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Football

Thomas: This loss is on the infuriatingly inflexible Brian Kelly

| Saturday, October 2, 2021

Over the first few weeks of the Notre Dame football season, Irish fans were led to believe that of the three quarterbacks competing for playing time, freshman Tyler Buchner was the dual-threat with elite athleticism. Of transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne, the narrative was that the pair were very similar quarterbacks, with the former Wisconsin signal-caller having the desired experience to take over at the helm. 

However, when Coan went down with an injury against the Badgers last week, Pyne took over. And it was immediately clear that Pyne is a better fit in this Notre Dame offense. The sophomore who plays with what Kelly calls a “swagger” was 6-8 with a touchdown pass in leading a comeback victory. His escape ability behind a shaky offensive line was notable. 

Yet throughout the week, in press conferences and depth chart releases, head coach Brian Kelly touted Coan as the starter. And, sans two first-half series with Buchner, Coan did take all the offensive snaps on Saturday against No. 7 Cincinnati. The results were nothing short of horrific; Coan was 14-22 for 114 yards with a red-zone interception. At halftime, the Irish trailed 17-0. 

At the break, the Irish made an evidently needed quarterback change. Immediately, the more elusive and mobile Pyne impressed with a series of throws and runs. Pyne hit senior receiver Kevin Austin for 15 yards and then sophomore tight end Michael Mayer for 17. After 50 yards of offense brought the Irish to the Cincinnati 30, they inexplicably went for a 4th and 5 rather than attempt a 47-yard field goal – six yards short of kicker Jonathan Doerer’s career-long. Although no points were scored on the drive, the Irish offense instantly looked more dynamic. 

A turnover forced by the Irish defense gave Notre Dame a short field on the ensuing drive, and Pyne punched it in from 38 yards out. A 16-yard pass to Mayer and an impressive 11-yard scramble sparked the drive. After the two teams traded punts, Pyne would lead the Irish on their only successful extended drive. In eight plays, the sophomore threw for 73 yards, capping an 80-yard drive with a beautiful 32-yard strike to senior receiver Braden Lenzy. 

All-in-all, Pyne’s numbers didn’t drop any jaws, 9-22 for 143 yards – but the Irish offense averaged nearly two full yards more per play. They gained 144 yards on 39 plays in the first half – and 197 on 35 snaps in the latter two quarters. Also notable was Pyne averaging 1.3 yards more per attempt despite five fewer completions. His ability to read the field and extend plays, combined with a willingness to let it rip and trust his receivers gave the Irish offense a more dynamic feel. Against a Cincinnati team averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt and torching the Irish with some big plays, more explosive counterpunches would have been desirable. 

Brian Kelly has done some great things as the head coach at Notre Dame. 106 wins, making him the all-time Notre Dame record holder, is impressive. That being said, Kelly has repeatedly failed to adjust to the modern era of football in a way that can keep Notre Dame competitive. The latest example was seen in this game – offensively, Kelly was simply unprepared. His mindset has long been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Never mind if the ‘it’ is your offense, and even if it’s not broken, it’s hanging on by a thread. The Irish are averaging 20 points per game offensively over their last three contests. They also scored just 17 points in the first three quarters against Toledo. It was clear to everyone that the offense was struggling, and it was abundantly clear that Pyne energized the offense in a way that Coan couldn’t. 

Kelly’s answer for starting the elder slinger on Saturday? “Jack didn’t do anything to lose his job.” 

Really? Could you be any less proactive as a coach – any less flexible? Maybe Coan didn’t make any outlandish mistakes. But he led the Irish to the red zone just nine times in four games – ranking 123rd in the nation. He was a borderline statue behind a struggling offensive line, leading to extra sacks and the ability for opposing lines to hone in on the running backs.

Pyne was confident, poised, and in control during his relief appearance against Wisconsin. He came in against Cincinnati and again was a sparkplug. He’s learning, yes, but Kelly’s stubborn refusal to look beyond the present cost the Irish a victory. Cincinnati was very impressive – but give Pyne the reins for the whole game? It could very well have been a different result. And while Kelly admitted that the Irish needed to ‘figure out’ the quarterback situation, citing a lack of continuity for the offense, it’s not exactly the sign of a great coach that makes that realization after a brutal top-10 loss at home. 

Quite simply, Brian Kelly cost the Irish this game. He didn’t have the offense prepared, and he didn’t put the best players on the field from the onset. Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner – in whichever order – are the quarterbacks of the future. And Pyne is the quarterback that gives the Irish the best chance to win. While the Playoff dream is almost certainly quashed by this result, Notre Dame can still play for their first major bowl win in decades. Pyne is the people’s quarterback in South Bend, and if he’s not under center from the get-go next week at Virginia Tech, it’s an embarrassing look for the program. 

Kelly may have 106 wins. He brought the Irish back to national relevance. But now that they’re on the brink of being truly elite, his stubborn practices are beginning to negatively affect Notre Dame. On offense, all over the field but particularly at receiver, Notre Dame features underdeveloped talent because Kelly refused to play them early in their careers. Is the future going to repeat itself with an average, immobile quarterback usurping the snaps from two more talented quarterbacks who hold the keys to the program in their hands? It’s time to recognize the future when it comes to you. 

Play Drew Pyne.

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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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