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Thomas: At long last, Jack Coan is being utilized correctly

| Sunday, October 24, 2021

On his first drop back pass of the night, Jack Coan delivered the ball to a receiver just 2.4 seconds after the snap. In completing his first third-down pass of the night, he needed just 2.5 seconds. Later in the drive, Coan gained 24 yards on a three-play series in which no play took longer than 2.1 seconds to develop. The football looked like a hot potato in Coan’s hands with how quickly he was whipping passes to his receivers.

Running a new high-tempo offense we have seen very little of under Tommy Rees, Coan put together a masterclass performance, and the refreshed Notre Dame offense is offering hope that the ceiling for this 2021 team may be higher than just about anyone thought after a shaky start.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Graduate student quarterback Jack Coan looks down the field during the Irish’s 31-16 home win against the Trojans on Oct. 23.

If one could have foreseen the results from the first half of Notre Dame’s schedule and handpicked a bye week for which the Irish could maximize the opportunity, it’s hard to argue they would have picked a different week than the one originally slated into their 2021 calendar. 

After a crushing home defeat to Cincinnati that virtually ended playoff hopes, Notre Dame was able to garner some momentum with a gritty road win at Virginia Tech. That win energized the banged-up Irish who got some much-needed rest over the bye week. However, the bye week was about more than just rest. The offensive inconsistency that had plagued the Irish throughout the season had already led to a loss, and if it were to continue, it almost certainly wouldn’t be the only negative result by the end of the season. 

After picking Coan as the Irish’s quarterback for the 2021 season, largely quelling a quarterback debate that has raged on since the spring, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees went to work designing a new style to optimize their offensive flow. And on Saturday, the Irish rolled out their new-look, up-tempo offense against USC. In arguably their most complete effort of the season, the Irish punted only once all game and torched the Trojans both through the air and on the ground, steadily adding on points for a 31-16 victory. 

Although it took longer than many — including Kelly — would have liked, the adjustments were finally there and the improvement was palpable. With the exception of a handful of package plays for freshman Tyler Buchner, this was Jack Coan’s show — the first time he’s played a full game since beating Purdue over a month ago. And finally, the play-calling catered to Coan’s skillset, allowing the Wisconsin transfer to display the talent that earned him the starting job in the first place. 

Throughout the season, Coan’s best moments have come in high-pressure situations — specifically, he has led a pair of game-winning drives against Toledo and Virginia Tech, operating the two-minute drill offense to near perfection. The play-calling in those situations was somewhat limited — as any hurry-up offense is — and the emphasis was on fast-developing routes that allowed Coan to get rid of the ball quickly. The success in those situations made many, including myself, wonder why the Irish didn’t build more of their offense around that style. 

But on Saturday, they finally did. And the result was the most stress-free win of the season, a comfortable fourth straight victory in the rivalry series that kept Notre Dame Stadium rocking all the way through the final buzzer. 

A statistical breakdown of Coan’s drop backs painted a pretty clear picture. On the day, Coan was 20-28. On plays when the ball came out of his hand in 2.5 seconds or less, Coan was 17-19 for 160 yards. His two incompletions were an interception and then a drop on an open slant route in the first quarter. On plays where Coan held onto the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds? He was 3-9 for 29 yards and took his only sack of the night. Those numbers could be broken down even further into smaller intervals. When he threw in under two seconds, Coan was 7-7 for 72 yards. On only four occasions throughout the night did Coan hold onto the ball for over three seconds — and on those four plays he threw three incompletions and took a sack. 

However you break it down, Coan was at his absolute best with this new high-tempo Irish offense. There was no offensive stall for multiple quarters that quieted any momentum generated by the defense. There was just one punt, one turnover, one sack and one negative run play (excluding kneel-downs) through four quarters. 

From a play-calling standpoint, this may have been Rees’ magnum opus at this point in his career. For the first time in 2021, the second-year offensive coordinator looked like he knew how to best utilize the talented pieces of his offense, and he worked over the USC defense all night. A 31-point showing may not raise any eyebrows or jump off the page, but anyone inside the stadium could tell you it was the best and most consistent the offense has performed all season. 

Up until this game, the Irish’s season felt like one of those jump-scare movies, where you’re constantly waiting for the next scare or disaster to befall the characters. They were pulling out gritty wins — sans the one defeat — but no game against any opponent felt comfortable. But on Saturday night, for the first time we got a look at the Notre Dame coaching staff at their best, finally putting their players in the best position to win, as well as the players executing at a high level. For the first time, the product that Notre Dame put out on the field looked sustainable. A major bowl game seems realistic, an 11-1 record even more so despite a handful of tricky games in the coming weeks. 

As the Irish moved to 6-1 on the year, a game finally ended without there feeling like a debate. Yes, I still like Pyne as the starter, but much of the issues I’ve seen with Coan became lessened with a better offensive scheme.

Coan proved he can be the guy for this offense. He just has to get the ball out of his hands in under 2.5 seconds.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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