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Sports

Buchner shines in defense-dominated Blue and Gold Game

| Monday, May 3, 2021

While Ian Book was busy getting drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, his Notre Dame Fighting Irish took the field for their spring game, as the Irish faithful got their first look at what the quarterback position could look like after the Book era, which ended with the California native leaving South Bend as the program’s winningest signal-caller of all time. 

And while head coach Brian Kelly spent most of the spring touting the quarterback battle between grad student transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne, it was early enrollee freshman Tyler Buchner who stole the show offensively, leading the only two touchdown drives in the game, as the Blue team defeated Gold 17-3 in the 2021 Blue and Gold Game. Buchner was the standout under center, but possibly the bigger storyline was how the defense looked, playing for new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman for the first time. The spring game is not necessarily a time to practice schemes, so it was a bit of beige, vanilla-flavored defense that Freeman’s unit featured on Saturday, but nevertheless, it was that side of the ball that dominated most of the contest. 

The game got off to an electric start, as the gold offense took the field, quarterbacked by Coan. The Wisconsin grad transfer immediately went deep, finding senior receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. down the left sideline for a 31-yard gain to open the contest, but that was all the offense for Gold on that drive, with senior defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola picking up one of his two ‘sacks,’ touching down Coan on third down in the backfield. There wasn’t much to speak of in Drew Pyne’s first offensive drive, as he did hit senior wide receiver Lawrence Keys for 12 yards, but that was the highlight, as a third-down sack from graduate student Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa sent the punting unit onto the field. Coan would again feature his arm strength, finding senior tight end George Takacs for 30 yards on a seam route down the middle, but a dropped pass by Wilkins, one of those receivers trying to work his way into the regular rotation for the fall, stalled the drive, setting the stage for the first scoring drive of the game. 

“I think they [wide receivers] are all talented enough,” Kelly said referencing some of the unforced errors including Wilkins’ drop. “Their attention to detail has to be better — that’s the next level with these guys.”

Blue was the only team that got any semblance of a running game going on Saturday, and most of it came in that second drive, with sophomore running back Chris Tyree doing a lot of the dirty work. He ran for 29 yards on the drive and caught another pass for 18 yards, while freshman tight end Mitchell Evans notched a fourth-down reception. Graduate student kicker Jonathan Doerer banged home the field goal for the 3-0 lead. 

Tyree was the clear second running back last season to Kyren Williams, but after a strong spring, he’s making a case for it to be a true tandem next season, a competition which he downplayed in the postgame press conference.

“We [Tyree and Williams] are both really good playmakers. At the end of the day, we are family, so it’s not really a competition,” Tyree said.

Tyree finished the day with 59 all-purpose yards on 12 touches. 

For the Gold offense, much of the early themes continued, as Coan continued to draw cheers from the student body with his deep ball, as he connected with graduate student wide receiver Avery Davis for 24 yards on the next drive, but just two plays laters, linebackers senior Bo Bauer and junior Jack Kiser got into the backfield, with Bauer wrapping up Kyren Williams for a loss. The linebacker room was incredibly impressive for the Irish on Saturday, with Bauer being a big factor, Kiser leading the Blue team with five tackles (one for loss) and junior Marist Liufau pacing the Gold squad with eight tackles of his own.

Kelly kept his takeaways simple.

“That’s a pretty good rotation of players [in the linebacker room] that Coach Freeman has at his disposal,” Kelly said.

The offense throughout the rest of the first half was sparse, barring a few nice highlights — Pyne hit Evans for 32 yards and Keys for 41 for his longest completions of the day. Coan hit Davis long again, this time for 22 yards, as the wide receiver room continued to mostly impress on the day. Senior linebacker Shayne Simon intercepted Coan for the Blue team, but Gold freshman safety Justin Walters made his mark on the game with a fantastic diving interception of Drew Pyne, who was again targeting Keys (14 targets in the game). The Gold team would get their only points off that turnover, although they should have had a touchdown. On first down from the 20-yard line, Coan badly overthrew a wide-open Davis in the end zone, and they couldn’t secure another first down, settling for the game-tying field goal. 

Walters’ interception represented just part of a great day from the Notre Dame safety group, who were playing without their star, Kyle Hamilton. As such, it was a great opportunity for some guys to make a name for themselves, and several impressed on Saturday. Kelly was willing to name two guys that he considered potential starters alongside Hamilton, while acknowledging there was an ongoing competition for a fourth safety spot.

“Very pleased with the depth at the safety position. That starts with Houston Griffith, and he excels in all areas,” Kelly said. “DJ Brown had a really good spring. Still working on the fourth.” 

Juniors KJ Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon both had some big plays on Saturday, with Ajavon delivering some big hits en route to four tackles and two pass break-ups. Wallace matched Ajavon with four tackles and had a pass break-up of his own, while Walters had the interception. 

However, for all the defensive stars and the (albeit occasional) offensive highlights in the first half, it would only take a quick glance at the in-game, or post-game, Twitter feed to know that the highlight of this game came in the opening drive of the second half. 

Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner, after making a cameo appearance in the first half, took the snaps under center for the Blue team in the second half, and he immediately made an impact. It took all of four plays for Buchner to lead his squad to the end zone, hitting Evans for 23 yards and then Keys for 23 and 22 yards. Then, as Buchner was not wearing the red jersey that Coan and Pyne wore to avoid contact, Buchner took a keeper seven yards up the middle for a 10-3 Blue lead. 

Quarterback controversy: Created.

“All of them [the quarterbacks] have some things to work on. I don’t think we went into this game expecting one guy to dominate,” Kelly said afterwards. “Tyler took a big step today in terms of growth, and we’re never gonna close the door on what can make us a better offense.”

Having spent the spring touting the competition between Pyne and Coan, Kelly certainly sounded like he was open to making this a three-man competition, or at least finding some role for the best dual-threat quarterback on his roster. 

Buchner finished 6-9 for 140 yards, leading one more touchdown drive that featured a 37-yard bomb to Braden Lenzy down the right sideline. His passer rating eclipsed 197, higher than Pyne and Coan’s ratings combined on the day. 

It wasn’t all bad from Coan or Pyne, who both had their moments, and overall played decent games, they were simply overshadowed by Buchner. Coan and Pyne each seemed to find their favorite receiver, with Pyne finding Keys and Lenzy on several occasions, while Coan flashed great chemistry with Davis. Keys led all receivers with five catches for 115 yards, while Lenzy notched 5 for 88, and Davis reeled in five receptions for 84 yards. Despite top tight end target Michael Mayer being out — described by Kelly as being “80% healthy” — offensive coordinator Tommy Rees utilized his tight ends, veterans and rookies alike, throughout the game. Evans notched three catches for 59 yards, Takacs had three catches for 32 yards and even freshman Cade Berrong chipped in with a pair of catches and eleven yards. Overall, Coan finished 18-32 for 197 yards, while Pyne was 11-23 for 146 yards, with all of his action coming in the first half. 

The Blue and Gold Game wrapped up the spring practice season for the Irish, so they won’t be in action for several months. However, the season opener is just over four months away, when Notre Dame looks to topple the Florida State Seminoles on the road in some Sunday night primetime action on September 5.

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