Any other week, Notre Dame’s and Jack Coan’s success against USC would have eliminated any remaining questions about the Irish quarterbacks. With any other opponent next on the schedule, this entire Halloween weekend could be spent once again praising Coan’s efficient passing against the Trojans in last week’s 31-16 win. But it is not any other week and it is not any other opponent. North Carolina (4-3) faces No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) on Saturday night (7:30 ET; NBC), which means some time needs to be spent discussing Irish freshman Tyler Buchner, despite Coan’s showing a week ago.
The Tar Heels are that susceptible to a multi-dimensional quarterback. In facing five quarterbacks with some mobility thus far this season, North Carolina gave up 391 yards and seven touchdowns to them on 45 carries, an 8.7 yards per rush average. Those numbers are adjusted for sacks, but even recognizing the sacks emphasizes the idea of Buchner getting some run this Saturday night. Of the Tar Heels’ 14 sacks this season, eight came in their two games against stationary quarterbacks while six total were against those five mobile threats.
Fortunately for the long-wanted death of the Notre Dame quarterback controversy, the Irish never intended to devote the entire offense to Coan, so this concept does not usurp the newfound stability. Some Buchner situations would arise no matter the opponent, and perhaps particularly against North Carolina.
“We hit the right switch, and let’s just obviously duplicate that during the week,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Let’s move in that direction, let’s replicate it, let’s continue to use the two quarterbacks in the manner that we did.
“It seemed to be efficient offensively, and it got everybody involved in the right way. We’re going to move forward in a similar fashion.”
Buchner’s role was not a large one against USC — appearing in three drives with two passes completed for 24 yards and three carries for 11 yards and a touchdown — but his moments were executed well. That is not meant as a callback to Kelly’s opening weekend word choice, but an emphasis of his theme this week.
Notre Dame did not pick up the tempo of its offense to try to run the defense ragged. That was simply a natural and welcome side effect. The Irish did it because the offense had worked best—had executed best this season in moments demanding quickness, namely the game-winning drives against Toledo and Virginia Tech.
“Pace of play didn’t really allow us to do much more other than execution,” Kelly said. “Our execution was much better and we’ll continue obviously to fall on execution over just playing fast. … More than anything else, we got our quarterback to operate a little bit quicker, which allowed him to play a little bit freer and I think that’s not necessarily a surprise element as much as it was we were executing better because our quarterback was feeling much more comfortable and being allowed to move the offense a little bit faster.”
Coan shined in that freedom, but Buchner did not slow it down. Coan will maintain the primary role this weekend, but how much will Buchner be used to expose North Carolina’s defensive struggles against mobile quarterbacks?
To some degree, a quick start — be it from execution in tempo or simply a big play, such as a long Buchner run — will be vital for Notre Dame. Without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, the Irish will be at greater risk in a shootout than usual. Seniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown handled the Tar Heels’ offense a year ago, and they paired well together against USC a week ago after Hamilton logged only eight snaps before his knee injury.
“More than anything else, their confidence is in playing together,” Kelly said. “… Playing high leverage snaps against USC, obviously, they feel really good going into this game.”
Let’s talk about DJ Brown, who is replacing Kyle Hamilton, and is having the most under the radar good season of anyone on the team. He’s played 168 of 511 available snaps, but is 9th on the team in tackles with 24.
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 27, 2021
Griffith and Brown are worthwhile safeties, at the minimum, but neither is near Hamilton. No other safety in the country is, so the same can obviously be said of Isaiah Pryor and sophomore KJ Wallace. Exposing the defensive backline, sans its safety net, to North Carolina star quarterback Sam Howell in crucial moments would be tempting a quarterback looking for a signature moment in his final collegiate season.
Howell has not had the magic of his first two years in Chapel Hill, but it still remains a constant possibility. The dual-threat quarterback can improvise his way down the field in more ways than nearly any other passer in the country.
Buchner is not at that level, not by any means, but given this exact opponent and its specific weakness, he may get a chance to preempt Howell’s inevitable big plays with one of his own.
"That isn’t to say #NotreDame is going to roll early and it’s going to be over before halftime, but when all is said and done …"
Appreciated @clbrownhoops making time this week and, more than that, for his blunt analysis of North Carolina's chances this weekend. https://t.co/7cIWmo47hs
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 28, 2021
SPEAKING OF BIG PLAYS
Notre Dame might — or might not — have sophomore running back Chris Tyree back after he missed the USC game with a turf toe injury suffered before the idle week at Virginia Tech. As of Thursday afternoon, Kelly portrayed Tyree’s return as a distinct possibility, though some disclaimer should be added here about Kelly’s constant optimism about players returning from injury. If Tyree had needed to have his foot amputated during the off week, Kelly would probably still consider him a game-time decision this week.
“We’ve made the progress necessary for him to be penciled in on kickoff [Thursday],” Kelly said. “So he’ll get the first-team reps on kickoff and he’ll get reps [as] our second-team running back. The natural progress.
“Now he’s going to have to show us today at full-speed that he’s ready to go, but we like where we are at going into today’s practice.”
#NotreDame is favored by 3.5 against North Carolina tomorrow. You might not line that hook, but …
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 29, 2021