Notre Dame lost an eight point lead in the fourth quarter before rebounding in the last two minutes to outlast the upset-minded Toledo Rockets by 32-29 on Saturday. Jack Coan hit Michael Mayer for an 18-yard score with 1:09 remaining to retake the lead, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa ended Toledo’s last ditch hopes moments later with a strip sack of Carter Bradley. Linebacker JD Bertrand recovered the ball and the Irish escaped despite surrendering 14 points on turnovers.
Both teams deployed a two quarterback rotation with positive results. Coan began the game for Notre Dame and ended it by engineering touchdown drives capped by passes to Mayer. He also threw a pick six to Rocket cornerback Chris McDonald that gave the visitors a 16-14 halftime advantage.
Freshman Tyler Buchner made a successful debut for the Irish. He led a touchdown drive in each half and flashed his athleticism with crisp runs and sharp passes. In the first series of the second period from the Notre Dame 4 yard line, Buchner’s runs of 26 and 11 yards ignited the team. Two plays later, Kyren Williams scored from 43 yards out to put the Irish ahead by 14-6.
Buchner came through again early in the fourth period with Notre Dame nursing a 17-16 lead. He kept the ball on a run-pass option and rolled to his left before firing a strike to Chris Tyree along the sideline. Tyree did the rest by outrunning the defenders into the end zone for a 24-16 advantage.
The Irish did not hold onto the lead for long. As was the case at Florida State, Notre Dame’s defense took the field after an offensive touchdown and surrendered a long run from scrimmage. Bryant Koback did the honors for Toledo with a 67-yard burst to the Irish 18. Moments later, Koback took a shovel pass from Bradley into the end zone to cut the lead to 24-22. A two point conversion pass attempt fell incomplete.
With nearly eight minutes remaining, the Irish began what appeared to be a game-clinching drive. Coan and Buchner both contributed as the offense marched downfield. Unfortunately, Williams was stripped of the ball in Toledo territory and the Rockets recovered. Bradley guided them downfield with clutch passes as the clock ran down under two minutes. Toledo faced a third down and one at the Notre Dame 26, needing only a field goal to retake the lead. Coach Jason Candle inserted backup quarterback Dequan Finn into the game to run this critical play.
The Irish crowded the line of scrimmage, and Finn faked a handoff into the middle of the scrum before pulling the ball back and sprinting untouched around left end for the score. Suddenly, Notre Dame trailed by 29-24 with just 1:35 remaining and only one timeout left. Oddly, if Finn had taken a knee a couple yards from the end zone, the Rockets could have drained the clock and kicked a field goal as time expired to win by 25-24.
Given a chance to pull out the win, Coan and wide receiver Kevin Austin immediately rose to the occasion by hooking up for a 36-yard pass down the sideline. A pair of penalties against Toledo in pass coverage helped matters along, but Coan suffered a dislocated finger on his throwing hand in the process. As the referees were marking off a pass interference penalty, Coan rushed to the sidelines where an Irish trainer pulled his finger into place.
On the next play, the veteran quarterback calmly threw an 18-yard strike down the middle to Mayer for the go-ahead score. The two-point conversion was successful when Avery Davis took a handoff from Coan and scrambled a bit before hitting Williams in the end zone. The drive covered 75 yards in a mere 26 seconds.
Toledo needed only a field goal to tie the game. They had 1:09 left and all three timeouts, but they got off to a rocky start when they were flagged for a personal foul on the ensuing Irish kickoff. Bradley was unable to engineer a first down from deep in his own end, and Tagovailoa-Amosa made sure there were no Hail Mary’s for the Rockets.
The Irish have yet to impress anyone, but the victory bought them another week to iron out their offensive line play and address untimely defensive breakdowns. The quarterbacks suffered six sacks and faced numerous pressures from the Toledo front. Left tackle Michael Carmody, who replaced injured starter Blake Fisher last week, when down in the first half with an ankle injury. Tosh Baker was the next man in, and he struggled to block the veteran Rocket pass rushers.
The defense was gashed on Koback’s long run and fooled badly on Finn’s scoring run. They had five sacks and forced one critical turnover in the last minute. Toledo won the turnover battle by a 3-1 margin.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions for additional information:
Will Toledo’s two quarterback system keep Notre Dame off balance? The Rockets did a good job and realized positive results without disrupting the flow of their offense.
Can Notre Dame fix its running game and spring Williams or Tyree for big chunk gains? The ground game managed only 132 yards, but the 43-yarder by Williams was nice to see. Buchner was the team’s second leading ball carrier with 68 yards on seven carries.
Will Coan follow his debut performance with another solid outing? Coan was pressured all day and the pick-six was a poor read, but he was a rock in the final minute when his team needed him most.
Which Irish freshmen or newcomers to the lineup will distinguish themselves? Buchner was a pleasant surprise. He added a three for three passing performance for 78 yards and a score to his rushing total, and looked like he belonged out there. Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles each caught one pass. Linebacker Prince Kollie missed the game after a positive COVID test.
Will Notre Dame win the turnover battle again this week? No, and it almost cost them the game.
Can the Irish avoid any more serious injuries this week? Carmody was not moving well in his walking boot and may miss some time. This doesn’t bode well for a line that is one more injury away from total chaos.
How many people will curse the Peacock sign-up process after 30 minutes of frustration? Not many, but most of them would rather have their $4.99 back right now.
Will another reporter dare to ask Brian Kelly about his team’s execution? Kelly admitted afterward that he needs to coach better, which may have preempted beat reporters from calling for his own execution.
One has to wonder how long the Irish can stave off defeat with such underwhelming performances. Next Saturday’s home date with Purdue should not be too difficult, but we felt that way these past two weeks as well.