The Irish made more plays than the Badgers in a game that had few exciting moments on offense. Unsurprisingly, given the strong defenses on display, the biggest play in the game was on special teams.
After Wisconsin hit back at a deficit and took a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree returned the ensuing kickoff for 98 yards for a touchdown. It sucked all the air from the Wisconsin sideline and fans in attendance, and the Irish never gave up the advantage.
However, it was not all good news for Notre Dame. Starting quarterback Jack Coan had to leave the game with a leg injury and was replaced by third stringer Drew Pyne. Coan’s pre-injury performance was below par, as he completed 15 of 29 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. Pyne’s performance was quite admirable with 81 yards on a touchdown on 6 of 8 passes.
The two Irish QBs dominated their Wisconsin counterpart. Graham Mertz struggled through a nightmarish afternoon. He completed just 18 of 41 passes for 240 yards and finished with four interceptions during the day, two of which were returned for touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The Fighting Irish have improved to 4-0 this season and are now 11-0-2 at Soldier Field. Wisconsin falls to 1-2. Here are four thoughts following a surprising eruption.
1. Brian Kelly is now the most successful coach in Notre Dame history. Saturday’s win was Brian Kelly’s 106th win at Notre Dame, overtaking Knute Rockne on Notre Dame’s all-time coaching wins list. Of course, as Kelly himself made clear during the week, the record doesn’t mean much to him. In Kelly’s eyes, that makes him “the coach who has won the most games who has not won a national championship”.
While you may admire the humility of this statement, it underestimates what Kelly may have done at Notre Dame. It’s a program that has gone unsuccessful for a long time since winning a national title in 1988 when Kelly took over. Some years have been downright embarrassing for the program. While the Irish haven’t won a national title under Kelly, they have been far from embarrassing, and he has helped lead the program to two places in the college football playoffs for the past three seasons.
And, after a 4-0 start, some in South Bend, Indiana are probably considering the idea of a third trip.
2. The Irish could have a controversy over the QB. No one was happy to see Coan limp off the field after a sack, but Pyne’s performance in his place was encouraging. Pyne normally serves as Notre Dame’s third-string quarterback, but replacement Tyler Buchner, who has seen the action before this season, was unavailable due to a hamstring injury.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the Irish adopt a conservative game plan in a close game once Pyne entered, but they were aggressive as two of Pyne’s first three games were assists. While Coan has started every game for the Irish this season after being transferred from Wisconsin (where he lost his job to Mertz after suffering an injury), he has not been outstanding, and many Irish fans have wanted to see Buchner get more action. Now Pyne could fight over some clichés.
The good news is, Kelly said after the win that Coan’s injury didn’t appear to be bad enough to keep him from coming out for a long time. Still, it’s not often that you see 4-0 teams with QB point questions. Kelly might have a decision to make.
3. If Wisconsin doesn’t have a QB controversy, it should. Even if you want to argue that Mertz’s second pick in the fourth quarter wasn’t his fault – and that’s a strong argument – it still means he threw three interceptions and a six-pick in the game. .
It’s an all-too-familiar story for Mertz, who set the world on fire when he made his first career start last season. In that game against Illinois, Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. In six starts since Mertz threw five more touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Mertz was a highly-rated four-star rookie out of high school, and maybe that’s why he’s been able to keep his starting role for so long, but Wisconsin needs to consider changing at this point. You can only keep sending Mertz for so long before the team loses confidence in him. It’s not entirely Mertz’s fault because the Badgers don’t have a lot of good weapons in the receiver position, but on the rare occasions that the Wisconsin receivers open up, Mertz misses them.
Wisconsin can still win the Big Ten West, which means it can still win the Big Ten. There is too much to play to continue relying on a player who has proven to be unreliable.
4. Notre Dame’s inability to spin the ball is still a concern. The Irish are 4-0, but running play has been a problem throughout the season. When the Irish rushed for just 1.86 yards per carry in their opener against Florida State, it was easy to dismiss him as a young offensive line against a strong defensive front in his opener. Unfortunately for the Irish, things haven’t improved much since then.
After averaging 3.45 yards per carry against Toledo and Purdue, the Irish rushed for just 42 yards on 26 carries against Wisconsin if you remove the sack distance. That’s an average of 1.62 yards per stroke. This is simply not enough given the number of tough games remaining on the Irish calendar.
Notre Dame is now undefeated, but it won’t be very long if she doesn’t improve on her rushed attack.