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Things To Learn: Defensive, offensive line and QB questions linger as Notre Dame reunites with Purdue

Toledo v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Cavon Butler #97 of the Toledo Rockets reaches for the sack on Tyler Buchner #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame has so many questions after two games, it is hard to pinpoint which one is the most important against Purdue on Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC). Can the No. 12 Irish defense put together a full 60-minute effort? Can the usually-reliable Notre Dame offensive line re-earn that description? How often will the Irish rotate quarterbacks?

Somewhere in those three major issues lies the result of Notre Dame’s 2021. A continually erratic defense should at least ensure dramatic Saturdays, though if the offensive line does not find its footing, those fireworks could become increasingly one-sided. If it does return to form, then the rotation of graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan with freshman dual-threat quarterback Tyler Buchner could truly wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

The question is not if the Irish defense can play well, but for how much of a game?

Notre Dame held Florida State to 86 first-quarter yards in the opener, notable when remembering the Seminoles broke an 89-yard touchdown run in that frame. “Other than” will do a lot of work in this sentence, but other than that dash, the Irish shut down Florida State, which had 66 other total yards in the first half.

Similarly, Toledo did not find a second-half first down for nearly 20 minutes last weekend. In the red zone, the Rockets scored only one touchdown on four trips.

“The fact of the matter is we were in a sound and fundamental defensive structure and we had a blown assignment,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “What does that come down to? It’s coaching. We’ve got to make sure that’s communicated correctly, the guys are hearing the call and then executing it. We’re all in this together.

“[Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman] knows we’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to execute better and eliminate those big plays.”

Wondering if the Irish can eliminate those big plays will persist until they do it for a full game. For that matter, it will persist until they do it repeatedly, given the mistakes have been repeated already.

Adding sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho to the mix should help. Unavailable for the first two weeks of the year, Kelly definitely said Botelho is available and “will play” this week. The Vyper end will add the multiplicity Freeman relies on in certain third-down situations, as well as help supplement the thin depth at linebacker thanks to three season-ending injuries.

Botelho will not be a cure-all, but for Notre Dame’s defense to put together a complete afternoon, every advantage will be appreciated.

There also will not be a cure-all for the Irish offensive line, only some rotations and a Purdue headache.

Notre Dame will not know the readiness of sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody (sprained ankle) until game time — “[Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn] will assess who is in a better position.” — but with or without Carmody, the Irish line will work in some new players, per Kelly.

“I think we have to,” he said. “They’re getting so many snaps. Zeke (Correll), in particular, and Cain (Madden) need a blow.”

Notre Dame has not regularly swapped out offensive linemen due to fatigue concerns at any point during this Irish resurgence. In 2017, freshman Robert Hainsey split time with sophomore Tommy Kraemer at right tackle, but that was more an acknowledgment of their shared lack of experience. Alternating series between the two allowed them to talk things through on the sideline and not be mentally overwhelmed.

That should not be a need for Correll, a junior with two starts at center last year, or Madden, a second-team All-American at Marshall last season with 31 career starts before transferring to Notre Dame.

The Irish are not playing at a particularly brisk rate, averaging 72.5 plays per game through two weeks after averaging 72.25 plays per game in 2020, but they did have a short week following a game in Florida’s humidity. That is less an excuse and more a nod toward a fact. Perhaps that turnaround wore out Correll and Madden, creating a need — and an opportunity — for junior Andrew Kristofic and freshman Rocco Spindler.

Whoever is playing, Notre Dame desperately needs stronger offensive line play.

“We don’t feel like we’re in a bad position on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “We have to be cleaner and better in communication across the board.”

And then Kelly introduced the most likely solution for the Irish offensive line: Outside help.

“Whether it’s a tight end that’s in protection or a back or quarterback — in terms of identifying who he has to throw off.”

That outside help will be necessary to slow Purdue star defensive end George Karalftis. He may not have a sack yet this season, but Notre Dame will scheme to block Karalftis, specifically, knowing he has spent plenty of time in opposing backfields through two weeks.

“He’s got fast-twitch, so he’s got athletic ability,” Kelly said. “... Then he’s got an incredible desire to get to the quarterback. He doesn’t have a sack this year, but he’s got 11 hurries, so he’s going to disrupt the quarterback. He doesn’t get frustrated, he just keeps coming.”

Freezing Karalftis on the edge with the threat of a mobile quarterback will once again induce the need for Buchner.

“It certainly opens up the running game when you have a quarterback that can pull off of an end who’s chasing down a play from the backside,” Kelly said. “... I can’t disagree with that he helps our running game. We still are in the process of fine-tuning what we really want to be relative to the running game.”

Kelly insists Buchner can do more than just run the ball, but also said the Irish have not expanded Buchner’s set of plays much this week.

“We haven’t enhanced it too much more,” Kelly said. “We’re going to continue to enhance it and add more, each and every week.”

Thus, Coan will remain the primary Irish passer. Let’s make no mistake here, Coan understands why Buchner is taking some of his snaps.

“It was extremely important,” Coan said Tuesday.”I definitely think we needed a spark at that time. He certainly brought that, made some huge plays down the field helping us move the ball. He helped us win, I’m thankful for that.”

Coan expressed no difficulties going in and out of the game, and when he was on the sideline, he had an experience similar to all Notre Dame fans.

“I was excited when he went in, because I knew we had some plays that I thought were going to hit,” Coan told Jac Collinsworth on this week’s episode of the “ND on NBC” podcast. “Obviously, they did.

“I see Tyler in practice every day, running the ball, looking super fast, making crazy cuts. I was excited to see him do it in a game and get some live action.”

Buchner will remain the headline this week if he finds that success again, but Irish worries run far deeper than a tentative quarterback rotation.

Caroline Pineda contributed reporting to this column.

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