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Irish defense puts on second-half clinic in 41-13 win over Badgers

| Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Irish got off to a slow start Saturday, as the the squad stepped out of the tunnel a couple of moments after Leprechaun Pat and the rest of the cheer squad took off with the flag. The momentum progressively picked up, though, as the Irish ran Wisconsin out of Soldier Field in the second half and claimed a statement 41-13 victory.

After the Irish won the toss, Badgers sophomore Jack Van Dyke kicked a line drive to sophomore running back Chris Tyree who took it 16 yards, but that was the biggest gain of the drive as the Irish went three and out to start the game. Head coach Brian Kelly, who became Notre Dame’s alltime winningest head coach with his 106th victory today, had his team prepared to face the challenge Wisconsin presented.

“We knew what this game was gonna be about and it was going to be close, physical,” Kelly said. “And it was all of that. We were going to be challenged by their front, which we were. We knew we had to go and throw the football around and try to make some plays down the field.”

Wisconsin’s first drive started in their own half, but they eventually found themselves at the Notre Dame 23-yard line. The Irish bottled up the Badgers in the red zone though, forcing senior kicker Collin Larsh to make a 37-yard field goal, bringing the score to 3-0 Badgers.

After a first and goal from the Badgers’ 10-yard line, followed by two downs of lost yardage, Irish graduate student kicker Jonathan Doerer set up for a field goal in an attempt to tie the game. But his kick sailed wide right, leaving the Irish trailing the Badgers.

After Wisconsin’s offense was stuffed on a fourth-and-one attempt, the Irish took over at their own 21. Graduate student quarterback Jack Coan then scrambled to pick up yardage and avoid a pair of sacks, followed by a pair of first-down passes. But it was junior running back Kyren Williams on the fourth-and-two who punched it to the Irish 41 to keep the drive alive. Coan then hit Mayer, followed by another Coan keeper and a first down. The drive ended with Doerer back on the field to make a 51-yarder to tie the game 3-3.

On third-and-ten a few drives later, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz dropped back to pass, but sophomore cornerback Cam Hart undercut his man to scoop up the interception. The turnover put the Irish on their own 49. After a few traded penalties, Coan hit senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. for the first touchdown of the game, putting the Irish up 10-3. 

Special teams were able to keep pace as well as the Irish picked up speed. Punter Jay Bramblett nailed a career-long 72-yard punt to pin the Badgers at their own 9-yard line for what ended up being their final drive of the half. Bramblett’s punt was the longest Irish punt since 1998, when Hunter Smith had a 79-yarder against Arizona State. 

The Notre Dame defense just kept chugging, starting to look more like the unit fans are used to seeing. Senior defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola had back-to-back stops on Badgers running back Isaac Guerendo short of the first-down marker. 

After trading punts again, Mertz made his first touchdown pass of the season, an eight-yard completion to senior receiver Kendric Pryor, tying the game at 10-10 after a PAT from Larsh. 

The only place where the Irish struggled Saturday was on the offensive line, a unit that’s been riddled with injuries at left tackle. Coan ultimately paid the price for the porous pass protection. After the Irish surrendered their fifth sack of the day in the middle of the third quarter, Coan stepped off the field and headed to the locker room with an ankle injury. 

“We’ve got clean X-rays,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s a soft tissue injury. It doesn’t even respond like a high ankle sprain. So we’re pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to see him back next week.”

On the next Irish possession, sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne took the field for the first time this season. He had two completions for 32 yards, but the drive ultimately stalled. After a delay of game penalty, Bramblett pinned the Badgers on their own seven-yard line.

A Badger three-and-out allowed Pyne and the Irish offense to take the field again. They weren’t out there for long, though, as Pyne fumbled to return the ball to the Badgers. From there, Mertz and running back Chez Mellusi led the Badgers to a second-and-goal from the Notre Dame 11-yard line to end the third quarter. To open the fourth quarter, on that same drive, Larsh hit another field goal to bring the score to 13-10.

The Irish weren’t going to let a lead go that easily. Tyree immediately answered with a 96-yard kick-return touchdown, sparking a chorus of “Let’s go Irish” that spread from the student section to the sea of Irish fans. This was the loudest the cheer had been all day as the Irish went up 17-13. Kelly said the coaching staff designed a kick coverage that would allow Tyree more room to run, but returned the credit to his player.

“We went to a field return so we were able to get him moving back to the field, and he caught a crease and he used his speed from there,” Kelly said. “We had been going sideline return and just didn’t have enough working room, so [special teams coordinator] Brian [Polian] said we were going to try to go to the field for an all-or-nothing situation. When you go to the field you’re stretching, you’re blocking out longer and that’s where we tend to see a holding or something like that, but we’re able to catch a crease, and obviously he’s a very fast kid.”

This is where the Irish began to run away with the game, although it wasn’t the running backs who did so — the Irish defense took over and kept up the heat. Kelly attributes this pivotal moment in the game to the Irish sideline reclaiming a Wisconsin tradition as their own. 

“When they played ‘Jump Around,’ it seemed like that we thought that was our fight song,” Kelly said.

On the next Wisconsin drive, Ademilola stripped the ball from Mertz for junior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey to recover. After a Notre Dame timeout, Pyne set out to redeem himself. He hit Mayer for a 22-yard first down. Then, Pyne found Austin for a 16-yard touchdown to make the score 24-13.

Defense soon shined again for the Irish, as Hart picked up another interception. After three run attempts, Doerer stepped up for another field goal to bring the score to 27-10. 

It looked like the Irish wouldn’t need that field goal, though, as the defense just kept picking up speed. Sophomore rover Jack Kiser and senior middle linebacker Drew White both intercepted passes and returned them for pick-sixes. Kiser and White mark the first time since 2002 the Irish have had two pick-sixes in one game. Kiser went for 66 yards on his return and White picked up 48, bringing the final score to 41-13.

While there were definitive standouts, Kelly was determined to keep the focus on the team as a whole. Although they had to work for it, Kelly knew the win was coming for the Irish. 

“We were able to put enough plays together through a variety of different things on offense, special teams and then defense, right? It’s a complete game,” Kelly said. “And we were able to win this game our way, playing complete football, defensive returns taking the football away, special teams and then doing enough on the offensive side of the ball to secure a really good victory. So just really proud of my guys — they prepared so well for this game. And I’m not surprised by the win. The outcome was a little bit different because of the interceptions late, but I’m not surprised that they won.”

The Irish take the field at home again against another difficult opponent next Saturday when they face Cincinnati at 2:30 p.m. 

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