SOUTH BEND – After Notre Dame's skin-of-its-teeth win over Florida State in Week 1, coach Brian Kelly said he wanted his players to be a little bit happier in victory and tried to emphasize that winning is hard.
After a similarly nail-biting triumph over Toledo today, in which the No. 8 Irish did not take the lead for good until 1:09 remained in the game and went on to win 32-29, Kelly took a far different tone.
"I can't even begin with the work that we have to do," Kelly said. "It starts with the basic premises of football. (We had) three turnovers, one of them was a touchdown (a pick-six from Jack Coan). You don't usually survive those games and win. Then No. 2 we gave up big plays on defense. We had them backed up on a couple occasions and we haven't turned the corner from that perspective.
"The biggest thing on me is that we lacked intensity coming out. This game requires a team to play with, minimally for the price of admission, some intensity. I did not like the way we came out. I thought we lacked intensity. ... I obviously didn't do a very good job of preparing them."
It appears as though this game will spark a somewhat significant re-evaluation from the Irish coaching staff on what needs to be fixed on offense and defense and on the best ways to go about making those adjustments. The biggest concerns, as they were in Week 1 against Florida State, are the offensive line and big plays on defense.
On offense, the front still did not open enough holes for the running game, which averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and far less for running backs (quarterback Tyler Buchner ran seven times for 68 yards). It didn't help that left tackle Michael Carmody, starting because freshman Blake Fisher was out with a meniscus tear, suffered a sprained ankle and had to leave the game. That left Tosh Baker and Joe Alt to split snaps on that side.
Pass-blocking was almost as big an issue. Quarterback Jack Coan was sacked six times, including a costly strip-sack, and felt pressure on far more plays than that. The line did give Coan clean pockets on the game-winning drive in the final minutes that Coan used to complete throws of 34 and 18 yards to Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer, but there obviously has to be improvement. Toledo is far from the best defense Notre Dame will face this season – the Irish have one of the best fronts in the country to contend with in two weeks when they clash with Wisconsin.
"It's not rocket science," Kelly said of the line. "These kids are good, young players, but they are young. We can win with those guys. We just have to figure it out. We'll get it figured out.
"We're a little hesitant at times to say, 'All right, this is who we're going to be.' We have to stop tinkering and say, 'All right, this is it, let's go.' We're in a transition and as I told the guys in the locker room, we have to really make it simpler for everybody."
The defense was similarly split between spectacular plays and spectacularly bad plays. The Irish have given up four plays of 60 or more yards in two games this season after giving up that many in three years under former defensive coordinator Clark Lea. The defense also sacked Toledo quarterbacks five times, forced seven punts in eight drives during one stretch and stripped quarterback Carter Bradley in the final minute as the Rockets were driving for a potential game-tying field goal.
There were bright spots, but the big plays have to be cleaned up. The Irish survived them against Florida State and Toledo, but against a better team, those could be decisive.
"We know why it's happening," Kelly said of the big plays. "We're transitioning defenses. We have new players on the field, inexperienced players that are going through some growing pains. ... We have a chance to do some things and we're making them worse by not doing some of the fundamental things, plays that are 10, 12, 15 yards are becoming 60-, 70-yard runs."
"From a defensive standpoint there's maybe a little bit more to it than I thought (before the season) in terms of figuring some things out," the 12th-year coach added.
Even if Notre Dame can get the offensive line and the big plays figured out there is still the matter of what to do at quarterback. That, however, is what one might call a good problem to have. It's clear that Buchner has the ability to make plays with his legs and – when the situation is right, as it was on a 55-yard touchdown to Chris Tyree in the fourth quarter – with his arm. But Coan, as much as he struggled at times Saturday, is not going anywhere. Kelly said he never considered putting Buchner on the field when Notre Dame needed a touchdown with less than two minutes left. Coan rewarded his coach's faith, making two of the biggest passes of the game while dealing with a dislocated finger. He remains the starter, but Buchner will play. How much remains to be seen, but as the Irish have seen against Florida State and Toledo, having two quarterbacks for whom opponents need to prepare can be a boon to an offense.
This wasn't the performance Notre Dame wanted from its first game in front of a big home crowd since 2019. The Irish absolutely have to be better or they will lose some games – plural – in the middle of the season. They seem to know that, too.
"It was an eye-opening game," said linebacker JD Bertrand, who is quickly becoming a star on defense and had 11 tackles, three for loss and a fumble recovery today. "It was bittersweet. We're going to be able to take it from here and identify, 'Okay, we need to get better.' I think every guy in that room knows they need to look at their own play individually and see how they can get better."