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Irish use late drive to avoid upset against Toledo

| Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Irish (2-0) had yet another nail-biting win Saturday afternoon in their home opener against the Toledo Rockets (1-1, 0-0 MAC). In a game that went back and forth throughout, Notre Dame was ultimately able to prevail by a score of 32-29 to avoid an upset.

It looked as though the Irish were set to dominate the game after the opening drive with graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan leading the Irish on a 75-yard touchdown drive off only six plays. The drive started with a 14-yard screen pass from Coan to senior wide receiver Avery Davis. After a facemask penalty, Coan found sophomore tight end Michael Mayer on a 28-yard pass down the field. The drive ultimately was capped by a four-yard touchdown pass to Mayer.

The Rockets would respond on their ensuing drive, however, with quarterback Carter Bradley finding wide receiver Devin Maddox wide open down the field for a 66-yard gain.

Head coach Brian Kelly hopes his team can limit these big plays as the season progresses and his team becomes more comfortable with its new defense.

“We’re transitioning defenses. I will tell you that we have new players on the field — younger players, inexperienced players that are going through some growing pains,” Kelly said. “We just have got to be fundamentally better. And we’ve got to keep repping it and commit to it.”

A couple of plays after the long pass, it looked like junior safety Kyle Hamilton had an interception, but the play was overturned after further review. The Irish defense would stand firm, though, and hold Toledo to a 31-yard field goal to retain a 7-3 early lead.

On the ensuing Irish drive, it looked like Coan and the Irish would march down the field yet again, but Coan got sacked on the blindside and fumbled the football. Toledo would take over on their own 44-yard line and march down to the 20-yard line in just two plays. The Irish defense held firm in the red zone yet again, though, holding Toledo to a field goal and keeping a narrow 7-6 lead.

After trading possessions a couple of times, the Irish brought in true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. Buchner sparked the offense immediately and orchestrated a five-play, 96-yard touchdown drive where he had rushes of 26 and 11 yards and a 15-yard completion to wide receiver Braden Lenzy. The Irish then reached the end zone on a Kyren Williams 43-yard touchdown to take a 14-6 lead.

After getting a stop on the ensuing possession, the Irish got the ball back and decided to go for a fourth down and one. The Irish failed to convert, giving the Rockets the ball in Irish territory. After being aided by a couple of holding and pass interference calls, the Rockets found themselves at the Irish two-yard line. The defense would stand strong yet again to keep Toledo out of the end zone and keep a 14-9 Irish lead.

It looked like Notre Dame would have one more chance before halftime to get points, but Jack Coan’s pass was intercepted by Chris McDonald and returned for a touchdown, giving the Rockets a surprising 16-14 lead at the end of the first half.

Kelly discussed the lack of intensity his team showed throughout the game.

“We lacked intensity coming out,” Kelly said, “You have to play this game with some intensity, and I did not like the way we came out. I thought we lacked intensity. That’s on me and my preparation in terms of how I prepare our football team.”

The second half turned out to be very entertaining, largely a back-and-forth affair. In the second drive of the half for Notre Dame, it looked as if the Irish were threatening to score, but the drive stalled at the 37-yard line. Jonathan Doerer attempted a field goal for the Irish, but he missed the long 55-yard field goal. At the end of the third quarter, the score remained 16-14 in favor of Toledo.

And at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Irish drive stalled yet again in Toledo territory. This time, though, the Irish were a bit closer, and Doerer converted a 48-yard field goal to give the Irish a narrow 17-16 lead with just over 12 minutes to go in the game.

That field goal seemed to ignite some energy in the Irish, as the Irish were able to stop the Rockets on their ensuing possession. The Irish then got good field position at the Toledo 45-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Buchner connected with sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who took it to the house for a 55-yard score to give the Irish a 24-16 lead with just under 11 minutes to play.

Just when it looked like the Irish were finally going to pull away, the Rockets responded on the first play of their next drive with a 67-yard run from Bryant Koback to put the Rockets deep in Irish territory. The Rockets would ultimately score on a Koback eight-yard rushing touchdown on third and goal. Koback finished the day with over 100 rushing yards against the Irish.

The Irish defense held strong on the two-point conversion, however, by breaking up Bradley’s pass to keep a 24-22 lead with just under eight minutes left.

Notre Dame got the ball back and drove down the field, but a Kyren Williams fumble stopped the drive in its tracks. The Rockets then got the ball and got down the field quickly, and ultimately scored off a Dequan Finn 26-yard rushing touchdown to regain a five-point lead at 29-24.

The Rockets left too much time on the clock for the Irish, though, as Coan marched the Irish down the field and found Mayer in the end zone to give the Irish the lead. Mayer finished the game with seven receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

Mayer discussed the positioning involved in the game-winning touchdown.

“[Coan] gave a little nod to the outside. He was playing outside leverage and right up the middle was wide open,” Mayer said.

On that last drive, Coan dislocated his finger, but quickly popped it back into place.

“He dislocated his finger and got it back in, and he felt like he could keep going,” Kelly said.

A trick play on the two-point conversion led to a Kyren Williams touchdown catch from wide receiver Avery Davis, and the Irish were back up by three at 32-29.

Toledo still had some time remaining on the clock, but the Irish defense stood strong this time. On a first down deep in Toledo territory, graduate student lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa caused a fumble, and it was recovered by junior linebacker JD Bertrand to seal the victory. Bertrand finished the game with eleven total tackles and three tackles for loss.

Kelly discussed how the fans and atmosphere in Notre Dame Stadium helped his team.

“It was a great atmosphere, and I thought that they helped us a lot,” Kelly said. “Especially when you need that jolt, which we did, it helps to have that home crowd.”

The Irish finished the day with three turnovers, which Kelly said is an issue that will have to be cleaned up moving forward.

“We have work to do on offense. You can’t turn the ball over,” Kelly said. “If we don’t turn the football over today, we’re going to put a lot of points on the board. If against Purdue next week, we play clean offense, don’t turn it over and really settle in on how we want to run the football, that would be a good step forward.”

The Irish will be back in action next weekend for in-state rival Purdue. That game will also be at Notre Dame Stadium at 2:30 p.m. EST.

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

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