Noie: Living on the college football edge is where No. 8 Notre Dame is - for now

Tom Noie
ND Insider

For the second time inside the same work week, the No. 8 Notre Dame football team found itself living on the college football edge. 

For the second time in that week — the previous Sunday at Florida State before Saturday in the home opener against unranked Toledo — Notre Dame found a way to avoid falling off that college football ledge. 

Might want to hit Martin's or CVS or Walgreens and stock up on the antacid and blood-pressure medication and anything else that’s going to keep you calm and relatively composed for the rest of this month. For the rest of this season. This might be the way this one’s going to go for these Irish. They did plenty to give another game away late, then did just enough to figure out how to win. 

Notre Dame 32, Toledo 29

Notre Dame center Jarrett Patterson (55) and Kyren Williams (23) celebrate during the Notre Dame's 32-29 victory over Toledo, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

It wasn’t supposed to be this close. This frustrating. This dramatic. This uncertain. This tense. It was all that and more against another school from the Mid-American Conference that smelled an upset. Still, it's also an Irish win and we’ve long been told that winning’s hard, so take it and move on with it. 

“It’s a good start to the season,” said sophomore running back Chris Tyree. “We know that we have a lot of things to work on. We know we have to build with what we have right now.” 

Build thanks to the foundation that’s been built. Long before Notre Dame started on this current journey that saw it move to 45-8 since 2017 and win its 25th consecutive home game, the Irish likely lose this one. Give it away at the end by not making a few more plays. Are left to wonder how it all went wrong.

This wouldn’t be a repeat of Tulsa in 2010 or South Florida in 2011 or Northwestern in 2014 or Duke early in a 2016 season that ended 4-8 and forced head coach Brian Kelly to turn this whole darn program around or get out. 

Losing couldn’t be an option Saturday, not with this culture that’s been so solid since 2017. Too much experience in the locker room. Too much pride on the sideline. Too much of we can instead of we can’t. Notre Dame has come too far to let all that slip away and basically start back over from scratch. 

► Quarterbacks:Buchner, Coan share duties in wild win 

► Scoring summary:Notre Dame 32, Toledo 29: Scoring summary from Saturday's game

That's what would've happened. Didn't happen, even when it look so ugly and the odds looked so long.

You didn’t have to be anywhere near Notre Dame Stadium (and some of us in the media weren’t, but that’s a different column for a different day) to feel the tension. The pressure. The resignation that this one was going to end with a big dose of drama. 

It did, thanks to a Jack Coan to Michael Mayer touchdown from 18 yards out to cap a three-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter. It gave the Irish the lead with 69 seconds remaining and allowed everyone in a less-than-full stadium to exhale. 

Finally. 

How Notre Dame got there — and here — doesn’t much matter. Not after the six sacks allowed by a patchwork offensive line on its third left tackle in two games. Not after an offense that allowed 11 tackles for loss. Not for an Irish defense that looked so good for stretches (again) but then looked like it had forgotten how to tackle and pursue (again) and diagnosis a quarterback keeper that allowed quarterback Dequan Finn sneak out the right side and slip away for 26 yards and the go-ahead score with 1:35 remaining. 

None of it mattered because the Irish wouldn’t let it. Coan even shrugged off a dislocated finger on his right (throwing) hand to continue on in the final drive. Freshman Tyler Buchner seemed ready to sub in and steal the spotlight.

Coan wouldn’t let the moment get away. 

“That’s pretty cool,” Mayer said. 

Let’s call this one the Jack Coan dislocated finger game. Not as dramatic as the Joe Montana/Chicken Soup game, but go with it. 

“Jack was poised the entire game,” Mayer said. “That’s what I saw from him the entire summer. He's going to be doing that the rest of the year.” 

There were ups and there were downs, but come the time when the Irish absolutely had to have it, they had it. Just like earlier in the week in overtime against Florida State. That says something, even if the escape had Irish faithful muttering something else. 

Does Notre Dame need to improve? Absolutely, more than anyone anticipated two weeks in. The Irish need work across the board. At everything. With everyone. There remain issues — some more serious than others — but if the Irish can win and keep on winning, nobody will remember the near-misses of early September in late November. 

Watching this one live, either in the stadium stands or upstairs in the press box, was far less frustrating than having to watch it on the Peacock Premium streaming service. Following the game on your phone or your tablet or your television or however you did while simultaneously following statbroadcast.com was ridiculous. 

The streaming of the broadcast often ran two and three and sometimes four plays behind statbroadcast.com. You didn’t have to watch the stream to learn if the Irish failed to convert on third down. You didn’t have to wait to see how the Rockets went ahead with the late score. The stats and the story were right there on the laptop. 

For free. 

Notre Dame’s Avery Davis (3) and Braden Lenzy (0) celebrate during the Notre Dame vs. Toledo NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Peacock Premium viewers might just now be seeing Irish linebacker JD Bertrand falling on that Toledo fumble in the closing seconds to seal this one. 

“I was just making sure I hustled to the ball,” Bertrand said. “Just trying to do my part.” 

Fortunately, statbroadcast also did its part and froze in the final minute. That allowed for an organic viewing of the frantic finish. 

This was a day that Kelly wanted his guys to establish an identity, something tangible that they could carry through the rest of this month and into the next two. Who is this team going to be in 2021? We were supposed to see it Saturday when the Irish won by three, four scores. Instead, we saw what carried this program through 2017 and 2018 and 2019 and 2020. 

Like with Peacock Premium, Notre Dame has some serious issues. It hasn't looked anything like the 28th or 38th or even 48th best team in the country, let alone the eighth. But it has two wins in two games. Two wins by a combined six points, but still, wins. 

“I can’t even begin with the work that we have to do,” Kelly said. “It starts with the basic premises of football. We lacked intensity. I obviously didn’t do a good job preparing them.” 

Two games in seven days might have a lot to do with that. 

As for the streaming service, cancel it. Even if this one was worth the $4.99 fee. It’s not ready for prime time. Neither is Notre Dame. Can it get there? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s going to be fun finding out.