Irish finish tumultuous season with 11 wins, new head coach
Nate Moller | Friday, May 13, 2022
Between a string of close games and an unexpected late season coaching change, the 2021 Notre Dame football season had its fair share of ups and downs. Despite the obstacles the team faced, however, the Irish still managed to post an 11-2 record and make a New Year’s Six game.
Irish survive early nailbiters
The season started in Tallahassee against an energized Florida State team playing to honor the late Bobby Bowden. The game saw the Irish blow a 38-20 fourth-quarter lead, but they were ultimately able to hold on. They won in overtime off of a Jonathan Doerer game-winning field goal. The opening win in Tallahassee set the tone for a string of early-season close games for the Irish.
The following week’s home opener against Toledo was arguably the tensest game of the year for the Irish. Despite coming into the game as massive favorites against the Rockets, the Irish couldn’t put away the visitors. The Rockets even took a 29-24 lead with 1:35 to play. However, graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan orchestrated a five-play, 75-yard drive to give the Irish a 32-29 comeback victory.
The win, although ugly, delivered a wake-up call to former head coach Brian Kelly and the Irish. After the game, Kelly acknowledged that his team had a lot to work on going forward.
“There is just so much work that we have to do,” Kelly said. “We had three turnovers, one of which was a touchdown. You don’t usually survive those games.”
The Irish rebounded from their near letdown against Toledo with an impressive 27-13 win against Purdue the next week. Unlike the Toledo game, the Irish had no turnovers. Additionally, they established a run game with junior running back Kyren Williams rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown.
The following weekend, the 3-0 Irish headed to Soldier Field to play the Wisconsin Badgers in their toughest test of the season to date.
The game looked like a low-scoring defensive battle. Coan went down with injury and the Badgers took a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin claimed the momentum. But the Irish captured it back on the ensuing play. Chris Tyree electrified the crowd with a 96-yard kickoff return for the touchdown. It was all Irish from that point on. Sophomore backup quarterback Drew Pyne tossed a touchdown. Then, a pair of pick-sixes gave the Irish a dominating 41-13 win.
Irish crash and burn, search for answers
Although the Wisconsin victory was one of the most memorable of the season, everything came crashing down the following weekend. Shut out in the first half, the Irish lost at home to Cincinnati by a score of 24-13. That loss marked the first Irish loss at Notre Dame Stadium since 2017 and ended a 26-game home win streak. Pyne replaced an ineffective Jack Coan in the second half.
After the loss, Kelly discussed his disappointment. “When you play a good opponent, you have to match your play with a high level of competency in terms of the mundane things,” Kelly said. “We didn’t take care of the basics today.”
The Irish faced another difficult game the following weekend. They battled Virginia Tech in a hostile road atmosphere at Lane Stadium. This time, freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner replaced Coan for a large portion of the game.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Irish trailed the Hokies 29-21, but Coan re-entered. He led the Irish the length of the field in 89 seconds, finding Avery Davis in the endzone with 2:26 to play. Coan then converted a broken two-point conversion play to tie the game. After stopping the Hokies on the ensuing drive, Doerer nailed a 48-yard field goal with 17 seconds to play to give the Irish the victory.
After the victory, Kelly applauded Coan for his late-game heroics.
“He was decisive when the ball came out of his hands,” Kelly said. “The reads were correct and it looked like he was shooting fish in the barrel with the timeliness of the ball coming out of his hand.”
Irish surge after bye week
The Irish then headed into a much-needed bye week with a 5-1 record. After the bye week, it was much more smooth sailing. The Irish won each of the remaining six games by more than one possession.
This six-game run to end the season started with a home victory under the lights against rival USC by a score of 31-16.
Kelly discussed after the game how his team implemented a more up-tempo, structured offense for Coan during the bye week that seemed to help the offense significantly against the Trojans.
“We spent most of our time putting the offense together with Jack being in much more of a tempoed offensive structure,” Kelly said.
The Irish then followed up the USC victory with another night game home victory the following week. This time, they beat UNC by a score of 44-34. The storyline of that game was Kyren Williams, who had 199 yards on the ground off of 22 carries. That performance included a sensational 91-yard touchdown run. Williams avoided multiple tackles and stiff-armed a Tar Heel player in the backfield before taking it to the house. Kelly reflected on Williams’ sensational run after the game, calling it an “incredible individual effort.”
The Irish then rolled to victory in their next four games, beating Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford by a combined score of 162-23 to complete an 11-1 season and put the team in the conversation for a College Football Playoff spot.
Kelly departure shocks program
It appeared the red-hot Irish could enjoy championship weekend and await their bowl game destination. But on November 30, Brian Kelly announced his departure to the team. He left the program to take the open head coaching job at LSU.
Kelly’s move sent shockwaves through the program and left question marks about its future direction. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick set out to find the next Notre Dame head football coach. In his press conference after Kelly’s resignation, Swarbrick stressed the importance of finding a coach that was best for the players.
“I am in an envious position as I go out now and search for the next leader of our student athletes,” Swarbrick said. “We have 118 of the best young men in America who are at the core of our program.”
Only a couple of days later on December 3, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was officially announced as the next head football coach. In an introductory press conference on December 6, Freeman outlined a new standard for his team called the “golden standard.” This standard, per Freeman, focuses on challenging everything, unit strength and competitive spirit.
“This [golden] standard will be unwavering, and this is the standard that will drive this program to its 12th national championship,” Freeman said.
Freeman also placed a lot of importance on winning the upcoming Fiesta Bowl.
“My sense of urgency is for right now. It’s to make sure that this team is prepared on January 1 in the Fiesta Bowl to be victorious against Oklahoma State,” Freeman said.
Second-half collapse mars Freeman debut
In the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish came out firing on all cylinders, and they grabbed a quick 14-0 lead. Jack Coan connected with freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. and sophomore running back Chris Tyree for touchdown completions of 29 and 53 yards, respectively.
The Irish continued to impress throughout the first half with Jack Coan, completing two touchdown passes to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer. The second gave the Irish a 28-7 lead with just 1:16 to play in the half.
Just when it looked like the Irish were going to dominate, though, the Cowboys fought back. They marched down the field to score a touchdown at the end of the half and cut the lead to 28-14.
The Cowboys then carried this momentum over to the second half and scored 23 more unanswered points to take a 37-28 lead. Despite a late Irish surge at the end, the Cowboys held on to complete a stunning comeback by a score of 37-35. Despite a loss in his opening game, Freeman stressed the importance of moving on and making sure the team is successful in the future.
“All we can do now is start focusing on what we’ll do as we move forward to make sure that we are successful the next time we are on the field,” Freeman said.
The foundation for success is set at Notre Dame and Freeman is prepared to work with his staff and players to produce a winning product in 2022.
“The honeymoon stage is over. The whole new head coach thing, it’s a great story and all. But it’s about having a great product and having a great team,” Freeman said. “We have to make sure that it’s about developing this team for next year. This year’s over, so everything we do now moving forward is going to be about development and making sure that we are prepared to have success.”