Does Notre Dame have a Brian Kelly problem? It may seem ridiculous to consider a week after Kelly set the all-time wins record as a Notre Dame coach, but the question must be asked. Kelly looked unprepared for another top-10 matchup on Saturday, repeated much of the same meaningless script that has become all too familiar to Irish fans.
Playing No. 7 Cincinnati, Brian Kelly waited until halftime to make a much-needed quarterback change. His team looked unprepared and unsure against a tough Bearcats’ secondary. A questionable fourth-down decision cost the Irish potential key points. The issues rolled on, and Notre Dame dropped a 24-13 decision. It was an uninspired effort to defend a 26-game home winning streak, as the Irish finally fell off the tightrope they walked to a 4-0 record.
Coan Under Center
Despite rabid calls from the Irish fanbase to start sophomore Drew Pyne, Brian Kelly stuck with graduate transfer Jack Coan. Coan has looked mediocre this season, and his immobility stands out behind a shaky Notre Dame offensive line. Pyne’s playstyle is more imitative of Ian Book, the starter of the past three years in South Bend. His escapability in the pocket extends plays and adds a more dynamic ability to the Notre Dame offense.
However, revisiting the Brian Kelly problem that Notre Dame may have, the Irish have frequently chosen experience over talent. Despite a 6-8 effort in relief of an injured Coan last week, Pyne started the game on the bench. Coan responded with possibly his most sluggish half to date for the blue and gold. A 14-22 effort for 114 yards didn’t even begin to describe the issues. After a promising opening drive, Coan made a needlessly risky throw on the move and was picked off on the goal-line. After that, Notre Dame gained 52 yards on 28 plays the remainder of the half, doing very little offensively.
One particularly uninspiring sequence came at the end of the first half with the Irish down 17-0. Coan had 40 seconds and a timeout to work with. With Cincinnati slated to receive the second-half kick, pursuing points felt imperative. Coan proceeded to throw a pair of check-downs to running backs for a total of five yards. He then rolled right and threw the ball away on third down. The Irish punted after just 24 seconds of possession.
Coan was really never a fit for this offense. After the game, Kelly said, “Jack did nothing to lose the job”. There’s the problem. Sure, Coan didn’t have a horrific stat line, nor had he lost a game yet for the Irish. But beyond that, everyone could see the struggles. The three quarters of walking through quicksand against Toledo. A largely middling effort against Purdue. A boatload of struggles against Wisconsin overshadowed by Pyne and the defense leading a 31-point fourth-quarter surge. So while Coan may not have done anything to lose the job, Pyne had done something to win it. And the Irish offense needed a spark. But, alas, Notre Dame waited until halftime and a huge deficit to make the change. It’s hard to not label that a Brian Kelly problem.
“Bad in the Basics”
The second quarter got off to a great start, but within a minute, the tides had turned and the Irish were on their heels. After holding Cincinnati to 32 yards on their first two drives, the Irish forced a 3 & out to open the second quarter. But the Irish quickly gave the ball back, as true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner was hit as he threw, popping the ball into the air for an easy interception. It was returned to the Notre Dame eight-yard line. The Bearcats punched it in on three plays from there for a 7-0 lead.
The ensuing kickoff looked promising for Notre Dame, the kick was short and Chris Tyree looked like he could catch it with speed. But, after a 96-yard return last week, Tyree may have seen too much green, too quickly. The ball clanked off his chest and took a friendly bounce towards Cincinnati coverage. Tyree couldn’t recover, and Cincinnati again started in the Irish red zone. This time, Notre Dame stiffened on defense. With the aid of an ineligible receiver negating a touchdown, Notre Dame forced a field goal, keeping the deficit to just 10-0.
“We just didn’t take care of the basics today,” head coach Brian Kelly said in his postgame press conference, “We didn’t coach very well, and we didn’t play very well today. Cincinnati was the better football team today”.
After a few punts, Notre Dame gave the ball back to Cincinnati at the Bearcats’ 20-yard line. Despite the deficit, the Irish defense had played really well, with the longest drive having gone for 17 yards. However, this time, quarterback Desmond Ridder stepped up. The veteran gunslinger whipped passes of 27, 22, and 27 yards to march the Bearcats down the field. It took just five plays to go 80 yards for the 17-0 advantage.
Quarterback Change Injects Life
The long-awaited quarterback change happened in the third quarter, and Notre Dame instantly looked better offensively. After a defensive stop, Pyne completed passes of 15 and 17 yards to get Notre Dame into Cincinnati territory. They stalled at the Bearcats’ 30 and faced a 4th and 5. The 47-yard field goal attempt would have been six yards shorter than kicker Jonathan Doerer’s career-long, set a week ago against Wisconsin. Yet, inexplicably, the Irish went for it. A route miscommunication led to an incompletion and a turnover on downs. First the quarterback change, then this decision – Brian Kelly problem Part II for the Irish. That strange call left potential points on the board for the Irish that would prove critical.
Notre Dame’s defense came up with a momentum-changer on the following Cincinnati drive. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey drilled Ridder and jarred the ball loose. Captain and linebacker Drew White scooped it up and raced it back 28 yards to set the offense up in prime position. Pyne flashed his playmaking on the drive, completing a 16-yard pass to tight end Michael Mayer and scrambling 11 yards for a first down in the red zone. Running back Kyren Williams punched it in from there and the Irish were on the board.
After a Cincinnati punt, Notre Dame went three-and-out, with a bad drop on a 20-yard pass attempt costing the Irish. The Bearcats missed a field goal, opening the door once more for Notre Dame, and this time, Pyne and Co. marched through it. The Connecticut product drove his squad 80 yards in eight plays. A 20-yard completion to Mayer sparked the drive, and Pyne’s 32-yard back-shoulder dime to Braden Lenzy polished off the sequence.
Cincinnati Ices It
A missed extra-point kept the deficit at 17-13, but regardless, Notre Dame was a defensive stop away from having a chance to take the lead. That chance never materialized, however, as Ridder put together the clutch-est drive of his career. The Bearcats went 75 yards in six plays, with a 16-yard run and 36-yard pass providing most of the damage. Fittingly, after torching the Irish all day, Ridder ran it in from six yards out, blowing kisses to the Irish student section.
That decision to not attempt a field goal earlier in the game cost the Irish in the long run. Had they secured those three points, Pyne would have been faced with five minutes to make a game-tying drive and two-point conversion. Instead, he had the near-impossible task of scoring twice in five minutes. Attempting to accelerate the drive, Pyne quickly got Notre Dame to midfield. However, he then took a big sack on second down as he rolled left, putting Notre Dame in a 3rd and 18. They couldn’t get those 18 yards, and Cincinnati ran out the clock.
A Brian Kelly Problem: Notre Dame’s Top 10 Struggles Continue
Since 2013, Notre Dame is now 2-11 against AP Top 10 opponents. The one thing they could claim prior to Saturday was a 2-0 home record in those games. That unblemished record no longer stands, as Brian Kelly again brought an unprepared team to a big game.
Not only were the Irish unprepared, but they were not put in a position to succeed. The best players were not put on the field, poor decisions were made, and the Irish looked completely lost. Notre Dame falls to 4-1 and likely out of Playoff contention – with a three-man quarterback controversy, a coach unwilling to make the tough decisions, and no offensive identity.
There’s a Brian Kelly problem in South Bend, and if their escape acts over the first few weeks didn’t show it, this lethargic showing exposed it for the college football world to see.