After escaping by the skin of their teeth in Tallahassee, Notre Dame had their home opener against the Toledo Rockets on deck. For most fans, this seemed like an easy week, and who could blame any of them for believing as much? Sure, Notre Dame had struggled to establish a run game the week prior. Sure, they allowed too many big plays on defense. Sure, they had trouble protecting Jack Coan. But there was no way that a team from the Mid-American Conference could exploit those weaknesses. Notre Dame was poised for a huge bounce back week... until they weren’t.
The game started out as expected for the Irish. It took just six plays for them to get on the board, as Jack Coan hit Michael Mayer for a 4-yard touchdown. On Toledo’s first possession, two plays with minimal gain had Toledo in an early third-and-5. It felt like Notre Dame was about to pull away just three minutes into the game, until Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley found Devin Maddox for a gain of 66 yards. Notre Dame was able to hold Toledo to a field goal, but the problem still remained: Notre Dame’s defense could not stop giving up big plays.
After a few scoreless possessions on offense, Notre Dame’s run game continued to sputter, so Brian Kelly reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out freshman quarterback from California, Tyler Buchner. Buchner was a highly regarded dual-threat recruit, and with Coan struggling, it seemed like the perfect time to give the young gun a shot. On his first play, Buchner faked a handoff to Kyren Williams and sprinted for 26 yards. With two running threats in the game, the Toledo defense was suddenly on its heels, and just a few plays later Kyren Williams broke free for a 43-yard touchdown.
Notre Dame held a 14-9 advantage with just over a minute to play in the first half. It hadn’t been pretty, but with a quick score, Notre Dame could head into the locker room with a confidence boost. Then, disaster struck. On second-and-10, Jack Coan tried to force a throw to Mayer, but a Toledo cornerback stepped in front of the throw with only green grass in front of him and returned the interception 27 yards for a touchdown and a 16-14 Toledo lead at halftime. Notre Dame Stadium was in shock. The Irish faithful were certainly losing faith, and the southeast corner of the stadium that held the majority of the Toledo fans became increasingly rowdy with the sudden feeling that they could pull off an upset.
After a scoreless third quarter, Notre Dame started the fourth quarter with a bang, scoring 10 quick points, including a 55-yard touchdown pass from Buchner to Chris Tyree. The Irish now led 24-16 and had the Rockets on the ropes... but Toledo didn’t hear a bell! Toledo was able to find the endzone in just six plays on their ensuing drive, slicing the Irish lead to two.
Then, after Notre Dame put together a strong drive, the normally sure-handed Kyren Williams fumbled the ball and Toledo recovered with just over three minutes left in the game. Once again, Toledo marched down the field, capped by backup quarterback Dequan Finn faking out the Irish defense for a 26-yard rushing score. Toledo led 29-24 and were just 1:35 away from pulling off the impossible.
Jack Coan and the Irish offense came onto the field needing a touchdown. They had turned the ball over three times, allowed six sacks, and failed to have any offensive consistency. If the rest of the day was any indication, it seemed like Notre Dame was about to lose their first home game since 2017. However, Jack Coan suddenly became the gunslinger he had been against Florida State.
On the first play of the drive, he hit Kevin Austin for a 34-yard gain down the Irish sideline to quickly get into Toledo territory. Coan then threw an incomplete pass to Mayer, but Toledo was flagged for pass interference. On the throw, Coan slammed his middle finger into a Toledo defender, dislocating it in the process. With seemingly nothing other than pure adrenaline keeping him going, Coan ran over to the sideline, where trainer Mike Bean popped it back into place. Coan ran back onto the field as if nothing happened, and on the very next play, hit Michael Mayer in stride for an 18-yard touchdown and a 32-29 lead. It had taken just 26 seconds for the Irish to reclaim the lead.
Toledo got the ball back, needing a field goal to tie, but before they could get anywhere Myron Tagavailoa-Amosa put their dreams to rest with a forced fumble and recovery to end the game. Once again, Notre Dame had escaped with a win; they were 2-0, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. This was a young team who, without some serious improvements, were looking at a long season ahead.