Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 18, 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 30 of 55 SEPT. 18, 2021 31 B r i a n Ke l ly pa u se d , eye b rows squeezed in tight and lips pressed together, and glanced downward at the dais in the Notre Dame Stadium media room. It was an expression befitting of a be- wildered fan after five failed attempts to sign up for Peacock Premium. Or, in his unique case, fitting for a head coach still sorting out why his Notre Dame team that has reeled off four straight 10-win seasons needed a go-ahead touchdown in the final 90 seconds to sidestep disaster against a Mid-American Conference opponent. For nine silent seconds, he pondered the question posed to him: Has he realized there are more questions and areas to ad- dress than he imagined entering this year? "Yes and no," he said, breaking the pause. "Yes, in the sense that from a defensive standpoint, there is a little bit more to it than maybe I thought in fig- uring some things out. And offensively, I thought we would get to a run game that we felt comfortable with sooner. "But on the other hand, I think the personnel is driving a lot of this in terms of making it difficult to settle on some- thing. We have some guys that really can make some plays, and we are a little hesitant at times to say, 'All right, this is who we're going to be.'" In a way, the latter portion — the sup- posed "no" — is a question itself. The stack of them to answer is indeed large. Notre Dame is 2-0, an imperfect per- fect record attained with a backdrop of nervous laughter. The Irish escaped in overtime at Florida State after blowing an 18-point second-half lead. They hit an unexpected tripwire in the 32-29 win against Toledo. "Happy about the win," Kelly said. "But I can't even begin with the work that we have to do." Even the abridged version of that list is still worrisome and casts a shadow of unease over the rest of the season. Whether it was due to the Peacock stream quality or the on-field happen- ings, Saturday added up to a maddening watch for Notre Dame fans. The Irish committed three turn- overs, the last of which was running back Kyren Williams' fumble that set up Toledo's go-ahead touchdown with 1:35 left. They allowed two more plays of at least 60 yards. They surrendered six sacks. Save for Williams' 43-yard touchdown, their running game was dormant. The line of scrimmage, long an assumed win for a program that leans into the "O-Line U" moniker, was de- cidedly the opposite. Then there's the quarterback position, which isn't yet a controversy but might be a two-player operation out of need. Graduate student Jack Coan isn't go- ing anywhere. He led the game-winning drive, marching 75 yards in just 26 sec- onds and firing the winning touchdown to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer one play after dislocating a finger on his throwing hand. Coan's winning plays outweighed his mistakes. But what was supposed to be a pack- aged, structured appearance for fresh- man Tyler Buchner turned into a possible solution for a still-scuffling rushing at- tack and a spark for an offense. The threat of him as a runner opens the offense in a way the less-mobile Coan doesn't. And Notre Dame can't afford to ignore potential fixes to its maladies. Buchner even stayed in the game beyond his pre- planned duties, running the same plays Coan would have in that spot. All told, it's twist of irony. Notre Dame might've found some help in Buchner. But that also requires Kelly and offensive co- ordinator Tommy Rees to figure out how to manage a position they didn't expect would require any more thought after naming Coan the starter early in fall camp. As if they don't have enough other concerns to address. The offensive line played the second half with No. 3 left tackle Tosh Baker, a sophomore who stepped in after class- mate Michael Carmody suffered an ankle sprain. Carmody was filling in for fresh- man Blake Fisher, who is out two months after meniscus surgery earlier in the week. Moving senior center and projected 2022 NFL Draft pick Jarrett Patterson to tackle isn't an option, Kelly said. Just about every other idea, though, war- rants consideration at this point. On the other side, defensive coordi- nator Marcus Freeman's bumpy first two games are reason for introspection and a change in emphasis. The Irish need to find whatever it takes to elimi- nate big plays that have suddenly and surprisingly become too prevalent. "It was an eye-opening game," junior linebacker JD Bertrand said. "It was bit- tersweet. We'll be able to take it from here and identify, 'OK, here's what we need to get better.'" That's patently clear right now and will be even more so upon film re- view. As for how to go about it? There are some easily identifiable strengths. Notre Dame knows it has to lean into them as it tries to patch the underly- ing cracks in this 2-0 start before five straight games against ranked oppo- nents can further erode them. "We have to kind of figure out where we want to go here," Kelly said. "We've got some really good players, but this week will be, 'All right, here is who we are and let's get to work.'" ✦ ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are 2-0, but it's a start filled with unease and questions. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Questions Piling Up After Dodging Disaster

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