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Chris Tyree’s kickoff return sparks Notre Dame to blowout of Wisconsin, 41-13

Wisconsin v Notre Dame

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 25: Chris Tyree #25 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a kickoff for a touchdown chased by Dean Engram #6 of the Wisconsin Badgers as Leo Albano #26 celebrates at Soldier Field on September 25, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Notre Dame defeated Wisconsin 41-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Getty Images

CHICAGO — Neither Notre Dame’s nor Wisconsin’s offenses could move much against their respective stout defenses, so Irish running back Chris Tyree and Notre Dame’s defensive backs decided to not face the Badgers defense at all. Tyree’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter sparked No. 12 Notre Dame, and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the closing minutes turned the win from simply impressive into an all-out 41-13 rout on Saturday at Soldier Field.

To start the fourth quarter, No. 18 Wisconsin (1-2) kicked a field goal to take a 13-10 lead that did not quite feel insurmountable, but after the Irish (4-0) had gained all of 32 yards in the third quarter, a long, game-winning drive in the final frame seemed unlikely.

Instead, Tyree fielded a fluttering kickoff at the 4-yard-line, somewhat cornered by the goal line. Once he found a crease across the field, Tyree’s speed took over. A few Badgers nearly caught him, but in the end, his speed won.

“That was like the game-changing play, honestly,” said junior cornerback Cam Hart, a notable credit coming from him after he made two interceptions. "... Having that and then putting the defense back out on the field, allowing us to build on that energy and intensity. That changed the game a lot.”

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz struggled all day — undone first by the two interceptions to Hart and then undone entirely by throwing pick-sixes to Irish junior linebacker Jack Kiser and fifth-year linebacker Drew White in the closing minutes.

“I’m not surprised by the win,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “The outcome was a little bit different because of the interceptions late, but I’m not surprised they won the game.”

The Badgers had put together just one touchdown drive when Tyree dashed for the end zone. They preferred to stick with a plodding ground game, but when 28 carries yield 74 yards, that ground game is unlikely to produce a needed score. Thus, Notre Dame’s defensive line knew it could dial in and pass rush Mertz, forcing a fumble three plays after Tyree’s touchdown.

Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne soon found senior receiver Kevin Austin for a 16-yard touchdown, and Kelly’s record-setting 106th Irish win was sealed. The defensive touchdowns were only icing on the cake.

Pyne took over for starter Jack Coan after Coan suffered a left leg injury in the third quarter, costing him his chance to author an upset of his old team. The Wisconsin transfer finished with 158 yards on 15-of-29 passing, also throwing a touchdown to Austin, while Pyne threw for 81 yards on 6-of-8 passing. Austin caught six passes for 76 yards and the two scores. His first may have been debatable upon first viewing, but a review confirmed Austin completed the touchdown snag before the ball was stripped loose. For much of the afternoon, Austin’s first score seemed like it might be the game’s only touchdown.

“I knew I had caught the ball, secured the catch, got into the end zone,” Austin said. “I looked up to the ref and he had his hands up, so I knew it was a touchdown.”

Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner did not play after a hamstring injury plagued him the last week. Kelly said he expects Buchner to be available next week, and he described Coan’s injury as a “soft-tissue injury” but not a sprained ankle, offering optimism Coan could return to his starting role against No. 8 Cincinnati in a week.

With the win, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne’s record of 105 wins at Notre Dame, both their tenures lasting 12 seasons (to date).

“I’m just glad it’s over with,” Kelly said. "... I get more joy in watching the development of a Drew Pyne go in there and Chris Tyree getting a — that’s why I do this. You don’t do this for 31 years because you’re trying to beat Knute Rockne’s record.

“I mean no disrespect to Knute. But I’m just glad it’s over with and we can move on to trying to beat Cincinnati.”

Giving up six sacks for a loss of 39 yards created a statistical oddity we will assume has not been accomplished in program history.

Williams finished with 33 yards on 18 rush attempts, a 1.8 yards per carry average, with a long of seven yards. Even if removing the sacks from the Irish stats, they ran for 42 yards on 26 carries, a 1.62 yards per rush average.

Every one of those numbers is worse than the worst Notre Dame rushing performances of the last four-plus years. They are not necessarily common, but about once a year, the Irish recognize they are overmatched up front and need to abandon the run.

2020: The second meeting with Clemson, 38 carries for 69 yards, a 1.82 yards per rush average (sacks adjusted).
2019: The downpour at Michigan, 29 carries for 53 yards, a 1.83 yards per rush average (sacks adjusted).
2019: The tight loss at Georgia and the most notable occurrence of Kelly’s coaching staff preemptively changing course, 14 carries for 46 yards, a 3.29 yards per rush average (no sacks to adjust for).
2017: The first tight loss to Georgia, when Notre Dame never truly got away from the run, 34 carries for 79 yards, a 2.32 yards per rush average (sacks adjusted).

The difference between all those and Saturday? The Irish won, in large part thanks to their defense, even if discounting the interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Before this weekend, Notre Dame had failed to rush for 100 yards six times during this 47-8 stretch, winning against only Pittsburgh in 2018, a 19-14 nailbiter in which the Irish failed to score a touchdown until the end of the third quarter.

— Wisconsin converted only one of 14 third downs.
— Mertz has now thrown one touchdown this season. Well, three if counting his gifts to Kiser and White.
— Junior linebacker JD Bertrand added to his team-leading tackle tally with a game-high eight, giving him 43 on the season.
— Notre Dame gave up 12 tackles for loss.
— Without fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish, backups Howard Cross and Jacob Lacey each notched two tackles with one for loss apiece.

“When they played ‘Jump Around,’ it seemed like we thought that was our fight song and we started playing better. I don’t know. I’ll have to check that with our guys.” — Kelly on the Wisconsin tradition that preceded the fourth quarter of this neutral-site game.

First Quarter11:48 — Wisconsin field goal. Collin Larsh 37 yards. Wisconsin 3, Notre Dame 0. (5 plays, 26 yards, 1:54)

Second Quarter8:44 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 51 yards. Wisconsin 3, Notre Dame 3. (16 plays, 46 yards, 3:29)4:48 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 36-yard pass from Jack Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Wisconsin 3. (5 plays, 51 yards, 2:18)

Third Quarter9:53 — Wisconsin touchdown. Kendric Pryor 8-yard pass from Graham Mertz. Larsh PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Wisconsin 10. (4 plays, 56 yards, 2:01)

Fourth Quarter14:14 — Wisconsin field goal. Larsh 27 yards. Wisconsin 13, Notre Dame 10. (9 plays, 30 yards, 3:44)14:01 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 96-yard kickoff return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Wisconsin 13.
9:34 — Notre Dame touchdown. Austin 16-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Wisconsin 13. (6 plays, 46 yards, 2:40)
3:10 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 37 yards. Notre Dame 27, Wisconsin 13. (4 plays, 4 yards, 1:45)
2:13 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jack Kiser 66-yard interception return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 34, Wisconsin 13.
1:01 — Notre Dame touchdown. Drew White 48-yard interception return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 41, Wisconsin 13.

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