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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Capece: Welcome to the Coan zone

If you’ve watched Notre Dame football for long enough, you probably remember the last Irish national championship game appearance back in 2013. Actually, you probably don’t remember it because you stopped watching after Alabama scored three times in the first 15 minutes. That game had a little bit of everything for the Crimson Tide. Now NFL journeyman A.J. McCarron threw for four touchdowns, NFL bust Eddie Lacy ran for two scores, and the Tide defense got in on the action with an interception by Ha Ha Clinton Dix. Heck, play-by-play guy Brent Musburger got so bored he started romanticizing about McCarron’s girlfriend in the stands, prompting ESPN to issue an apologetic statement the next day.

To be fair, that game was probably over for the Irish before it started thanks to the Manti Te’o catfishing scandal. The guy who really got catfished, though, was Brian Kelly. After he watched his team get obliterated at the line of scrimmage by Alabama’s unstoppable defensive line, the Irish head coach made it his goal to transform the Irish offensive line from the starting gates at the Kentucky Derby into a certified brick wall. Over the last decade, Kelly has built his teams to the standard of the Alabama team that rolled him in Miami, priding himself on finding players that embrace physicality and toughness. And boy has he succeeded, because the Irish sure don’t get pushed around anymore. Year in and year out, Notre Dame dominates people in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

How exactly did Kelly get catfished then? Well, back in 2013 Alabama was a run-first team. Who wouldn’t be behind an offensive line that included three future NFL draft picks? The Tide ran the ball a whopping 45 times with behemoth Lacy toting the rock 20 times on his own. Much of that was running out the clock, but the Alabama offense was still predicated on running the ball on early downs with the occasional play action thrown in. Brian Kelly, wanting to sit at the grownups’ table, adopted the same run-first philosophy, and he’s stuck with it for the last ten years. The problem is that it’s not 2013 anymore. Alabama has adapted to become the air-raid, spread-em-out, throw-it-early and often offensive juggernaut necessary to win in today’s college football landscape, while the Notre Dame offense is still plowing it up the gut on first and second down.

The Irish pulled out the victory in overtime against Florida State on Sunday, but I sure hope Kelly realizes the one guy he shouldn’t execute is Jack Coan. In his first start, he silenced anyone who labeled him as just another game manager and showed he can be the gunslinger Irish fans have been waiting for.

Coan needs to be the focal point of the Notre Dame offense if the Irish even stand a chance of competing with college football’s elite. There are two major reasons why I feel this way. First, he proved on Sunday that he’s actually really good, something that even Kelly himself may have been unsure about heading into the season opener. He torched the Florida State defense for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns in a brilliant performance that made him look like the second coming of All-American quarterback Joe Montana. He can make throws to all three levels of the field, something that Ian Book struggled with at times last season. He brings an element to the Notre Dame offense that simply didn’t exist before Sunday night. Coan wasn’t asked to do much more than hand the ball off at Wisconsin in Paul Chryst’s ground and pound system, and he looked like he was finally having some fun out there Sunday night. Every time the camera panned to him on the phone with Tommy Rees, you could almost see him thanking his offensive coordinator for letting him sling the rock. It’s very clear that Coan is not only a reliable bridge to five-star recruit Tyler Buchner, but is instead a game-changer in his own right.

Second, allowing Coan to throw early and often will make stud running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree even more dangerous. We know that Williams is capable of having another monster season, and that Chris Tyree can have a much-improved season as compared to last year. But that will only happen if both players still have their legs underneath them. The Irish can now give their main guys a breather on first and second down so they still have enough left in the tank in the fourth quarter. Letting Coan cook defenses with his downfield passing ability will also help open up more running lanes. If defenses have to respect the pass, they can’t stack the box to stuff Williams and Tyree at the line of scrimmage. With more room to operate, both backs are talented enough to absolutely feast on opposing defenses. The athleticism and shiftiness the two possess will be a nightmare for cornerbacks and safeties in the open field. A pass-first offense will actually make the run more effective as compared to running to set up the pass like the Irish have traditionally done under Kelly.

Brian Kelly was probably sweating bullets when Tommy Rees started the game with four straight pass plays and didn’t run the ball once. Florida State seemed to be doing the same when they let Michael Mayer waltz untouched over 50 yards of green grass into the end zone for an opening drive score. Unfortunately, Kelly reverted back to his old ways and tried to run the Seminoles into submission as soon as the Irish took the lead, which of course let the home team back into the game and prompted me to try and throw a folding chair through my wall. If the Irish are going to compete for a playoff spot again, Kelly needs to trust his veteran quarterback to throw the damn ball. Gone are the days where the Irish need to be a run first team, and Jack Coan will prove they’re better off for it.