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Notre Dame Football

Kelly, Irish vow now is time Notre Dame finds identity

September 11, 2021

His team again had coughed up a fourth-quarter lead, this time at home, and yet again, Notre Dame had engineered a closing act perhaps equal parts remarkable and equal parts resolve.

Either way, the consensus top-10 Fighting Irish are 2-0 – this time after they scooted past upset-minded Toledo, 32-29, Saturday afternoon inside Notre Dame Stadium.

It all left Brian Kelly happy, relieved and with a proclaimed vow to speed-up the Irish's identity-quest.

Nothing two games in left Kelly thinking his team had vastly more holes than he had imagined; however, he did admit that some more nuanced elements have emerged.

“Yes and no. Yes in a sense that I think from a defensive standpoint, there's a little bit more to it than maybe I thought, in terms of figuring some things out,” Kelly said. “Then offensively, I thought we would get to a run game that we felt comfortable with sooner. But on the other hand, I think the personnel is driving a lot of this in terms of making it difficult to settle on something, because we have some guys that can make plays.

“We're a little hesitant at times to say, 'All right, this is who we're going to be.' I think we've got to stop tinkering and say, 'All right, this is it. Let's go.' So we're kind of in a transition. And as I told the guys in the locker room, starting Monday we have to really make it simpler for everybody.”

When the Fighting Irish defense, under first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman, has reached its frenzied best, the group has shown it can swarm the football, harass quarterbacks and routinely stuff the opposition behind the line of scrimmage.

To wit: through two games, the Notre Dame defense has amassed 19 tackles for losses and 10 quarterback sacks.

Similarly, it has allowed gash plays from scrimmage that have covered 89, 67, 66, 60, 26, 25 and 21 yards.

The Irish have allowed 795 yards' offense in two games; that number dips to a mere 441 on 130 offensive snaps when those seven gash play are removed.

“I think this was a good game for us, in a sense that we're going to be able to learn from this and we're going to make sure that … I think it was kind of an eye-opening game,” said linebacker JD Bertrand. “It was bittersweet. I think we're going to be able to take it from here, and identify like, 'OK, we need to get better.' I think every guy in that room knows they need to look at their own play individually and look where they can get better and we'll go from there.”

Offensively, this isn't your father's Notre Dame offensive line.

Heck, this isn't even your older sibling's offensive line. This Notre Dame group has rarely put together back-to-back drives where it has both run- and pass-blocked with equal aplomb.

So the Irish have 197 yards total on the ground through two games, on officially 74 attempts. They've thrown for 683 yards on 71 pass attempts, 50 of them completions.

The usage Saturday of Tyler Buchner, even as it was pinned in the shadows of its goal line, showed Notre Dame and its coached recognized a need to diversify the offense to ignite the running game.

Buchner then tossed just three passes, but he completed all of them – including when tailback Chris Tyree slipped from the backfield to take a short pass and turn it into a 55-yard touchdown.

“Yeah, so packages, packages, packages. We thought we had this package and then we started just calling the plays that were installed for everybody,” Kelly said of the initial plan for Buchner and how quickly the Irish coaches adjusted it. “It's kind of what I talked about with our staff. The offense has to be certainly some run game for Tyler, but he's got to be able to go in there – because if he's in there on that last drive, we've got to be able to throw the football down the field and do those things.

“We've got to kind of got to figure out where we want to go here. We've got some really good players, but this week will be here's who we are, and let's get to work.”

What Michael Mayer has done at tight end for the Irish – and what he's done to command double-teams when he does not get the ball – also has provided film of what Notre Dame can attack offensively as opponents scheme to take away Mayer.

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