Things had gotten so rough for Notre Dame football after a 4-8 campaign in 2016 that a group of alumni and fans paid for a full-page ad in The Observer calling for the firings of Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly. The ad cited a failure to uphold standards on and off the field and the confidence level in Kelly as “Zero.”
Fortunately for Irish fans, Swarbrick’s own confidence in Kelly never wavered. In the five seasons since the 2016 debacle, Notre Dame has won more than 10 games every year and advanced to two College Football Playoff appearances. Only Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma have more wins than Notre Dame over that same span. This, is why Kelly’s abrupt departure to become the head coach at LSU after 12 seasons in South Bend came as a surprise, especially after leading the Irish to a third 11-win season and New Year’s Six bowl appearance in four years and becoming the winningest head coach in Irish football history in the process.
In spite of all of the team’s success in recent years, Notre Dame football entered the 2021 season with more questions than answers. On offense, the Irish had to find a viable replacement for Ian Book, a three-year starter at quarterback who led the Irish to two bowl victories, two Playoff appearances and a 30-5 overall record during his time in South Bend. Then there was the trouble of replacing four starting offensive linemen who have gone on to the NFL, and together totaled over 100 career collegiate starts, as well as a third-round NFL draft pick at tight end and the team’s two most productive wide receivers.
Defensively, Notre Dame needed to fill the sizable void left by the NFL departures of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the 2020 Butkus award winner, plus three team captains in graduate students Shaun Crawford, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji.
Considering the 2021 season was the first in South Bend for new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, each veteran loss was that much more noteworthy.
Freeman, who was named Notre Dame’s 30th head coach in the wake of Kelly’s end-of-season exit, was brought in after spending four seasons running the defense at Cincinnati to replace Clark Lea, who left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt after transforming Notre Dame’s defense into one of the nation’s best in just three seasons.
Notre Dame builds has built its recent success on consistent quarterback play, a dominant offensive line and a suffocating defense, but began this season with a quarterback that had yet to start a game for the Irish, an offensive line with modest returning experience and a defense led by a coordinator in his first year with the program.
Given all of these circumstances, the fact that Notre Dame was able to win double-digit games for a fifth straight season and advance to a New Year’s Six bowl as the fifth-ranked team in the country by season’s end is a laudable feat.
With Book on to the NFL, Notre Dame’s quarterback room returned just four career completions split between sophomore Drew Pyne and junior Brendon Clark. Outside of Pyne and Clark, there was true freshman early-enrollee Tyler Buchner, a four-star recruit in the 2021 cycle who had yet to play in a game in over a year due to pandemic-induced fall sports cancellations in California.
Enter Wisconsin graduate transfer, Jack Coan. Having started 18 games for the Badgers between 2018 and 2019, Coan was the ideal candidate to replace Book — an accurate thrower with a proven track record. In 2019, the Long Island native led Wisconsin to a 10-4 season and Rose Bowl appearance, completing 69.6% of his passes for 2,727 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
With the 2021 season officially in the books, it’s safe to say Coan overachieved in his lone season in blue and gold. In the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl, Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said, “Everything that we thought we were getting in Jack, we underestimated. I think he was more than we thought we were getting.”
And that was before Coan set a Fiesta Bowl record of 509 passing yards against an Oklahoma State defense that gave up just 187 passing yards the game prior. The Irish signal caller threw for five touchdowns in the loss and set a Notre Dame bowl record with four in the first half.
Coan ended the season the same way he started it in terms of etching his name in the ND record books. Opening night against Florida State, Coan set a season-opening program record of 366 passing yards and tied the record of four touchdown passes in the overtime win over the Seminoles.
The next week, Coan saved the Irish from near disaster, throwing the game-winning 18-yard touchdown pass to Michael Mayer with a freshly dislocated finger and just over a minute remaining to outlast Toledo 32-29.
After taking care of Purdue at home and then Wisconsin in the Shamrock Series matchup at Soldier Field, the low point of the season for Notre Dame came in the highly anticipated, top-10 week five showdown with Cincinnati in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish swiftly marched down to the Cincinnati six-yard line on the opening drive of the game, but on second and goal Coan threw across his body while under duress and was intercepted.
From then on, it was all Bearcats. Cincinnati led 17-0 at halftime. Coan was benched in favor of the sophomore Pyne. Pyne was able to help bring Notre Dame within four points in the fourth quarter, but the Bearcats went on to secure a program-defining 24-13 victory. It was Notre Dame’s first loss at home since 2017. Through the first five games of the season, the Irish had given up 22 sacks and rushed for a scanty 404 rushing yards.
The turning point of the season came the following week in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech. With the Irish offense stagnant in the first half for the fourth straight week, Coan was benched for the second game in a row, this time for Buchner. Buchner came in with the Irish trailing 10-0 with 10 minutes remaining in the first half. By halftime, the Irish were ahead 14-13 thanks to a 3-yard touchdown run and an 8-yard touchdown pass from Buchner. However, the freshman’s inexperience got the best of him in the second half, and with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Irish trailed 29 -21 and were in danger of a second straight loss. The previous three offensive possessions had resulted in a pick-six, three-and-out and another interception.
Then, Coan came off the bench and led Notre Dame on a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive to tie the game. The Irish defense forced a quick punt and Coan piloted another seven-play drive, this time for 45 yards that set up the eventual Jonathan Doerer game-winning field goal. Coan went 7-for-9 passing for 93 yards, a touchdown and a 2-point conversion on the final two drives.
The win over the Hokies sparked a seven-game win streak to end the season. In those seven games, the Irish averaged over 38 points per game. In the final four games, the team outscored opponents 162-23 and went on a 14 quarter stretch without giving up a touchdown.
In Freeman’s first stint as defensive coordinator, the Irish defense ranked top-10 nationally in defensive touchdowns, total sacks, sacks per game, scoring defense and interceptions. Linebacker JD Bertrand went from practice squad player to the team’s leading tackler in one off season. Isaiah Foskey finished the season with 11 sacks, and twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola combined for 14 tackles for a loss and 8 1/2 sacks. All four return next season.
Offensively, Kyren Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards for a second straight season and finished with 17 total touchdowns after also racking up 42 receptions, 359 receiving yards and three scores. Michael Mayer caught a team-high 71 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. Kevin Austin Jr. paced the team with 888 receiving yards on 48 catches for an 18.5 yards per catch average. Williams, Austin and junior safety Kyle Hamilton have all declared for the 2022 NFL Draft.
The 2021 season was especially significant given the number of true freshmen who made an impact. Tyler Buchner got consistent reps and finished second on the team in rushing. Logan Diggs finished third on the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Joe Alt provided the answer Notre Dame was desperately in need of at left tackle at the midpoint of the season. Alt and Blake Fisher started at left and right tackle, respectively, in the Fiesta Bowl, and the Irish gave up just two sacks on 68 pass attempts against the no. 1 sack team in the nation. Lorenzo Styles caught 24 passes in the regular season and was the team’s leading receiver in the Fiesta Bowl.
That’s why even after an unexpected coaching change and a disappointing bowl performance in the season’s final month, the future remains bright for a Notre Dame team with the third youngest head coach in all of college football. There are still important hires for Freeman to make on the horizon, principally at defensive coordinator, but a chance for a fresh start has been presented to an ascendant team that’s still in search of its first New Year’s Six bowl or national championship win in three decades