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Photo by Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Exit Sandman: Notre Dame rallies, scores Tech-nical knockout

October 10, 2021

A second-straight defeat, and a whole host of questions, lay mere minutes into Notre Dame's future.

Then, Saturday night inside raucous Lane Stadium, home of Virginia Tech, the Fighting Irish stared down what would have been the program's first regular-season losing skid in five years and said, “No, not tonight.”

Notre Dame has fight – and it's willing to take it beyond the fourth quarter, if necessary.

It did so in this game – after a sequence of events more improbable than a vegan at a Brazilian steakhouse.

“Not much to say; pretty boring day here in Blacksburg,” Irish coach Brian Kelly deadpanned.

“Here's where I would start: I've been in a lot of games, coached a lot of games and I don't know that I've ever coached a group of guys that had such resolve and mental toughness. They just kept playing. Unfazed. In particular, take Jack Coan out of the game, and then he's the first to pick up Tyler Buchner when he's hurt (in the fourth quarter).”

Jack Coan started, and Jack Coan got benched.

Tyler Buchner was magical, and then Tyler Buchner got dinged and relieved.

The Irish defense had no shortage of bad angles, missed tackles and plays the unit could have made.

Yet it galvanized for a goal-line stand in the first half that limited the Hokies to three, and it stopped Tech late in the fourth quarter to set up the evening's ultimate hero: Jonathan Doerer.

Notre Dame's fifth-year senior kicker stepped up, dealt with the Hokies' unofficial light-show that permeated the stands, and drilled his kick from left to right from 48 yards.

The Irish had started the game-winning drive, with Coan at the helm, precisely at 11 p.m. By 11:05, they had cooked the upset hopes of their Hokie hosts.

With 3 minutes, 55 seconds left to melt off the Lane Stadium clock,  Notre Dame trailed 29-11.

When the clock had nothing but zeroes left on its display, the Irish had won, 32-29.

“He's done that, time in and time out,” Kelly said of Doerer. “The moment is not too big for him. He loves those opportunities and he relishes them and he's been really good at them.”

The Irish looked on the cusp of shriveling in the moment, especially when injured Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister scampered into the end zone on third-and-15 from the 19 – and in the process plunged the Irish to a 29-21 deficit, less than four minutes to play.

Re-enter Coan.

The serene Notre Dame starting quarterback, and unofficial closer, immediately guided the Irish 75 yards in seven plays that lapsed just one minute, 29 seconds from the clock. He culminated the drive with a scoring pass in the flat to Avery Davis.

Still, Notre Dame needed a two-point conversion. It got it when Coan – a rarity this season – scrambled outside of the pocket, drifted towards the sideline and kept alive the play for nearly eight full seconds before he connected with a leaping Kevin Austin in the back of the end zone, amidst heavy traffic.

“Kevin just flew up there,” tailback Kyren Williams, who had a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and 100 yards' total offense, said.

It took Buchner's second-quarter command to give Notre Dame its first lead since the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin game Sept. 25 at Soldier Field.

A dual-threat freshman, Buchner quickly ignited the yet-again-stagnant Irish offense with a sensational second frame.

Buchner guided scoring drives of 75 and 80 yards that culminated in a pair of touchdowns; Buchner scampered into paydirt from 3 yards out for the initial strike and Buchner then found Kyren Williams in the right flat of the end zone for a 14-10 lead.

Yet the Hokies marched right back down the field and got John Parker Romo's 52-yarder to close the half down just 14-13.

Tech then quickly reclaimed the lead early in the third on Romo's 26-yard triple. Waller's pick-six and Burmeister's touchdown nearly spiraled the Irish into their first two-game regular-season losing streak in five years – and left them with perhaps as many questions as answers as they moved into their open date.

The questions remain – Kelly said the Irish who they are at this point, and knows the quarterback situation is unlikely to suddenly clear – but answers now can be sought after an exhilarating victory.

Notre Dame missed Michael Mayer with injury, again shuffled players along its offensive front and also amplified its deployment of true freshmen in the road affair.

“On the road in this environment? We were poised to get them this experience,” Kelly said of the rookie contributors, from Buchner to Joe Alt to Mitchell Evans, Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Styles Jr. and others. “We needed to get them, this is what we talked about this week.

“We're reaching the halfway point. We're going to be who we are. We gotta get them in this game. They've gotta feel it. Gotta be part of it. Gotta contribute.”

Notre Dame returns home to face USC Oct. 23. Kick is 7:30 p.m. (NBC).

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