If all football could be played as a two-minute drill offense, then there would be no quarterback controversy in South Bend, Indiana. Twice now, quarterback Jack Coan has displayed his prowess in this scenario, leading the Irish to fourth-quarter comeback victories versus Toledo and Virginia Tech. Coan’s late-game heroics seemingly made many forget about the previous several games of inefficiency and offensive struggles.
Coan Leading Lethargic Offense
Before Coan led the Irish to 11 points in two drives, he had been under center for 11 consecutive scoreless drives, a streak spanning three different games.
The numbers get worse the longer you look at them. Excluding easily Coan’s best performance of the year – at Florida State in the opener – they’re almost horrifying. In 40 drives that Coan has been the sole quarterback center, he’s produced points on ten occasions. If you take out three scores in those two-minute drill situations, Coan has led Notre Dame to points on 7 of 37 drives. That is about 18% efficiency and averages about to around 2.75 scores (touchdowns or field goals) per game. In no world are those starting quarterback numbers.
Yet, Coan’s ability to deliver in the clutch has blinded head coach Brian Kelly and others as to how to navigate this messy quarterback situation. If Coan could simply operate in the two-minute offense all day long, then he would be the correct option. But he can’t, and Notre Dame can’t run their offense smoothly with the Wisconsin transfer taking snaps.
RPOs Exacberate Coan’s Struggles
The RPOs in the play-calling scheme are simply duds with Coan under center. Nobody is mistaking the statue-like Coan as a mobile threat. This either allows opposing defenses to key in on Kyren Williams or whoever gets a carry, or it simply delays Coan’s dropback process. With a shaky offensive line, asking for 2-3 extra seconds of protection is costly. The result is a lot of sacks, negative rushes, and three-and-outs. Prior to Tyler Buchner taking over at Virginia Tech, the Coan-led Irish offense ran 13 plays for a net of 17 yards. That included a pair of sacks and another two plays of one or fewer yards.
Another issue with Coan is his struggles in a tight pocket. Pocket passers have their place in college football, and to suggest a team can’t thrive without a dual-threat is illogical. But Coan’s injury seems to be affecting him mentally. After having a stout offensive line at Wisconsin that frequently provided clean pockets, Coan hasn’t had the same luxury at Notre Dame. The pockets are frequently crowded, and Coan gets pressure from all sides. However, whether it’s poor pocket awareness or fear of re-injuring his foot, Coan frequently crumbles. Although pressure is at a high rate, Coan seemingly takes sacks more than necessary.
It’s Not All On Rees
Too much blame is getting put on offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Many criticize the second-year play-caller for not adjusting his playbook to a pocket passer. But Coan truly limits the versatility of Notre Dame’s playbook. His two-minute drill success comes from those quicker dropbacks and routes that are designed to develop quickly. But Notre Dame is going to have to deal with blitzes. They’re going to have to take deep shots. They have to be able to run the ball effectively. And they need a quarterback who can allow Rees to open up the playbook.
Is Pyne or Buchner the answer?
That quarterback may be Tyler Buchner on occasion – he certainly shows tantalizing talent and is the best runner of the group. But his extended appearance against Virginia Tech displayed a bevy of other issues. On a handful of throws, Buchner was inaccurate, missing short slant routes and screen passes. On others, Buchner couldn’t move past his first read – this eventually led to the costly pick-six. When Buchner could run or hit his first read, he looked great. However, outside that, the rawness of an extremely limited high school career shone. With three interceptions in twenty career pass attempts, Buchner is still a liability as a passer. At this point in his career, Buchner is a package quarterback.
That leaves Drew Pyne. The Connecticut product has been far from perfect, but he’s also been thrown into some very difficult situations. He was inserted into the Wisconsin game following Coan’s injury, needing to spark a stagnant Irish offense to a come-from-behind win. Against Cincinnati, Pyne didn’t get his shot until Notre Dame trailed 17-0 in the second half. Despite the tough circumstances, Pyne has led the Irish to points in four of the nine drives he’s orchestrated. Furthermore, there were only a pair of three-and-outs in those nine drives, with another two drives ending on downs in desperate situations in the Cincinnati game.
Arguments can be made all day about the talent levels of Coan and Pyne. Coan is obviously the more experienced signal-caller, but Pyne plays with an unmatched swagger. The Irish offense seems to elevate their play around him. Pyne has made a few fantastic throws, and he’s shown the mobile ability to escape crowded pockets and turn negative plays into solid gains. In limited exposure, Pyne has simply looked like the right choice. And for the future, he’s an absolutely pivotal piece to the Irish offense. Buchner should not be considered the automatic quarterback of the future given his current struggles. Pyne has looked composed and has been the most effective signal-caller of the competing trio in the quarterback room.
Road To Success For Irish Offense
Kelly Sticking With Coan
It doesn’t look like Brian Kelly buys this analysis – in his media availability on Monday, he told the press that he believed Coan gave the Irish the best chance to win. He also mentioned that Buchner’s packages would continue. Not only does this display a complete lack of foresight, but it is difficult to imagine a world in which Coan is the more effective choice for this offense.
Yes, Coan has looked very good under pressure. But, outside the Florida State game and three other two-minute drill drives, what has he accomplished? The honest answer is not a lot. That 7-of-37 statistic is jarring. It’s worrisome as Notre Dame hopes to run the table on the second half of their schedule.
Run A Two-Minute Drill Offense
So while the best option for the Irish offense would be to start Pyne, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Assuming it’s Coan taking the majority of snaps against USC this Saturday, the Irish must adjust their game plan. An improving offensive line must step up and allow Kyren Williams to pound the rock. USC has been gashed by opposing running backs this season. The Trojans are 3-3 and have given up 100-yard rushers in all three losses.
For Notre Dame, it feels like keeping the ball out of Coan’s hands may lead to more success against their rivals. When Rees is dialing up pass plays, he has to abandon any complicated concepts. Draw largely from the two-minute drill playbook. It’s not particularly creative or exciting, but it’s where Coan has demonstrated the most ability.
No more five or seven-step dropbacks. Minimize the RPOs. Keep the offense vanilla and simplistic for Coan, and Notre Dame can find success under this quarterback. But if the Irish are going to keep calling plays for a more mobile quarterback, and if their offensive struggles continue, it has to be asked how much longer this sluggish offensive experiment will go on.