SOUTH BEND – Did you enjoy what you saw from Notre Dame in Week 1 against Florida State? Good, because the Irish are serving up a double helping of that performance this afternoon, good and bad.
The question marks from last week remain the question marks today, despite the Irish moving into a more hospitable environment and facing a team with ostensibly less skill-position talent than the Seminoles. Those issues are: the offensive line remains a significant work in progress and the defense is prone to busts that lead to big plays.
Meanwhile, the offense had its own bust late in the first half. After Toledo kicked a field goal with about a minute left, the Irish tried to move the ball a little prior to the break. That turned out to be a mistake as quarterback Jack Coan threw an awful interception that was returned for a touchdown. He just never saw the defender undercutting the route and after starting to get comfortable in the second quarter, the Irish trail at halftime 16-14. It's the second straight week Notre Dame has been behind at the break.
The defense was the issue that popped up first today. On Toledo's first possession, the Irish quickly forced a third-and-5 after a couple of run plays went nowhere. But on the next play, Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley found a receiver running nearly completely free in the secondary on a blown coverage. To make matters worse, safety Houston Griffith got turned around and nearly missed the tackle entirely, with the play ending in a 66-yard gain that set up a field goal. That was already the third 60-yard gain Notre Dame has given up this season.
Much like it did against Florida State, the Notre Dame defense also made some destructive plays that helped it push Toledo behind the sticks and shut down some Rockets scoring opportunities. Immediately after the aforementioned long pass, the Irish nearly picked up a turnover when Kyle Hamilton made a spectacular diving catch of a tipped ball that was eventually ruled to have hit the ground before he got his hands under it. Isaiah Foskey later added a big sack after Toledo had some momentum and Cam Hart came up from his corner position to stop a running play cold in the backfield. It's very feast or famine for the Irish defense right now.
The offense has been similarly hit or miss. The first drive was nearly identical to the first possession in Week 1, when the Irish marched 75 yards to take an early lead. They went the same distance today, as Coan hit tight end Michael Mayer three times, including on a 4-yard touchdown pass. The Irish barely broke a sweat in taking a 7-0 lead. The rest of the first quarter was a different story, however. The offensive line was almost entirely unable to open up holes for running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree and, after protecting Coan well on the opening possession, gave up more than a few QB pressures, including a corner blitz that went unimpeded and hit Coan in his blind side, forcing a fumble that led to another field goal. The line looked just a little bit discombobulated and out of sorts and it's possible the first drive, which is usually scripted, was something of an outlier. This front is certainly still gelling and it's going to be a concern until it does.
It was a pretty mediocre first quarter from the Irish, after which they led 7-6. The second quarter, however, saw a surprise and the biggest change from Week 1. After Foskey's sack, the Irish took over at their own 4 following a Toledo punt (Rockets punter Bailey Flint has been an absolute weapon today, booting one 68 yards). Instead of Coan, it was true freshman Tyler Buchner that came out to lead the offense. The first play of Buchner's career was a read-option and the quarterback kept the ball, sprinting 26 yards for Notre Dame's best run play of the day. He followed that with an 11-yard run and later completed a 15-yard pass to Braden Lenzy.
That momentum seemed to send Toledo on its heels somewhat and the Irish offensive line was finally able to open a hole for a running back carry. Williams took advantage, bursting through the left side and sprinting for a 43-yard touchdown, Notre Dame's biggest play of the half. After all that, Coan led the offense on the next possession. It's too soon to say there's a quarterback controversy in South Bend, but Notre Dame is clearly going to get Buchner involved, as coach Brian Kelly hinted they might before the season.
So, where do the Irish stand? In a pretty similar position to where they were before the game. This team has the athletes to make spectacular plays and win games. It also has work to do in the second half, just as it did at halftime against Florida State. That's not what you want to hear against a MAC team, even a good one like Toledo.