Capece: Welcome to the Buchner (and Coan) zone
Colin Capece | Sunday, September 12, 2021
Heading into the 2021 season, most Notre Dame fans knew there were two capable quarterbacks on the roster in Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner. What we didn’t know, though, was that the Irish would need to play both quarterbacks to win games. That was more than apparent on Saturday’s game against Toledo, with both Buchner and Coan putting their stamp on the game in different ways.
I previously hailed Coan as the savior for the Irish, the guy that could finally open up the offense with his ability to throw the ball downfield with authority. Let’s get one thing straight: He did nothing to prove me wrong on Saturday against Toledo. I’m not really concerned about his decision-making, as some people might be, after he handed the Rockets the lead with a pick-six late in the second quarter. The Irish were trying to force the issue when they probably shouldn’t have with less than a minute to go starting from their own 20. With the defense playing lights out in the redzone, there was no reason for panic just before the half.
However, after cruising down the field for a score on the game’s first drive, the Irish offense was absolutely anemic for three straight possessions. Coan, of course, isn’t entirely to blame for that. The offensive line was porous for the second week in a row, with an injury to starting left tackle Blake Fisher only further exposing what’s turning into a major liability. An injury to his replacement Michael Carmody means the depth in the quarterback’s blindside may be thinning even faster. Toledo really just had to pin their ears back and bring the house against an Irish front five that struggled all game long in both run and pass protection. Much like the Florida State game last week, the Irish offense seemed to get lethargic after grabbing the lead early. When Coan was under center, for most of the game, the Irish struggled to move the ball with any sort of consistency.
Enter Buchner, the five-star phenom who lit up the California high school scene with his rocket arm and freakish speed and athleticism. The true freshman confidently took the field for his first collegiate action to start Notre Dame’s fifth possession and instantly provided a spark, scampering for a 26-yard pick up. I’ve said from the start that the Irish will have success this season if they get their playmakers at the skill positions in open space. Buchner’s running ability does just that, as defenders have to play with more of a cushion to keep the ball in front of them at all times. The threat of his legs forced the Rockets to play contain, opening space for Kyren Williams who took it 43 yards to the house a few plays later. Buchner also tossed a touchdown to Chris Tyree where the running back sprinted 55 yards untouched down the sidelines. With Buchner on the field, the Irish offense had a different dimension that seemed to bring some, dare I say, excitement to the play calling from Tommy Rees to best utilize the speed he has at the skill positions.
Coan of course displayed why the Irish still need him piloting the offense on the game’s final drive, somehow rediscovering his rhythm after struggling for the better part of three quarters to get the Irish in the endzone and squeeze out a victory. If Notre Dame trainer Mike Bean had snapped Coan’s finger back into place in the first quarter, Buchner might not even be in the conversation. But in all seriousness, the Irish also benefit greatly from Coan’s leadership and experience.
Having a two-quarterback system will make defenses have to account for everything, something that Notre Dame needs to take advantage of with the offensive line as banged up as it is. Buchner provides the jump while Coan keeps the engine humming along. Buchner makes opponents defend sideline to sideline, which keeps the middle of the field open when Coan reenters the game. Buchner’s ability to attack defenses with his legs allows Coan to take more deep shots down the field against worn out defensive backs.
Now, you may be skeptical about having a system with two starting quarterbacks. There’s always the question of how one guy will respond if the other starts to have success. But Notre Dame right now is actually in the perfect position to utilize two quarterbacks. Coan is definitely not worried about losing his job, and Brian Kelly made it clear after the game that Coan was aware Buchner was going to play on Saturday. He’s a graduate transfer who Kelly called a “high character individual,” and at this point in his career, he just wants to help his team win. Buchner is a true freshman with an incredible amount of talent. He’s well aware that his time will come to be the full-time starter, but like any five-star recruit would be, he’s also eager to help the team win. He’s not necessarily gunning for Coan’s job, but he’s also not afraid to let it rip when he gets to play. The Irish have two guys in their locker room with not only the ability to be impact players but also the right attitudes to be in a two-quarterback situation.
The key for the Irish will be to utilize both quarterbacks in a way that doesn’t make the offense too predictable. Buchner can’t just be a runner and Coan can’t just be a thrower. Having both guys play means that Coan has to improve to an extent with his legs and Buchner needs to improve his downfield passing in order to keep defenses honest. Saturday was a start for the Irish, but Brian Kelly has to continue to assess the situation. Sometimes he has to play the hot hand, while other times he’ll have to ride with Coan, especially against some of the quality opponents Notre Dame has in the not-so-distant future. Without question, though, the Irish are going to need both of their quarterbacks to keep winning.