Brian Kelly skips transparent gamesmanship, names Jack Coan as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback

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Brian Kelly is not going to worry about giving USC a nominal heads-up before the return of the long-standing rivalry Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC). While most coaches would waste time with tranparent gamesmanship before facing a rival — a tactic the Irish head coach bordered on before traveling to Virginia Tech two weeks ago — Kelly went ahead and named Notre Dame’s starting quarterback on Monday.

Jack Coan continues to be the guy that we feel like gives us the best chance to win,” Kelly said. “A mixture of him with (freshman) Tyler Buchner, both of them.

“[Sophomore Drew Pyne] has done some really good things for us. If we feel like we’re in a situation where we need to call on him, we would, but I think right now, as we look at it, in my mind and I know in [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’], Jack would start and we’ll continue to get Tyler more playing time.”

That was blunt enough and without any qualifiers to preemptively assuage any speculation about Kelly misleading the media and/or the Trojans. Coan will start in primetime, looking to build off his dramatic game-tying and game-winning drives against the Hokies before the Irish idle week.

To some extent, Kelly sees Buchner and Coan as complementary. While Buchner may struggle with diagnosing coverages after playing only one season of his last three in high school and thus may excel with only a portion of the playbook, his mobility can wear out defensive fronts, making life easier for Coan later in the game when an efficient downfield offensive attack may be vital

“Those defensive linemen are chasing Tyler Buchner, and they are tiring out a little bit, so that pass rush is not quite the same in the first or second series as it is in that last series,” Kelly said.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame quarterback uncertainty has reached an unforeseen understandable status

A more cohesive offensive line could also make Coan’s life easier, something that appeared late in that 32-29 win at Virginia Tech, in part because junior Andrew Kristofic replaced classmate Zeke Correll at left guard. Kelly said Kristofic will start Saturday. Freshman Joe Alt will start at left tackle, another piece of the changes at Lane Stadium.

As much as the figurative headline above those moves is about how the offensive line can better protect Coan, it can also better open holes for the running game, just as Buchner’s running threat can draw defenders away from the running backs.

“It’s a process for us that we feel better about right now,” Kelly said. “We’ve made some changes on the offensive line. We think personnel makes a difference. We think Tyler adds a little bit more balance there because when you have to defend the quarterback, obviously, you can get more diversity.

“You’re going to continue to see an uptick in terms of the running game and it’s consistency.”

To help that cause, Notre Dame often turns to multiple tight ends. That has long been an Irish staple. But with sophomore Kevin Bauman out for a few more weeks (broken) leg and freshman Cane Berrong now out for the season with a torn MCL, Notre Dame is turning to sophomore Michael Carmody. In the time it took the left tackle to recover from a sprained ankle suffered on Sept. 11, Alt established himself as the entrenched left tackle with sophomore Tosh Baker an able backup.

Thus, in a twist that was genuinely unexpected, the Irish depth chart now lists Carmody among the tight ends.

“With Alt being the left tackle, now Carmody kind of slips into doing a little bit of doing everything for us,” Kelly said. “That kind of serves in that role for us. He’s a big guy that can add some size into that 13 package for us. … For the immediate purpose of needing that next tight end, he definitely serves a great role for us.”

INJURY UPDATES
Neither Buchner’s apparent ankle injury nor sophomore running back Chris Tyree’s turf toe injuries suffered at Lane Stadium kept them out of practice last week.

“Buchner is good,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t say he was 100 percent last week, but he got a lot of reps and should be 100 percent for this week.”

Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer “looks to be 100 percent” after sitting out that tilt with a groin injury.

“History Through the Headsets” offers inside look at Notre Dame’s 2020 Playoff run

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Notre Dame at Boston College
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It all began with a conversation over a belated Thanksgiving dinner.

Notre Dame had just picked up another win in a COVID-altered year — a road victory over No. 19 North Carolina — and all that remained between Notre Dame and an undefeated regular season was an embattled Syracuse team coming to South Bend the following week. As the focus turned from the Tar Heels to the Orange, then-defensive backs coach Terry Joseph posed an idea to senior defensive signal-callers Reed Gregory and John Mahoney: What if they wrote a book about the unusual season?

Mahoney (No. 25 above) said he and Gregory (No. 50) mulled it over, and it didn’t take long to decide in favor of taking on the project. The senior walk-ons were perfectly positioned to tell the story. Gregory would have a part-time schedule in the spring, and Mahoney was set to graduate a semester early. Having spent three seasons in the program before the pandemic altered so many aspects of their fourth, the pair could do justice to the feat of explaining the many differences in the 2020 year.

“I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday of practice,” Mahoney said to Inside the Irish’s Caroline Pineda this week. “We were on the sidelines signaling and all at once we both just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Is this something you want to do? You want to just give this a shot?'”

Less than a year later, their book, “History Through the Headsets: Inside Notre Dame’s Playoff Run During the Craziest Season in College Football History” will be published on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

“History Through the Headsets” not only offers a detailed retelling of the ups and downs of the 2020 season, including the double-overtime victory over Clemson and the two-week hiatus that threw doubt upon the entire campaign, but Gregory and Mahoney also make clear when they are offering individual opinions, interrupting the traditional retrospective with personalized insights into each moment.

While that September pause of all Notre Dame football activities worried the entire college football landscape of what it may portend, Gregory and Mahoney also maintain the mere willingness of the Irish to play at all in 2020 played a significant role for all of college football.

Calling it “Our Bold Opinion,” Gregory and Mahoney wrote the University’s choice to resume in-person classes was responsible for the resumption of Notre Dame football. Then they wrote, “Without Notre Dame football, there is no college football.”

Mahoney explained the rationale.

“Notre Dame’s willingness to be flexible and willingness to join a conference for the first time ever definitely helped college football have a season,” he said. 

That flexibility played into the heavily scrutinized COVID outbreak within the Irish football program that caused the postponement (and thus eventual cancellation) of the Wake Forest game. Gregory and Mahoney explain that then-defensive coordinator Clark Lea deviated from the usual routine in the unit’s first meeting back from the initial pause. Instead of leading a normal meeting, Lea showed the premiere episode from “The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules for Life,” a documentary series that began with an episode featuring legendary NBA coach Doc Rivers, culminating with his tenet, “Champions keep moving forward.”

Gregory writes that the documentary episode grabbed players’ focus and “seemed to make an impact,” which led Gregory to suggest the hiatus “might have been a small blessing in disguise.”

For teams across the country, the 2020 season was vastly different, but for the Irish, joining a conference positioned them for an especially strange season — drastically changing their schedule and temporarily removing their steadfast tradition of independence. It will be remembered not just for the barrage of COVID regulations and challenges, but also for what it contained: that hallmark win over Clemson, an undefeated regular season and the second College Football Playoff appearance in three years, a particularly poignant moment as it marked the end of both Gregory’s and Mahoney’s gridiron careers.

Head coach Brian Kelly penned the book’s foreword, where he emphasized the unique nature of the 2020 season. He stressed the perennial importance of signal-callers such as Gregory and Mahoney and said he was glad they were able to share their stories. 

“This 2020 edition of Notre Dame Football was a very special group to me because of the strong character they possessed,” Kelly wrote, “and Reed and John are the epitome of that as much as anyone in our program.”

Gregory and Mahoney will return to South Bend for a book signing in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore on Oct. 30 at 1:30 p.m. That night, the Irish host North Carolina in the next installment of the matchup that initially inspired the book’s creation.

Published by Triumph Books, “History Through the Headsets” can be purchased from the publisher here.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Late-October foes not exactly high-profile anymore

Florida State v North Carolina
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Notre Dame’s opponents will not much distract Irish fans during an anticlimactic idle week. In the preseason, it would have been understandable to circle Miami’s trip to North Carolina this weekend as a crash course into the preseason-No. 10 Tar Heels before they travel to South Bend on Halloween Eve.

Instead, neither the ACC Coastal name brand nor the expected upstart is in contention in the wide-open ACC. To hear North Carolina head coach Mack Brown tell it, the Tar Heels’ middling 3-3 record is something short of the media’s fault but at least a poor reflection on the media.

“My expectation is to win every game, so three times we’ve met it and three times we haven’t,” Brown said after North Carolina lost to Florida State on Saturday. “The national media’s expectation, the expectation for us to be a top-10 team, were wrong. So I guess we should all be critical of the media for picking us that high.”

So instead of readying for the most exciting back-to-back games at Notre Dame Stadium since No. 12 USC visited a week before No. 23 North Carolina State, all the Irish can await are two high-profile offenses that have wildly underperformed this season with two Heisman hopefuls now proud owners of three losses apiece.

Florida State (2-4): As three-score underdogs, the Seminoles upset North Carolina, 35-25, in large part because the Tar Heels defense is nothing to fret over, though there was once a time Florida State would have still struggled to move the ball. The Seminoles’ offensive line is finally finding a bit of health and thus chemistry, helping the Florida State running game to 238 yards on 41 carries, a 5.8 yards per rush average.

The Seminoles will get to enjoy that win for an extra week, as well as further the offensive line’s health.

Toledo (3-3): The Rockets never found any version of liftoff against Northern Illinois, losing 22-20 after the Huskies kicked a field goal in the final minute, their fifth field goal of the day. What was supposed to be a strong offense could not find consistency yet again, averaging just 5.56 yards per play, and continuing to fall short of 30 points against any opponent not named UMass.

Toledo will hope to finally crack 30 at Central Michigan (3:30 ET; CBSSN), but being favored by 5.5 points with a combined point total Over/Under of 52, via PointsBet on Wednesday evening, suggests the Rockets will manage only 28 points on Saturday.

Purdue (3-2): After a week off, the Boilermakers have the luxury of heading to No. 2 Iowa (3:30 ET; ABC) this weekend. A week ago this space described that fate as an “inevitable deconstruction,” and that phrasing persists given Purdue is an 11.5-point underdog expected to struggle to score two touchdowns.

Wisconsin (2-3): The good news: The Badgers beat Illinois, 24-0.
The bad news: Wisconsin dismissed running back Jalen Berger, its leading rusher in 2020, reportedly in part because of his malcontent attitude after the Badgers brought in Clemson transfer running back Chez Mellusi, who became their starter.

To draw a comparison to Notre Dame, when Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne a few weeks ago for how he handled the arrival of Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, Kelly was not offering empty words. Not every program is so fortunate to have players accept lesser roles because of imports.

“Drew Pyne is a great example of, in my opinion, how we do our business in our program,” Kelly said. “We bring in a transfer and he doesn’t put his name in the portal. What he does is he says, ‘You know what, I’m going to prepare myself to be the best version of Drew Pyne and when my number is called, I’m going to be ready.’”

Fittingly, Kelly said that after Notre Dame’s 41-13 win against Wisconsin.

The Badgers now host Army (8 ET; BTN), and while some virtual ink should be spilled noting Wisconsin is favored by two touchdowns, the real eyebrow-raising perspective is that the Over/Under is 39 points.

And that feels high.

No. 3 Cincinnati (5-0): Many suggested the Bearcats would go through the motions against Temple, this space among those many. Cincinnati did no such thing, blowing by the overmatched Owls, 52-3.

That may become a theme for the rest of the year with the Bearcats, both because they are that match better than the rest of the AAC and because impressing the Playoff committee with dominant scores will be a key piece to their postseason résumé. Central Florida (12 ET; ABC) will be the next to fall. Cincinnati is favored by three touchdowns with a total of 57.5 points.

Virginia Tech (3-2): Things may be about to go from bad to worse for the Hokies. Losing to a top-15 Notre Dame is one thing, even at home. Losing to unranked — if not foolishly unranked — Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPN2) at home will be another. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister will play through the shoulder injury delivered by the Irish, but Virginia Tech is still a 5-point underdog with the total of 57.5 predicting something akin to a 31-26 result. Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett is drawing a touch of Heisman attention, and hanging a gaudy number on the Hokies would catch some afternoon eyes.

USC (3-3): The Trojans’ problems stem from their defense, not their offense. Scoring 28 points may not be enough regularly, but it should have been against Utah. Instead, USC was gashed in every way defensively, giving up 5.1 yards per rush and 10.9 yards per pass attempt. Even the most explosive offense will struggle to keep up with those paces.

The Trojans have the week off before heading to the Midwest.

North Carolina (3-3): After Tyler Buchner’s first extended work started well on Saturday, it may be of note to Notre Dame fans that the Tar Heels gave up 121 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries to Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis, along with 145 yards and three touchdowns on 11-of-13 passing. A modest dual-threat quarterback can find great success against North Carolina’s shoddy defense.

Miami (3:30 ET; ACCN) may not have that tool at its disposal with quarterback D’Eriq King sidelined by a shoulder injury. As a result, the Tar Heels are favored by a touchdown, no matter their recent struggles.

RELATED READING: What’s left for UNC to play for after another disappointing performance against Florida State?

Navy (1-4): An entertaining 21-21 first half slowed to a slog in the second half, but SMU scored the only fourth-quarter touchdown in a 35-24 win against the Midshipmen on Saturday, an impressive performance for Navy given early-season showings, but a loss all the same.

The indications are there, though, that the Midshipmen have turned the corner, or are at least about to. Since the chaos within its coaching staff spurred by the athletic director, Navy has averaged 315.7 yards per game, averaging 4.7 yards per play. That is not excellent, but it is competent.

Given Memphis (7:30 ET Thursday; ESPN) has given up 199 rushing yards per game and 4.23 yards per carry in its last three games, perhaps the Midshipmen should be less than 10.5-point underdogs.

Virginia (4-2): The only team awaiting Notre Dame with a winning record, the Cavaliers nearly fell to .500 by entering the fourth quarter last week trailing Louisville 30-13. Three touchdown drives, including a two-minute drill finding the end zone with 22 seconds remaining, catapulted Virginia to a 34-33 victory.

The Cavaliers may well reach 6-3 or 7-2 before they face the Irish, with Duke (12:30 ET) followed by Georgia Tech and No. 19 BYU. This week, Virginia is favored by 10.5 points against the Blue Devils, an oddly low number.

Georgia Tech (3-3): Speaking of Duke, the Yellow Jackets beat the Blue Devils, 31-27, in a meeting of some of the ACC’s worst. It took a last-minute touchdown for Georgia Tech to beat Duke, but the win makes it nearly impossible for the Ramblin’ Wreck to finish the year at the bottom of the ACC standings.

Georgia Tech will take the week off.

Stanford (3-3): The Cardinal fell 28-10 at No. 22 Arizona State over the weekend, a complete shutdown of what had become a promising offense led by sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee. After averaging 34.5 points per game since the season opener, Stanford managed just one first-quarter touchdown drive. The real undoing came via McKee, who while throwing for 356 yards also threw three interceptions.

McKee’s resolve will be tested this week at Washington State (7:30; ESPNU), an opponent ripe for ridicule off the field but increasingly not terrible on the field, particularly its pass defense as it gives up only 6.49 yards per pass attempt. The Cardinal is favored by 1.5 points on the road.

THURSDAY
7:30 ET — Navy at Memphis, ESPN.

SATURDAY
12 ET — Cincinnati vs. Central Florida, ABC.
12:30 ET — Virginia vs. Duke.
3:30 ET — Toledo at Central Michigan, CBSSN; Purdue at Iowa, ABC; Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh, ESPN2; North Carolina vs. Miami, ACCN.
7:30 ET — Stanford at Washington State, ESPNU.
8 ET — Army at Wisconsin, BTN.

Favored: Toledo (-15.5), Wisconsin (-14), Cincinnati (-21), North Carolina (-7), Virginia (-10.5), Stanford (-1.5).
Underdogs: Purdue (+11.5), Virginia Tech (+5), Navy (+10.5).

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links. All lines as of mid-Thursday afternoon.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame quarterback uncertainty has reached an unforeseen understandable status

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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Brian Kelly might actually not know. Through all the coach-speak that is to be expected when discussing personnel decisions, with a cushion granted by a midseason idle week, the Irish head coach sincerely might not know who Notre Dame’s starting quarterback will be next week against USC.

After Saturday night’s inverted yo-yo performances from Jack Coan and freshman Tyler Buchner, it would be a surprise if Kelly did know with certainty.

“I know you guys are anxious to kind of write a story about it, but I can’t in all good conscience say he’s the starter or he’s the starter,” Kelly said after the 32-29 victory at Virginia Tech. “You know where we’re at. We’re stringing this together the best we can.”

That was not even in response to someone asking who his starting quarterback was. After that chaos at Lane Stadium, that question was not asked, because while Kelly is right and naming a starting quarterback is evergreen fodder, no one among the media expected Kelly to do so, not after Coan had needed to be benched and then Buchner had thrown two interceptions, fortunate not to have thrown three or four, and not after Coan led the game-tying and game-winning drives once Buchner got the Irish on the scoreboard in the first place.

Kelly was asked if their skillsets were “disparate.” He may as well have been asked if their peaks and valleys were.

“That’s fair,” Kelly replied to the disparate skillsets prompt, and those differences will presumably determine who No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1) trots out against the Trojans.

Setting aside sophomore Drew Pyne, as the Irish seemed to last weekend — he offers lesser, though more consistent, versions of each of Coan’s and Buchner’s strengths — the decision may come down to the risk-reward calculus of relishing a high floor with mild success or chasing a high ceiling despite possible failure.

When given ample time and space, Coan represents a higher 2021 ceiling for the Irish, ironic considering he was brought in as a transfer from Wisconsin to raise the season’s floor. Coan’s final two drives against the Hokies were precise, efficient and replicable. That latter quality, perhaps the most important, hinges on Notre Dame’s offensive line as much as anything else, and while it showed well against Virginia Tech, there is still far more evidence of its struggles this year than its successes, so Coan’s ceiling may not be a consistently attainable level.

Buchner’s running ability raises the Irish floor, easing that offensive line’s burden and increasing the regular effectiveness of junior running back Kyren Williams and sophomore running back Chris Tyree. But Buchner has played only one full football season in the last four years (torn ACL in 2018, played in 2019, pandemic in 2020), a lack of experience that was abundantly evident as he repeatedly misread the Hokies’ defensive coverages Saturday.

“He did some really good things and then he did some things that are inexperience,” Kelly said. “You don’t throw the ball into the boundary versus cover eight without knowing that the corner is not squatting. They are technical things that he is still seeing.”

That learning curve may need game reps to reach its conclusion, but it should not be started against opposing defenses, and even with his early enrollment, Buchner is still in the early stages of learning to be a quarterback at this level, a process usually aided by facing strong competition as a senior in high school, rather than no competition at all. Those lessons will come, and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees seems an ideal candidate to teach them, in the first eight months of 2022, but that will leave concerns for the next seven games.

“He did some nice things, but he’s young,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be really good, but we’re trying to figure this thing out, too, as we go.”

Kelly was not being facetious. His postgame availabilities this season have been everything but misleading. Kelly has a few days to ponder who will get first-team reps in preparation for USC, and he may need each one of them.

YOUNG PLAYERS AND THE IDLE WEEK
In the meantime, Kelly will devote some of the off week’s practices to the young players on the roster and those others buried on the depth chart or on the scout team. But only some.

Kelly anticipated spending most of the week letting his team recover.

“It’s really a slippery slope. [Idle] weeks are a little bit different,” Kelly said last week. “You have to gauge what you want to be able to accomplish as it relates to skill development vs. resting your football team. It’s a fine line between the two. You want to give them some time off. …

“There’s no — poof, we had a week off, all these [underclassmen] are ready. You’re going to do a little work, but that’s about it.”

Of course, Notre Dame needs the time to get healthy. Setting aside the season-ending MCL tear suffered by senior receiver Joe Wilkins, the Irish offense needs a few players to get healthy:

— Buchner’s turned ankle at Virginia Tech did not prevent him from throwing on the sideline in the fourth quarter, but its status remains unknown.
— Turf toe kept Tyree out of the second half Saturday.
— His left ankle, sprained against Toledo, may have played a role in sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody ceding a full game of playing time to freshman Joe Alt, thought Alt performed impressively in the role.
— Junior tight end Michael Mayer wanted to play in situational packages against the Hokies, primarily in the red zone and on some third downs, but Kelly feared that limited role would invite further injury to Mayer’s groin strain.

A CHEF’S KISS
Notre Dame trotted out the obvious “Exit Sandman” social media post after winning in Lane Stadium. Not every week can deliver an absolute hit.

Then again, Ole Miss may have found a readymade recurring bit with this flamethrower …

INSIDE THE IRISH
Jack Coan and Jonathan Doerer combine to push Notre Dame past Virginia Tech
Highlights: A game won by broken plays and unexpected substitutes
Things We Learned: ‘Not perfect’ Notre Dame’s resilience gives improvements time

OUTSIDE READING
Which one-loss teams are still Playoff contenders?
Quality quarterback depth is at a premium
‘Touchdown Jesus’ is from Minnesota? You betcha
For so long, colleges avoided any ties to sports betting — but that is changing
A few key characters standing in the way of 12-team College Football Playoff
Evaluating the best college football rivalries
Greg Byrne addresses Alabama’s staffing issues at Bryant-Denny Stadium
Notre Dame, Oklahoma and the battle over ‘Play Like A Champion Today’
Alumni Hall to undergo renovation, residents to move to Zahm next year

Things We Learned: ‘Not perfect’ Notre Dame’s resilience gives improvements time

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech
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Nobody was about to accuse Notre Dame of being perfect, but it warranted reiterating, nonetheless. After putting those imperfections on repeated display throughout the season’s first month, the Irish (5-1) doubled down on them at Virginia Tech on Saturday in a 32-29 win.

And while this lede would have a much nicer bow if Notre Dame had not lost to Cincinnati two weeks ago — Yet, the Irish reached their idle week perfect in the only way that matters. — it should still be emphasized that Notre Dame’s imperfections did not cost it in Blacksburg. Instead, the players pushing through those struggles came out on top, as cheesy as that sounds.

“Just so many stories about players persevering,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’ll get off my soapbox, let you guys dig into the game because we’re not perfect. That’s okay with me.”

Those stories began and ended with quarterback Jack Coan, very literally so.

Saturday’s first quarter put Coan’s faults on full display, the offense not moving, three drives going nowhere with two of them losing yards. Notre Dame’s running backs took seven carries for 23 yards in the first quarter, hardly a sustainable offensive model.

Saturday’s fourth quarter put Coan’s strengths under an even brighter spotlight. The Coan that showed up after freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner appeared to turn his ankle is the Coan that Kelly raved about all preseason and the Coan that threw for four touchdowns and 366 yards at Florida State to open the season. Two drives expertly managed, gaining an average of 8.6 yards per play, completing 7-of-9 passes despite the Hokies knowing the Irish did not have enough time to rely on running the ball.

That was the Coan needed by Notre Dame not only Saturday, but all along in 2021, all the way back to January.

“I didn’t name him the starting quarterback because it came up on the Ouija board,” Kelly said. “That’s the way it is (when) we see him every day, that’s what he does. Yeah, it was uneven to start, but that’s why we pulled him.”

Coan needing to be benched was an embodiment of Irish imperfections. Shaking that off to lead a game-tying and then a game-winning drive was not only a dramatic example of resilience but also not something Coan did on his own. For that matter, struggling early was not solely Coan’s doing, either.

The offensive line did not protect Coan well or open many holes for the running backs, even with freshman Joe Alt becoming the fourth starter in six games at left tackle. (For comparison, Notre Dame started a total of four left tackles to cover all but two games in Kelly’s first 11 years in South Bend.) Then junior Andrew Kristofic stepped in at left guard, replacing junior Zeke Correll.

Kelly pointed to Kristofic’s size advantage as the reason for the substitution, outweighing Correll by some 20 pounds, but that is the second time that reasoning has led to the same change in the season’s first half.

“That size in there — I love the two kids that were in there, they were 285 and 286 on the left side — we got bigger,” Kelly said. “Alt is 306, Kristofic is 305, we’re bigger, more physical, and that’s where we got better.”

Again using Coan’s bookends as reference points, the difference in the line play was notable. In the first quarter, Coan was sacked twice for a combined loss of eight yards, was pressured another time though the play ended with him gaining one yard, and a false start from Correll cost a chance at a fourth-and-short conversion.

The pocket could not have been much cleaner for Coan in the closing two drives.

Not to be too selective with stats or to harp too much on the improvements that came soon after benching Correll — more naturally a center by trade, not to mention someone who has always been undersized so that should not exactly have been a surprise to the coaching staff this fall — but if simply removing those seven first-quarter running back carries and Coan’s one-yard gain evading a sack, rush attempts that never had much of a chance, then the Irish averaged 5.1 yards per rush at Virginia Tech, gaining 168 yards on 33 carries (sacks adjusted). Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had averaged 3.64 yards per rush (sacks adjusted).

“Today was like a coming-out party for us,” Kelly said. “The O-linemen in [the locker room] are pretty happy.

“[Junior running back Kyren Williams] ran with an edge today. You saw him run and breakthrough on that [third] touchdown. That was beast mode for him. He had an edge about him today.”

That edge coming from Williams is no surprise. The Irish so desperately needing that edge is a mild surprise. That edge, along with Coan’s resilience and a (finally) improving offensive line, should make for an intriguing second half of the year.

TOO YOUNG TO KNOW BETTER
Buchner first silenced Lane Stadium with his pair of efficient touchdown drives in the second quarter, but he cranked the bass back up with his pick-six gift to Hokies cornerback Jermaine Waller late in the third quarter.

When dialed in like that, Lane Stadium is a magnificent atmosphere and not somewhere for the young and inexperienced to expect to shine, but maybe Notre Dame’s freshmen simply did not know better.

“On the road in this environment, we were poised to get them this experience,” Kelly said. “We needed to get them — this is what we talked about this week. We’re reaching the halfway point. We’re gonna be who we are. We’ve got to get these guys in the game and get this experience if we want to win the rest of the games that we play.

“They have to get in this game, they have to feel it, they have to be part of it, they have to contribute.”

Contribute they did.

Alt started at left tackle and did not draw a single flag. Freshman running back Logan Diggs took six carries for 29 yards and did not hesitate to step into pass protection on Coan’s game-tying drive; the Irish had no other running back available if Diggs was not up to the task. Freshman tight end Mitchell Evans was elevated to the No. 2 tight end role, a common one in Tommy Rees’ offense, while junior Michael Mayer was sidelined by a groin injury, and Evans played well enough, misguided targeting penalty aside.

Freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie drew attention from defensive backs and spared a few routes from their upperclassman teammates’ legs. Not to mention, Buchner did lead three scoring drives before Virginia Tech’s disguised coverages made him look like someone who has not played a full game of football in two years.

‘WISH IT WASN’T THIS HARD’
Kelly said those freshmen playing, playing well and playing well in a hostile environment could be a key to Notre Dame winning the rest of its games this season. That sounds a lot like coming perfection.

It will not be that easy, not at all.

“I’m so proud of the guys that just hung in there,” Kelly said. “I wish it wasn’t this hard, but it is right now, and we’re battling through it.”

The charitable reading is that Kelly remembers what not battling through it feels like. The Irish very much did not battle in 2016. And since then, they have reeled off four consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins and gone 53-9.

Much of that stretch was easier than it has been for Notre Dame thus far in 2021, but continuing that stretch by any means necessary is a step in the right direction for the Irish, regardless.