Lane Stadium could feel it. When Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister hit paydirt on a 19-yard touchdown run to put his team up 29-21 with just under four minutes to play, Hokies’ fans sensed they had the Irish on the ropes.
The Irish offense had struggled all night against the Hokies, who were looking to improve to 4-1 and grab a signature upset in primetime. After a dismal first quarter, graduate transfer starter Jack Coan was pulled in favor of true freshman Tyler Buchner, whose dual-threat capabilities kept the Irish in the game.
However, after Buchner threw a pick-six late in the third and then gave Virginia Tech a short field with another interception that set up the Burmeister touchdown, then-Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was forced to go back to his bullpen.
“Enter Mariano Rivera today. I mean, ‘Enter Sandman,’” he said with a chuckle postgame, referencing the Metallica single that plays during the Hokies’ entrance, the signature tradition for a program that boasts one of the fiercest atmospheres in college football.
The baseball analogy wasn’t perfect, however. Instead of making sophomore Drew Pyne the third Irish quarterback of the day, Kelly went back to his experienced starter.
In less than a minute-and-a-half, Coan led the Irish on a 75-yard drive finished off by his lone touchdown pass of the game, a 4-yard toss to graduate student receiver Avery Davis. On the ensuing 2-point conversion, Coan was flushed from the pocket and heaved the ball in desperation to the back of the endzone, where it was hauled in by senior receiver Kevin Austin Jr. to tie the game.
After the Irish defense forced a Virginia Tech three-and-out, Coan again quickly marched the Irish down the field to set up a game-winning 48-yard field goal from Jonathan Doerer. After completing just two passes for 15 yards in the first quarter, Coan went 7/9 for 93 yards on his final two drives leading the Irish to a 32-29 victory and avoiding a second straight loss.
Kelly lauded Coan for picking up Buchner when the freshman lay injured after throwing his second interception and for having the mental fortitude to reenter the game. “But you’ll find negative things to write about this game,” Kelly said to the media. “And that’s why I don’t really care. Because as a coach, what I take from these games is watching a guy like a Jack Coan come in under those circumstances and rise above it.”
Notre Dame’s three first-quarter drives went for -9, -1, and again -1 yards, respectively. Meanwhile, Raheem Blackshear capped an 80-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run on Virginia Tech’s second possession. After quickly getting the ball back, the Hokies drove down to the Notre Dame 1-yard line but were thwarted by a goal-line stand by the Irish defense. Virginia Tech opted to take the points on fourth down, tacking on a 19-yard field goal to put the Irish in a double-digit hole.
Notre Dame looked in danger of being shut out in the first half for a second straight week before Buchner gave the Irish a spark; running three yards for a touchdown to cap a 75-yard drive midway through the second quarter and then finished off an 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Kyren Williams to give the Irish their first lead of the game with 32 seconds left in the half.
After Virginia Tech bookended halftime with two field goal drives, Williams found paydirt again on a physical 10-yard touchdown run after an interception by senior corner Tariq Bracy gave the Irish a short field midway through the third quarter. Williams led the Irish with 19 carries for 81 yards.
Kelly was proud of Notre Dame’s improvement in the run game as the midpoint of the season approached. “Today was a coming out party for us,” Kelly said. “The O-Linemen in there are pretty happy. They feel good. Kyren ran with an edge today.” However, the Irish offense again unraveled in the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Buchner sandwiching a three-and-out with his two picks. He finished 6/14 for 113 yards, though he was Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher with 67 yards on 12 carries.
After Coan put the Irish back in the driver’s seat, Doerer had to make a clutch kick as the crowd of over 65,000 waved the flashlights on their phones in the background and Kelly asked the officials to deal with a laser or strobe being pointed in the stands.
Kelly, however, revealed that Doerer insisted he just kick anyway. He did, unleashing a laser of his own with 17 seconds to play to keep Notre Dame’s hopes of making a New Year’s Six Bowl alive and leave Lane Stadium eerily quiet. “I don’t know if he’s got blood in his veins,” Kelly said of his graduate student kicker.
It was a fitting end to a back-and-forth game that had just about everything. At the very least, the outcome left Kelly happy enough to lead his press conference with a sarcastic quip. “Well, not much to say,” he said. “Pretty boring day here in Blacksburg."