No. 12 Notre Dame knocked off No. 18 Wisconsin 41-13 in a slugfest Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago. The final score did not reflect defensive battle that took place over the course of the game as two pick-sixes by the Fighting Irish in the final 3 minutes provided the padding necessary to blow the Badgers out on the stat sheet.
The Irish made more plays than the Badgers in a game that featured few exciting moments on offense. Not surprisingly, given the strong defenses on display, the game's biggest play was on special teams.
After Wisconsin battled back from a deficit and took a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. It sucked all the air out of the Wisconsin sideline and fans in attendance, and the Irish never relented the lead.
However, it was not all good news for Notre Dame. Starting quarterback Jack Coan had to leave the game with a lower leg injury and was replaced by third-stringer Drew Pyne. Coan's performance before the injury was subpar as he completed 15 of 29 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. Pyne's performance was admirable enough with 81 yards on a touchdown on 6 of 8 passing.
Both Irish QBs outplayed their Wisconsin counterpart. Graham Mertz struggled throughout a nightmare afternoon. He completed only 18 of 41 passes for 240 yards and finished with four interceptions on the day, two of which were returned for touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The Fighting Irish improve to 4-0 on the season and are now 11-0-2 all-time at Soldier Field. Wisconsin falls to 1-2. Here are four thoughts following a surprising blowout.
1. Brian Kelly is now the winningest coach in Notre Dame history. Saturday's win was Brian Kelly's 106th win at Notre Dame, moving him past Knute Rockne on Notre Dame's all-time win list as coaches. Of course, as Kelly himself made clear during the week, the record doesn't mean a lot to him. In Kelly's eyes, it just makes him "the coach that won more games that hasn't won a national championship."
While you can admire the humility in that statement, it undersells what Kelly has been able to do at Notre Dame. This is a program that had gone a long time without success since winning a national title in 1988 when Kelly took over. Some years were downright embarrassing for the program. While the Irish haven't won a national title under Kelly, they've been far from embarrassing, and he's helped lead the program to two College Football Playoff berths in the last three seasons.
And, after a 4-0 start, some in South Bend, Indiana, are likely entertaining the idea of a third trip.
2. The Irish might have a QB controversy on their hands. Nobody was happy to see Coan limp off the field following a sack, but Pyne's performance in his place was encouraging. Pyne normally serves as Notre Dame's third-string quarterback, but backup Tyler Buchner, who has already seen action this season, was unavailable due to a hamstring injury.
It wouldn't have been a surprise to see the Irish go with a conservative game plan in a close game once Pyne came in, but they were aggressive, as two of Pyne's first three plays were passes. While Coan has started every game for the Irish this season after transferring from Wisconsin (where he lost his job to Mertz after suffering an injury), he hasn't been exceptional, and many Irish fans have wanted to see Buchner get more action. Now Pyne could be fighting for snaps.
The good news is that Kelly said after the win that Coan's injury doesn't seem to be serious enough to keep him out for an extended period of time. Still, it's not often you see 4-0 teams with questions at the QB spot. Kelly might have a decision to make.
3. If Wisconsin doesn't have a QB controversy, it should. Even if you want to make the argument that Mertz's second pick-six of the fourth quarter wasn't his fault -- and it's a strong argument -- that still means he threw three interceptions and a pick-six in the game.
It's an all too familiar story for Mertz, who lit the world on fire in his first career start last season. In that game against Illinois, Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. In six starts since Mertz has thrown five more touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Mertz was a highly-rated four-star recruit out of high school, and perhaps that's why he's been able to hang onto his starting role for so long, but Wisconsin has to consider making a change at this point. You can only keep sending Mertz out there for so long before the team loses confidence in him. It's not entirely Mertz's fault because the Badgers don't have a lot of great weapons at the receiver position, but the few times Wisconsin receivers do get open, Mertz is missing them.
Wisconsin can still win the Big Ten West, which means it can still win the Big Ten. There's too much left to play for to continue relying on a player who has proven to be unreliable.
4. Notre Dame's inability to run the ball is still a concern. The Irish are 4-0, but the running game has been a problem all season long. When the Irish rushed for only 1.86 yards per carry in their opener against Florida State, it was easy to write it off as a young offensive line against a sturdy defensive front in its first game. Unfortunately for the Irish, things haven't improved much since.
After averaging 3.45 yards per carry against Toledo and Purdue, the Irish rushed for only 42 yards on 26 carries against Wisconsin if you remove sack yardage. That's an average of 1.62 yards per carry. That's simply not good enough considering the number of tough games remaining on the Irish schedule.
Notre Dame is undefeated now, but it won't be much longer if it doesn't improve its rushing attack.