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Things We Learned: ‘Not perfect’ Notre Dame’s resilience gives improvements time

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 09: Kyren Williams #23 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a touchdown 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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Nobody was about to accuse Notre Dame of being perfect, but it warranted reiterating, nonetheless. After putting those imperfections on repeated display throughout the season’s first month, the Irish (5-1) doubled down on them at Virginia Tech on Saturday in a 32-29 win.

And while this lede would have a much nicer bow if Notre Dame had not lost to Cincinnati two weeks ago — Yet, the Irish reached their idle week perfect in the only way that matters. — it should still be emphasized that Notre Dame’s imperfections did not cost it in Blacksburg. Instead, the players pushing through those struggles came out on top, as cheesy as that sounds.

“Just so many stories about players persevering,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’ll get off my soapbox, let you guys dig into the game because we’re not perfect. That’s okay with me.”

Those stories began and ended with quarterback Jack Coan, very literally so.

Saturday’s first quarter put Coan’s faults on full display, the offense not moving, three drives going nowhere with two of them losing yards. Notre Dame’s running backs took seven carries for 23 yards in the first quarter, hardly a sustainable offensive model.

Saturday’s fourth quarter put Coan’s strengths under an even brighter spotlight. The Coan that showed up after freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner appeared to turn his ankle is the Coan that Kelly raved about all preseason and the Coan that threw for four touchdowns and 366 yards at Florida State to open the season. Two drives expertly managed, gaining an average of 8.6 yards per play, completing 7-of-9 passes despite the Hokies knowing the Irish did not have enough time to rely on running the ball.

That was the Coan needed by Notre Dame not only Saturday, but all along in 2021, all the way back to January.

“I didn’t name him the starting quarterback because it came up on the Ouija board,” Kelly said. “That’s the way it is (when) we see him every day, that’s what he does. Yeah, it was uneven to start, but that’s why we pulled him.”

Coan needing to be benched was an embodiment of Irish imperfections. Shaking that off to lead a game-tying and then a game-winning drive was not only a dramatic example of resilience but also not something Coan did on his own. For that matter, struggling early was not solely Coan’s doing, either.

The offensive line did not protect Coan well or open many holes for the running backs, even with freshman Joe Alt becoming the fourth starter in six games at left tackle. (For comparison, Notre Dame started a total of four left tackles to cover all but two games in Kelly’s first 11 years in South Bend.) Then junior Andrew Kristofic stepped in at left guard, replacing junior Zeke Correll.

Kelly pointed to Kristofic’s size advantage as the reason for the substitution, outweighing Correll by some 20 pounds, but that is the second time that reasoning has led to the same change in the season’s first half.

“That size in there — I love the two kids that were in there, they were 285 and 286 on the left side — we got bigger,” Kelly said. “Alt is 306, Kristofic is 305, we’re bigger, more physical, and that’s where we got better.”

Again using Coan’s bookends as reference points, the difference in the line play was notable. In the first quarter, Coan was sacked twice for a combined loss of eight yards, was pressured another time though the play ended with him gaining one yard, and a false start from Correll cost a chance at a fourth-and-short conversion.

The pocket could not have been much cleaner for Coan in the closing two drives.

Not to be too selective with stats or to harp too much on the improvements that came soon after benching Correll — more naturally a center by trade, not to mention someone who has always been undersized so that should not exactly have been a surprise to the coaching staff this fall — but if simply removing those seven first-quarter running back carries and Coan’s one-yard gain evading a sack, rush attempts that never had much of a chance, then the Irish averaged 5.1 yards per rush at Virginia Tech, gaining 168 yards on 33 carries (sacks adjusted). Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had averaged 3.64 yards per rush (sacks adjusted).

“Today was like a coming-out party for us,” Kelly said. “The O-linemen in [the locker room] are pretty happy.

“[Junior running back Kyren Williams] ran with an edge today. You saw him run and breakthrough on that [third] touchdown. That was beast mode for him. He had an edge about him today.”

That edge coming from Williams is no surprise. The Irish so desperately needing that edge is a mild surprise. That edge, along with Coan’s resilience and a (finally) improving offensive line, should make for an intriguing second half of the year.

Buchner first silenced Lane Stadium with his pair of efficient touchdown drives in the second quarter, but he cranked the bass back up with his pick-six gift to Hokies cornerback Jermaine Waller late in the third quarter.

When dialed in like that, Lane Stadium is a magnificent atmosphere and not somewhere for the young and inexperienced to expect to shine, but maybe Notre Dame’s freshmen simply did not know better.

“On the road in this environment, we were poised to get them this experience,” Kelly said. “We needed to get them — this is what we talked about this week. We’re reaching the halfway point. We’re gonna be who we are. We’ve got to get these guys in the game and get this experience if we want to win the rest of the games that we play.

“They have to get in this game, they have to feel it, they have to be part of it, they have to contribute.”

Contribute they did.

Alt started at left tackle and did not draw a single flag. Freshman running back Logan Diggs took six carries for 29 yards and did not hesitate to step into pass protection on Coan’s game-tying drive; the Irish had no other running back available if Diggs was not up to the task. Freshman tight end Mitchell Evans was elevated to the No. 2 tight end role, a common one in Tommy Rees’ offense, while junior Michael Mayer was sidelined by a groin injury, and Evans played well enough, misguided targeting penalty aside.

Freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie drew attention from defensive backs and spared a few routes from their upperclassman teammates’ legs. Not to mention, Buchner did lead three scoring drives before Virginia Tech’s disguised coverages made him look like someone who has not played a full game of football in two years.

Kelly said those freshmen playing, playing well and playing well in a hostile environment could be a key to Notre Dame winning the rest of its games this season. That sounds a lot like coming perfection.

It will not be that easy, not at all.

“I’m so proud of the guys that just hung in there,” Kelly said. “I wish it wasn’t this hard, but it is right now, and we’re battling through it.”

The charitable reading is that Kelly remembers what not battling through it feels like. The Irish very much did not battle in 2016. And since then, they have reeled off four consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins and gone 53-9.

Much of that stretch was easier than it has been for Notre Dame thus far in 2021, but continuing that stretch by any means necessary is a step in the right direction for the Irish, regardless.

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