Chris Tyree’s 96-yard kickoff turn early in the fourth quarter erased a 13-10 deficit and triggered a 31-point scoring barrage as Notre Dame buried Wisconsin by 41-13 on Saturday in Chicago. The Irish offense tacked on an additional ten points later in the period to extend the lead to 27-13 before linebackers Jack Kiser and Drew White ended the stunning comeback story with a pair of interception returns for touchdown in the final minutes. Cornerback Cam Hart pitched in with two interceptions on the day as the Irish defense shut down the Badger attack.
The ending and final score overshadowed the tense, low-scoring contest that took place during the first 45 minutes. The teams traded field goals before Jack Coan hit Kevin Austin with a 36-yard scoring strike late in the first half. Neither team could establish a running game and both quarterbacks struggled with accuracy under a heavy pass rush.
The scales tipped toward Wisconsin in the third period. The Badgers finally broke through when Graham Mertz hit Kendric Pryor on a pair of slant passes during a 56-yard march. The second one covered the final eight yards for a touchdown to tie the game at ten.
Notre Dame lost Coan to an ankle injury during the ensuing series. Backup Tyler Buchner was still not available due to a hamstring injury suffered two weeks ago, so Coach Brian Kelly turned to Drew Pyne. The Irish had gained possession near midfield and were hoping to retake the lead. Unfortunately, the sophomore immediately ran into problems when he fumbled the ball while being sacked. Wisconsin recovered and appeared to have the upper hand.
Mertz moved the Badgers into scoring position, but he went to the well once too often as a third down slant to Pryor fell incomplete in the red zone. Collin Lasch came on to boot a 27-yard field goal for a 13-10 Wisconsin advantage one minute into the final stanza.
Notre Dame fans were openly worried how their team would score against the tough Badger defense without Coan or Buchner. Tyree’s return came at a perfect moment in time that will long be remembered in Irish lore. The score not only reenergized the defense, but Pyne also rose to the occasion when he returned to the field. The Irish sacked Mertz on third down during the next Wisconsin series. Jayson Ademilola forced a fumble on the play and Isaiah Foskey pounced on the ball for Notre Dame.
Pyne came on to lead a crisp scoring drive that he capped with a strike to Austin for a 24-13 lead. Hart picked off a pass two plays later as Mertz and Wisconsin began to implode. Jonathan Doerer tacked on a short field goal to give his team a more comfortable two touchdown cushion with only three minutes remaining.
Then things just got stupid. Mertz tried to rally the Badgers through the air, but that just isn’t the preferred method of travel for this ball control offense. Kiser picked off a telegraphed sideline pass and outran everyone down the Wisconsin sideline for 66 yards into the end zone. White added insult to injury seconds later with by bringing back another wounded duck for a 45-yard score.
Fortunately for Badger fans, most had left the stadium at 27-13 with three minutes left and did not see the final 14-point insult from the Irish defense.
It was literally a total team performance by Notre Dame despite tough sledding for the offense for most of the afternoon. Special teams obviously answered the call with Tyree leading the way, but punter Jay Bramblett also deserves credit for a few outstanding punts when the game was tight. He averaged 46 yards and hit one for 72 yards late in the first half to help preserve the 10-3 Irish advantage.
Avery Davis, Michael Mayer and Austin also made clutch plays during the game. The entire defense deserves recognition for five turnovers and many stellar plays beyond the two late touchdowns. The line picked up the slack for injured leader Kurt Hinish and held the Badgers to 78 yards rushing.
Pyne completed six of eight throws for 81 yards and a score after Coan was 15 of 29 for 158 yards and a touchdown. The much maligned offensive line got off to another shaky start but battled back to enable Coan and Pyne to make critical throws. The did surrender six more sacks, so the growing pains continue.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
Will the Irish be able to run for 100 yards? Actually, Notre Dame’s net rushing total was 108……inches. They were underwater for most of the game due to the sacks before finally creeping into plus territory. Thank goodness the Irish did not need to kneel down at the end of the game.
Can the Badgers’ offense stay in its comfort zone by running the ball successfully? Not at all, thanks to Howard Cross, Jacob Lacey, the Ademilola twins and a host of other Irish warriors.
Will Buchner have a positive impact on the Irish offense? No, but he was cheering loudly for Pyne when the sophomore took advantage of his chance.
Which team will be able to score touchdowns once inside the red zone? Each team had one red zone touchdown and one short field goal. Notre Dame found plenty of other ways to score, though.
Can Notre Dame contain the Badger defensive front and pick up blitzing linebackers? Not very well. Without Tyree’s game-changing return, we’d be discussing a completely different story line.
Will Mertz be able to complete passes downfield? Mertz hit just 18 of 41 for 240 yards, but he completed four more to Notre Dame defenders. He’s definitely not ready to be a guy who can lead a team to victory by chucking it 40 times.
Can Austin, Lenzy and Michael Mayer take advantage of the Badger secondary? Yes, they stepped up with several big plays. Coan did miss Lenzy at least three times on deep shots when the speedy wideout was open.
Will Rees call any screen passes to neutralize Wisconsin’s defensive aggression? Not one screen pass all day. Unbelievable.
Which team will do the best imitation of the Bears? By the end of the game, Chicagoans could not see any difference between Wisconsin and the Bears.
The Irish stand tall at 4-0 no matter how they arrived at this point in their journey. Things get ugly at times but it became fun today to watch the growth in this team and the energy they bring to the field. He’s certainly not Knute Rockne, but Kelly deserves credit for piecing things together each week and finding a way. Next week’s matchup with Cincinnati promises to be another adventure. We can hardly wait to see it.