Our Fighting Irish took to the field this past Saturday for the annual Blue and Gold game with a limited audience. Only faculty, students, and family members were given access to view the spring scrimmage in person, with the rest of us scrambling to download Peacock. Fortunately for yours truly, I was able to watch the game and get a good look at the quarterback battle that has been ongoing in spring camp, one that we have declared Operation PyneCoan. We’ll recap the game right here on Buck’s Breakdown.
Let’s talk about-
When the offense was on the field there were flashes of brilliance. Jack Coan started for the Gold team and showcased the veteran poise and pocket presence we’ve heard about, along with an arm that can throw the deep ball with ease and accuracy. A departure from the dual-threat we’ve had in Ian Book, Coan was much more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and using his footwork to avoid the rush from the ever-persistent defense. Coan displayed the ability to roll out when needed and still threw with accuracy while on the move.
While he found Avery Davis and delivered accurate throws to move the ball downfield, he also missed a WIDE open Davis who had his coverage beat by 3 yards in the end zone. This seemed to be more of a timing issue than anything and should improve as Coan has more reps with the offense. Constant pressure from Marcus Freeman’s defense kept Coan busy in the pocket and eventually led to Coan being intercepted. His numbers on the day were 18 completions on 32 attempts for 197 yards ad one interception.
Drew Pyne was the starter for the Blue team and led his squad to the first points of the game, a field goal by Jonathan Doerer that put the Blue team ahead 3-0. Pyne displayed his arm strength with some deep throws downfield to Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy, both of whom figure to be heavily involved in the Notre Dame passing game in the fall. Though smaller in stature, Pyne made up for it with his timing on his deep throws and also showed some elusiveness when protection broke down.
Pyne seemed more rushed on his throws when he was under pressure and wasn’t as polished as Coan in these situations. Pyne finished the game with 11 completions on 23 attempts for 146 yards and an interception. It should be noted that both quarterbacks took several sacks, a sign of an offensive line trying to find its identity after losing nearly all of their starters to the NFL and graduation.
Lads and Lasses, Tyler Buchner is here. The freshman phenom played one series in the first half, a ho-hum 3 and out that many of us probably expected as he hasn’t played in a game in over a year. Fast forward to the second half, and Buchner turned some heads. Marching the Blue squad straight downfield on their first possession of the second half, Buchner found himself inside the Gold team’s 10-yard line, when he took the snap and faked the handoff, then darted through a gap and shot straight across the goal line, lowering his head to split two defenders in the process.
Buchner followed this up with another drive to pay dirt courtesy of a beautiful deep throw to the opposite side of the field to Braden Lenzy who made a great adjustment as the ball was in flight, falling down with the reception at the 1-yard line. The Blue squad capped the drive with another rushing touchdown, this one coming from Lou Albano with some help from a future starter on the Offensive Line, Rocco Spindler. (More on that a little later) Buchner threw 6 completions on 9 attempts for 140 yards, though he too fell victim to the turnover bug courtesy of a NaNa Osafo-Mensah strip-sack.
Running Backs, Receivers, and TE’s
Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree both looked solid though their day was limited by the strong play of Marcus Freeman’s defense. Williams and Tyree both displayed good speed and balance, finding gaps when they were available and taking what the defense gave them when there was no space. Williams finished the day with 3 carries for 16 yards, while Tyree had 10 carries for 43 yards. Leo Albano had 5 carries for 19 yards and a touchdown and C’Bo Flemister netted 7 carries for 11 yards.
The receivers on the other hand were a bit busier, with Lawrence Keys III, Braden Lenzy, and Avery Davis all showing why they belong in the starting rotation. Davis was open nearly all day long. His experience and physicality paid dividends and his route running ability will make him a deadly target in the fall. Lenzy and Keys both logged solid performances while displaying their speed and catching in traffic. Keys had 5 receptions for 115 yards and had the longest reception of the day which was 41 yards. Lenzy finished the day with 5 receptions for 88 yards, while Davis logged 5 receptions as well for 84 yards.
George Takacs and Mitchell Evans had 3 receptions each at the TE position, with Evans racking up 59 yards receiving and Takacs finishing with 32 yards. Joe Wilkins also had a couple of receptions and one that nearly went for a touchdown if not for a RIDICULOUS hit from Litchfield Ajavon, which dislodged the ball from Wilkins’ grasp.
Marcus Freeman joined the Notre Dame coaching staff less than 6 months ago but his impact has been noticeable. Freeman has a relatability to his players (he’s only 35) and a knack for the recruiting trail. Though the offensive and defensive play schemes were pretty vanilla for the spring game, that didn’t stop the defense from making a statement.
Marist Liufau continues to improve and finished with 5 tackles and 1 sack to lead the Gold team defense. Jack Kiser displayed good open-field speed and sure tackling for the Blue team, finishing the day with 8 total tackles to lead the Blue’s defense. A total of 9 sacks were recorded between the two teams, with a nearly even 5-4 split, with the advantage in the Gold team’s favor.
Surprisingly, the sacks were so evenly distributed that no individual had more than 1 sack in the game. Bo Bauer and Isaiah Pryor both looked good in the open field and demonstrated good physicality, while Litchfield Ajavon had perhaps the hit of the game on Joe Wilkins Jr. Ajavon followed that up with another physical stop, this time against C’Bo Flemister, both of which were impressive, hard-hitting plays that the Irish need from their defensive backs.
Justin Walters and Shayne Simon each recorded an interception, both on great reads and positioning on their receiver, and NaNa Osafo-Mensah was able to strip-sack Buchner and recovered the fumble. Defensively, the Irish looked to be very much in tune with one another and ready to go full speed.
Well, it wasn’t a regular-season game, thankfully. Our Irish lost a lot of talent and depth on our offensive line this off-season, and it showed on Saturday. Giving up 9 sacks never looks good, and quarterbacks will take it personally if they are getting hit hard and often.
Jeff Quinn and company will have their hands full getting this unit game ready by the fall. The run game had difficulty getting started as there was too much penetration with only a 4 man rush. One bright spot of the game for the line was a goal-line play where freshman Rocco Spindler came off his block which helped open a hole for Lou Albano, at which time Spindler turned and physically pulled Albano into the end zone. Spindler looks the part at 6’04 and 315 pounds and he plays with a nastiness that we will need to see more of when the regular season starts.
I also look to Blake Fisher to step up as an underclassman and potentially start in the fall. Fisher is 6’06 and 330 pounds of road grader, put you into the dirt lineman that has good athleticism and footwork. We will surely need to see a more cohesive play from this group in the fall.
Kickers and Special Teams
Jonathan Doerer and Harrison Leonard each had one field goal attempt and both converted on their kicks. Nothing new to note here as Doerer looks to rebound from some inconsistencies he experienced last season during field goal attempts, looking to improve on his 15 of 23 total from last year. There were no punt or kick returns, and as such there wasn’t much to talk about regarding special teams. Jay Bramblett looked solid as usual and will return as the starting punter.
The game was a sneak peek at the Irish quarterback battle and the progression of the Irish offense and defense over the course of this off-season and spring camp. Operation PyneCoan will continue into summer camp, though I would say that Coan seems to be the more game-ready of the two at this point. Buchner remains a mystery, a young man with a rocket arm, great athleticism, and a very high ceiling. He can only improve his position by staying consistent in practice and making the most of his reps as they come. Another development coming out of South Bend is the transfer of Jordan Johnson. Reasons haven’t been made clear as of this publication, however, a receiver of Johnson’s physical makeup and speed will leave a gap that needs to be filled by current personnel.
Lads and Lasses, what are your thoughts as we transition from spring into summer camp? Do you have an opinion on Operation PyneCoan, and if so, do you think it’s possible that Buchner can break through and be the starter for the season opener? Let’s hear your comments and as always GO IRISH!
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