturday night’s 31-16 win against USC, but similar enough to make the comparison clear. When urgency sparks quickness, the Irish (6-1) can create offensively, something that was tougher to discern during the plodding affairs against Wisconsin and Cincinnati.
Why wait until dire moments spur urgency? They asked themselves that very question while self-scouting during the midseason break.
“We have it when we need it, so why go away from that,” junior running back Kyren Williams said Saturday after taking 31 offensive touches for 180 yards against the Trojans. “Having that tempo creates that sense of urgency as an offense that we have to go get things done.”
Notre Dame averaged 5.9 yards per play against USC before kneeling out the clock on the final drive, a tick up from the 5.81 at Virginia Tech and a callback to the first few weeks of offensive efficiency when the Irish topped 6.0 yards per play against both Florida State and Toledo. Then came the lulls, reaching a nadir of 3.5 yards per play against the Badgers.
The widespread assumptions were that sluggish look tied entirely to Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s weaknesses, but it may have been that Notre Dame was not properly capitalizing on his strengths.
“We’ve got an experienced guy that’s accurate throwing the ball,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He has a live arm, he can make a lot of throws, you saw the throws he makes. He’s not afraid to put the ball in tight windows, and he can see the field very well.
“What we needed to do as coaches was we needed to put him in a position that makes him feel the most comfortable. It’s better that he doesn’t have a structured offense that slows him down. We needed to put him in shotgun. I know that sounds crazy because he kind of grew up with much more of a direct snap play-action, but that’s not the best version of him, at least that’s what we felt.”
It took Notre Dame longer than it would have liked to figure that out, but understandably so. Coan played in the prototypical Badgers offense, something has not varied for years no matter who the quarterback has been. The assumption was, that was the best version of Coan, a calm quarterback who could make the plays but wasn’t often asked to. With the Irish, at least given the model of success of the last few years, that version would fit. But when Notre Dame’s ground game proved ineffective this season, that design needed to change. Runs on first and second downs before a pass on third down played right into the opposition’s hands.
The quarterback needed to change, but, as it turns out, not necessarily by substitution.
“I would have liked to have been smarter and not have had to go through all this,” Kelly said in a moment ripe for being taken out of context. “At the end of the day, we didn’t have [Coan] here, we didn’t know really until we played games. If we had three (or) four exhibition games, maybe we could have figured it out. We really needed games to figure out where his sweet spot was.”
That ending at Virginia Tech made it clear. With time constraints forcing quick snaps and quicker reads, Coan excelled. Compared to his three drives of 17 yards on 13 plays in the first half, those final two drives were more different than night is from day. They were a look at a modern offense after weeks of 19th-century football.
Right out of the gates against the Trojans, that modern offense had gained speed after two weeks of downtime. Notre Dame regularly snapped the ball with 25 seconds left on the play clock. Coan did not often spend time scanning the field from the pocket, instead capitalizing on routes designed for quick reads. A five-yard out may not be inherently designed to turn into a chunk gain, but it still puts the defense on its heels and with the next snap only 15 seconds away, USC’s defense never truly reset.
“When we have five yards for a quick out, that’s five yards for second-and-five, right back on the ball, and now we run it, it’s third-and-two,” Williams said. “Having that tempo as an offense, being able to get set and snap the ball before the defense can get their call in — we need to keep working on and getting better at it.”
In the first half, Notre Dame threw 10 passes on 1st-and-10s and rushed the ball three times. In the first half two weeks ago, the Irish threw four such passes compared to nine rushes in the first half. Then in Coan’s tying and winning drives, those ratios flipped to four passes and two rushes.
The first four Irish plays against USC were all passes, Coan going 3-of-4 for 25 yards. The run-run-pass pattern had been thoroughly abandoned.
In #NotreDame's seventh game of the season, the Irish have allowed their 25th sack. That matches the 2020 season total of 25 sacks allowed in 12 games.
That pace has been considerably slowed with only two sacks allowed at VT and only one so far tonight. #NDInsider
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) October 24, 2021
“We were in predictable third-down situations,” Kelly said. “We wanted to get out of the predictable situations with Jack. That was part of the self-scouting that allowed us to start thinking about let’s throw it on first down, let’s be a little bit more unpredictable with him.”
Coan finished Saturday night’s opening drive 6-of-9 for 49 yards and it would have been 7-of-9 for 66 yards and a touchdown if senior receiver Kevin Austin had not dropped a third-down crossing route in the red zone. Coan finished the first quarter 10-of-13 for 79 yards with a touchdown, a start reminiscent of that closing flurry at Virginia Tech and eerily similar to his week-one outburst at Florida State.
Those moments of efficiency remind Coan of a time before Wisconsin, a time he ran a hurry-up offense with enough success to earn scholarship offers from Michigan, Louisville and West Virginia.
“I haven’t really done that since high school, and I obviously had a lot of success in high school with it,” Coan said after he finished 20-of-28 for 189 yards. “It gets me into a little bit of a rhythm, a few quick completions, gets me rolling a little bit. Additionally, the defense sometimes has trouble subbing, getting lined up, so it helps us a little. …
“It’s something a little different, something we’ve had success with earlier in the year, so it was something I’m definitely in favor of and excited about.”
Stringing together five drives of at least 70 yards was a result of more than an offense testing the speed limit or the realities of field position allowing such a generalization in the first place. USC’s defense is the worst Notre Dame has faced to date and will remain such for at least another week. The surprise of the lead-footed Coan leading a quick-paced offense certainly compounded the Trojans’ defensive struggles.
“They weren’t expecting hurry-up Jack to be out there,” Kelly said. “He’s been less than that all year.”
Hurry-up Jack won’t catch North Carolina by surprise next weekend, but the Irish should still commit to the rapid snaps and quick reads, not just because Hurry-up Jack has a certain lyrical rhythm to it. The comeback at Virginia Tech showed the immediate impact of its on-field rhythm. Installing that full throttle during the October break revealed a level of offense Notre Dame has lacked for most of the year.
“It was just trying to find what we felt like was his niche,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen enough snapshots of what it was. This was one game, but it was a good snapshot of what we think he can be the rest of the year for us.”