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Highlights — Notre Dame 32, Virginia Tech 29, a game won by broken plays and unexpected substitutes

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 09: Kevin Austin Jr. #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass to score a two point conversion to tie the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the second half of the game at Lane Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame did not intend for senior receiver Kevin Austin to be the hero on its pivotal two-point conversion in its 32-29 win at Virginia Tech on Saturday. Not only was Austin not the intended target on the broken play, but the Irish anticipated running a different play entirely.

That drive began with 3:55 remaining and Notre Dame (5-1) trailing by eight points, and its first play saw junior running back Kyren Williams catch a five-yard pass before Hokies linebacker Dax Hollifield tackled him, a hit that was ruled a targeting penalty. The perk: The Irish were suddenly at their own 45-yard line. The con: Williams needed to come out of the game to be checked for a concussion, a protocol he was not thrilled with but understood, an understanding buoyed by the eventual victory.

Williams would not return on the drive, albeit a quick drive thanks to Jack Coan completing five of six passes for 58 yards, capped by a touchdown to fifth-year receiver Avery Davis. After that score, Williams looked out at the alignment before the snap on the two-point conversion attempt. That was not the play he expected to see.

“Probably because I wasn’t in there,” he said. “We definitely had something set up, and when I saw it, ‘Oh, that is not what we had dialed up this whole week for a two-point play.’ But we have playmakers all around on this offense, on this team, see what happens.”

The new intention was to go back to one of those playmakers and turn it into an eight-point drive for Davis. Look at the four-second mark in this clip, and you will see Davis slipping into the flat at the top of the screen after senior tight end George Takacs conveniently runs into a couple defensive backs.

Yes, Notre Dame was running a toned-down version of the pick play made infamous at Florida State in 2014. Maybe in order to avoid another costly offensive pass interference flag, maybe a result of fatigue filling in for sophomore Michael Mayer for the entire night, or maybe Virginia Tech simply scouted the play well, whatever the reason, Takacs’ “route” did not completely clear out space for Davis. If Coan threw him the pass, crossing the goal line would have been a 50/50 proposition.

“We scan the play looking for Avery right out of the bunch,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It was a marginal throw. If he throws it, I don’t know that [Davis] gets in. Jack turned the throw down and just kept the play alive.”

Kept it alive until he heaved it for Austin.

It may be some time before the world knows if Coan was targeting Austin or if sheer hope drove that jump ball.

That two-point conversion was the final “Turning Point of the Game.” Despite two quarterback changes, despite two interceptions with one a pick-six, despite playing without two of its best offensive weapons in Mayer and sophomore running back Chris Tyree, Notre Dame had tied the game with fewer than two minutes left.

The Hokies had scored a touchdown on their previous drive, but before that, they had managed 70 yards on 23 plays in the second half. The Irish defense should be able to hold serve and force overtime. Which it did, just quicker than that.

But Austin’s leaping snag may not have been the most impressive play of the day. As is often the case, that honor goes to Williams.

Again, that play was not set on going to Williams. He just insisted upon it.

A run-pass option for freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner to assess, with two options open to his left on the play, Williams told his quarterback not to think, just to trust him.

“I wasn’t supposed to get the ball,” Williams said. “It was just supposed to fake to me, but I told Buchner pre-snap, just give me that ball. I saw there was one ‘backer in the box, the side I was running to. I told him, give me the ball, do not pull it, do not throw it. Let me get this.”

That confidence summed up Notre Dame’s rushing attack Saturday, a drastic shift compared to its ineptitude throughout the previous month.

“Big step, I feel like we’re taking steps each and every game. The gel that we always talk about was there,” Williams said. “We were popping.”

Neither Williams nor Tyree nor freshman running back Logan Diggs nor Buchner was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on a rush. They took 41 carries for 192 yards, a 4.68 yards per rush average. It was not dominant, but it was effective.

“Every time, being able to display our physicality on our opponent each and every down is going to wear and tear on them,” Williams said. “They’re going to fold eventually. We’re still getting to it, we’re still doing that.”

Kelly honored Coan and fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer after the game, understandably so. Coan shook off a benching to lead two clutch drives in a moment that will not soon be forgotten. Doerer hit yet another game-winning kick.

But it was Diggs that may have been most vital. A turf toe injury sidelined Tyree in the second half. That concussion worry knocked out Williams for the game’s most pivotal drive. Senior running back C’Bo Flemister was in South Bend due to a coach’s decision.

Diggs took six carries for 29 yards and caught a pass for 15 yards in his first meaningful moments. The Irish needed a running back and they had no other options.

“He showed up, we expected that,” Williams said. “We always knew he had it in him. He came out tonight and proved himself when he needed to prove himself on the last drive, the crowd was going crazy, two-minute drive. … He has a bright future.”

As much as Coan showed perseverance and resilience, as much as Doerer showed unflappable fortitude, Diggs’ gaining 17 yards on that drive may have been equally as impressive.

Notre Dame entered the red zone four times on Saturday. It scored four touchdowns.

Entering the weekend, the Irish had scored only six touchdowns on 11 red-zone possessions.

Kelly has been in an uncontained mood after every game this season. Rambunctious is not the right adjective, neither is playful. Despite his verbal misstep in Tallahassee, joking is not the tone either.

He has been roving and jousting, receptive and pondering. One week he trips over an old football joke, another week he takes eight full seconds of consideration before responding to a question. In Lane Stadium, he opened with deadpan sarcasm and then set to elevating his players by knocking expected storylines.

“Not much to say, pretty boring day here in Blacksburg. …

“Unphased by the circumstances, and in particular, take Jack Coan out of the game, he’s the first one to pick up Tyler Buchner on the field when he’s hurt, and he’s prepared himself mentally to go back in the game and lead two drives.

“You guys should be thinking about great things to write about that guy because that doesn’t happen very often, but you’ll find negative things to write about this game, and that’s why I don’t really care, because as a coach, what I take from these games is watching a guy like a Jack Coan come in under those circumstances and rise above it.”

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