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Highlights: No. 8 Notre Dame 32, Toledo 29 — Featuring Jack Coan & Tyler Buchner

Toledo gave No. 8 Notre Dame all they could handle in their 2021 home opener, but Tyler Buchner's spark of the bench and Jack Coan's late touchdown pass to Michael Mayer lifted the Irish to 2-0.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0) had an inordinate number of highlights for a game in which it escaped with a win only in the closing minutes. The Irish broke a 43-yard run for a touchdown, as well as a 55-yard catch-and-scamper for a score. Their offense showed some other moments of sustained explosiveness, namely the opening and closing drives led by quarterback Jack Coan and finishing with touchdown passes to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer.

So how did Notre Dame end up in yet another tense game with more points scored than expected? Toledo had an interception return for a touchdown, courtesy of Coan just before halftime, along with a 26-yard designed quarterback run reaching the end zone with only 95 seconds remaining.

The Irish defense remains an experiment in break-or-be-broken, a drastic change from the sure-tackling, suffocating units the last three years coordinated by Clark Lea.

“We know why it’s happening,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re transitioning defenses.

“Again, I will tell you that we have new players on the field, younger players, inexperienced players that are going through some growing pains. In the long run, we still have to get the ball on the ground. We have a chance to do things, and we’re making them worse by not doing the fundamental things, turning plays that are 10, 12, 15 yards — you might have those occasionally — we’re letting them turn into 60-yard runs.”

Assuredly, even Coan would rather not have led a two-minute drill to win Saturday, an opportunity provided only by the defense’s lapses.

Kelly gave the game ball to junior linebacker JD Bertrand, finishing with a game-high 11 tackles, including three for loss with one sack. He recovered the game-sealing fumble, forced by fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

While Buchner and Coan split the moments of note and the running back duo of sophomore Chris Tyree and junior Kyren Williams totaled 178 yards from scrimmage, perhaps the player of the game should be Tagovailoa-Amosa, and not only for the strip-sack, though that is certainly a part of it.

“I don’t even know who made the strip at it, but that’s credit to — Myron? — credit to Myron,” Bertrand said. “I was just making sure I got to the ball. At the end of the day, guys were covered, it was a scramble, Myron’s there to strip it, so obviously it’s a team sport.”

No one would have faulted Tagovailoa-Amosa if he had headed back to Hawaii for the weekend. After his sudden and unexpected death in August, Tagovailoa-Amosa’s father’s funeral was Saturday afternoon — Saturday evening in the Eastern time zone.

Instead, Tagovailoa-Amosa led his team, finishing with two sacks, one in the first quarter and one to end the game, with a quarterback hurry in between.

On an afternoon decided by the slimmest of margins, missing Tagovailoa-Amosa coming off the edge may have provided Toledo with that slight momentary advantage needed to extend one more drive into the end zone. No one would have faulted Tagovailoa-Amosa if that were the case. But he did not let it even come up in conversation — some Notre Dame staffers only learned of the timing of Tuli’s funeral when Tagovailoa-Amosa was logging onto a video call to remotely attend the funeral barely an hour after the Irish victory.

Showing up for your team on such a day is more than a captain’s duty. It is more than “for the brotherhood.” It is more than anyone could ever ask of Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Coan’s game-winning 18-yard touchdown pass to Mayer will be remembered, perhaps as much for trainer Mike Bean’s quick resetting of Coan’s right middle finger as for the actual route, a play call that Notre Dame had set up throughout the drive.

“We ran that play a couple times on that series,” said Mayer after finishing with seven catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns. “We knew he was playing a little bit outside, and he kept biting and he kept biting, and we ran it and I was open.

“We ran it again, the first time, he didn’t give me the ball. [Coan] was looking the other side of the field (to senior receiver Kevin Austin). The second time, we knew he was going to do the same exact thing, so kind of gave him a nod to the outside, he was playing outside leverage, and up the middle was wide open.”

Mayer missed Coan’s finger drama, but the moment was not lost on the Irish offense.

“It was kind of crazy,” Tyree said. “... That just shows his grit, his intensity, his mentality. I think he knew to show that grit was really important for our offense. It was a great performance from him.”

Kelly said it was Coan’s experience that made him the choice to quarterback the final drive, but his better deep ball inevitably played a role, too, considering how many times Notre Dame ran four verticals to repeatedly get Mayer open. Coan’s grittiness was simply an unexpected and visceral bonus.

After cruising down the field on the opening possession, the next three Irish drives totaled 27 yards on 14 plays. Notre Dame still led, but that was a testament to its defense.

Then, with the ball on its own 4-yard-line, the Irish called on Buchner. His very first snap resulted in him running 26 yards.

“It’s pretty obvious to see when he comes into the game, but I think it’s important to know that we were actually implementing that into the game plan,” Tyree said. “We had practiced a few of those packages throughout the week, so we knew it was coming.”

Notre Dame intended to play Buchner on Saturday, but it did not know it would so badly need a spark when it deployed him or to need to force the defense to account for another wrinkle.

In the end, Buchner appeared in five Irish drives, not taking every snap, just appearing in. They resulted in:— 5 plays, 96 yards, 43-yard Williams touchdown run.— 6 plays, 5 yards.— 13 plays, 55 yards, Jonathan Doerer 48-yard field goal.— 1 play, 55 yards, 55-yard Tyree touchdown catch.— 9 plays, 48 yards, Williams fumble.

In total, that was 34 plays for 249 yards, a 7.3 yards per play average, and 17 points. Ignoring end of half moments, Notre Dame had eight other drives that totaled 35 plays for 174 yards, a 5.0 yards per play average, and 15 points.

Aside from that clear display of Buchner’s catalyst effect … attendance was only 62,009 at Notre Dame Stadium, 16,000 fans short of a sellout.

Yet, that crowd still forced multiple presnap penalties on Toledo in the game’s closing moments.

“Awesome experience,” Mayer said. “I was really pumped for it. Everyone showed out. They were loud on third down. I’m excited to play in front of those fans for the next two or three years.”

Bertrand was asked about the Irish continuing to give up big plays, specifically big rushing plays. He did not realize he used a buzzword to start his answer.

“It’s execution.

“We have to make sure everyone is doing their job. We’ll look at it, get it cleaned up, from there we’ll learn.”

It’s execution.

Maybe it was a joke only this writer could appreciate, but a pregame draft of the game wrap — a draft expecting Notre Dame to win easily, if not handily in its first game back with fans at home — led with …

“Notre Dame football was filmed before a live audience.”

Instead, the drama of the day, the quarterback duo and the hanging digit took precedent over one final “Cheers” reference to conclude Peacock week.

tweet to @d_farmer