The Journal Gazette
Saturday, October 02, 2021 9:30 pm

Notre Dame suffers setback against Cincy; QB questions abound

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Where does Notre Dame go from here? 

That was obviously the question on the mind of linebacker and captain Drew White when he said the Irish can't let one game define their season. And it was the question coach Brian Kelly was considering when he answered query after query about the team's quarterback controversy.

The situation is a difficult one of the ninth-ranked Irish. They suffered a 24-13 defeat at the hands of No. 7 Cincinnati this afternoon, only their third regular-season loss since the start of the 2018 campaign. Their 26-game home winning streak is over and their hopes at a third College Football Playoff appearance in four years are almost certainly out the window.

Notre Dame has been in this situation before. In 2019, it suffered a resounding loss in Ann Arbor against Michigan, dropping the Irish out of CFP contention with five games remaining. They responded with aplomb, reeling off five straight wins, plus a bowl triumph over a rising Iowa State team.

That season, Notre Dame's turnaround coincided with a hot streak from quarterback Ian Book, who had suffered through a miserable game against the Wolverines that prompted questions about whether backup Phil Jurkovec should take over. 

Now again, the Irish face a quandary at quarterback. In 2019, Kelly adamantly stuck with Book and seemingly never thought about putting turning to Jurkovec. This year, the circumstances are different. The 12th-year Irish coach already crossed the Rubicon this afternoon and inserted backup Drew Pyne in place of struggling starter Jack Coan, the Wisconsin transfer who won the job out of fall camp.

Coan went 14 for 22 for 114 yards in the first half and threw a costly interception, a poor decision that saw him throw off his back foot with pressure in his face and snuff out a drive that had covered 69 yards and moved the ball inside the Bearcat 10. The graduate student once again struggled to avoid pressure and the Irish trailed 17-0 at halftime when Kelly decided to make the move.

Pyne, meanwhile, went 9 for 22 for 143 yards and led a pair of touchdown drives, tossing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Braden Lenzy in the fourth quarter that pulled the Irish within 17-13. The redshirt freshman moves better than Coan does in the pocket and is far more comfortable scrambling away from pressure, which is a significant plus behind Notre Dame's battered offensive line. However, his arm isn't as strong as Coan's and despite his reputation for accuracy, he left more than a few passes behind his intended receivers today.

So, where do the Irish turn? As of tonight, Kelly isn't sure.

"It's a good question, it's a fair question," Kelly said of what the quarterback rotation will look like when the Irish travel to Virginia Tech next week. "Clearly we can't continue down this road of 'Who's the flavor of the week?' So, we're going to have to sit down and figure this out and decide which direction we want to go in. Because it doesn't give us the kind of continuity and consistency on offense that we need."

My guess would be the Irish go with Pyne as they begin to look toward next season. He's a better fit for this particular offense anyway because his ability to scramble and keep his eyes downfield minimizes the unit's biggest weakness (the offensive line) in a way that Coan simply cannot match. Going with Pyne would give up some big play ability, but Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy and Avery Davis could still make plays down the field. 

"The biggest thing for me is always keeping a positive attitude," Pyne said. "Notre Dame's such an incredible university. I've gone to church almost every other night for the past couple weeks, just sitting in the Basilica by myself, thinking about the day, thinking about the week and having a positive attitude at all times. I'm preparing every single week with (the other quarterbacks) and just having confidence in those guys is the most important thing."

What is pretty evident at this point about the quarterback situation is that true freshman Tyler Buchner's role will be probably be limited going forward. He was a revelation against Toledo, breaking several big runs and using the threat of those rushes to make a quick throw that Chris Tyree turned into a 55-yard touchdown. But after watching him against Purdue and today against the Bearcats, it appears as though Buchner's biggest advantage against the Rockets was the element of surprise – they had not seen him on film before. Now, teams have some tape on him and they've adjusted accordingly. He simply isn't ready as a thrower, even though he can be a dynamic player with his legs. Maybe the Irish can utilize some sets that have Buchner and either Pyne or Coan in the backfield at the same time, but the youngster likely needs more time to develop before he's ready to lead the offense on his own.

As for the rest of the team, the game against Cincinnati was a mixed bag. Tyree, last week's hero in the return game, muffed a kickoff that led to a Cincinnati field goal; the Irish defense got beaten badly on an 80-yard, 1:08 drive at the end of the first half and again after Notre Dame had pulled to within four points in the fourth quarter; wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. dropped what should have been a 30-yard gain wide open over the middle in the third quarter. It was that kind of day for the Irish. There were plenty of opportunities for them to win this game (it helped that the Bearcats moved to a conservative prevent defense in the fourth quarter before adjusting back to what had worked in the first half), but Notre Dame cashed far too few of them in.

The Irish have seven games left in the regular season. They will likely be favored in all of them and could still reach a New Year's Six bowl and build momentum heading into 2022. Unlike 2019, this team is on the younger side with a new group of leaders. Those players will have to get everyone re-focused when Virginia Tech prep starts Monday. For the rest of the season, the Irish will have no bigger fans than the Bearcats, who would love for Notre Dame to win out to pad their own CFP resume.


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