Notre Dame speedster Chris Tyree doesn’t get many chances to return kickoffs, but he maxed out one of those rare opportunities at a perilous moment on Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field.
Immediately after a Wisconsin field goal put the18th-ranked Badgers (1-2) in front a minute into the fourth quarter, Tyree’s 96-yard kickoff return touchdown ignited a deluge of 31 unanswered points from the 12th-ranked Irish (4-0) in a 41-13 win.
A backup running back and state champion sprinter from Chester, Va., Tyree broke through a large crease up the middle and slashed to his left before racing the rest of the way untouched. His entire trip took just 13 seconds, a remarkable feat considering he was wearing full football gear and did some zigging and zagging along the way.
Tyree has been timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
C.J. Sanders’ 93-yarder in 2016 against Syracuse had been the last kickoff return for a Notre Dame touchdown. Asked if Tyree’s exploits energized the Notre Dame sideline, coach Brian Kelly grinned.
“Heck, yeah,” Kelly said. “He’s a very fast and talented player. And when they played ‘Jump Around,’ it seemed like we thought that was our fight song and we started playing better. I’ve got to check that with our guys.”
Kelly was at his wisecracking best after surpassing the legendary Knute Rockne atop the career coaching wins list at Notre Dame. With his family, including parents Paul and Thelma, waiting in the postgame interview room, the Wisconsin theme song by House of Pain could be heard blasting down the hall in the winning locker room.
Win No. 106 at Notre Dame was nowhere near as easy as the final score would indicate, thanks to a pair of garbage-time interception returns for touchdowns by linebackers Jack Kiser and Drew White. But it still meant Kelly could now fix his gaze fully on next week’s home matchup with his former program at Cincinnati.
“I’m just glad it’s over with, really, to be quite honest with you,” Kelly said. “I’m proud of the accomplishment (and) the level of consistency and obviously, from a winning standpoint, you have to have great players and great coaches and great support.”
Kelly again credited Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the management team that hired him 12 years ago and that remains in place.
“I share that with them,” he said. “But I get more joy in watching the development of a Drew Pyne and Chris Tyree. That’s why I do this. You don’t do it for 31 years because you’re trying to beat Knute Rockne’s record — no disrespect to Knute.”
Already missing senior nose guard and team captain Kurt Hinish against the run-heavy Badgers, Notre Dame had to turn to Pyne, the untested redshirt freshman quarterback, after starter Jack Coan suffered a sprained ankle on the second offensive series of the second half.
Facing his former Wisconsin teammates, Coan was sacked five times and finished 15 of 29 passing for 158 yards and a touchdown. With second-stringer Tyler Buchner nursing a tight hamstring, Pyne went 6 of 8 for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Coan, the graduate transfer, remains the starter if healthy, Kelly said, adding that X-rays on Coan’s ankle were negative. Buchner also is expected to return to action against No. 8 Cincinnati.
Cornerback Cam Hart, a converted receiver, added two interceptions as the Irish defense stifled Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and held the Badgers to a combined 1-of-15 showing on third- and fourth-down conversions.
Yet, even Hart called Tyree’s return “the game-changing play.”
Notre Dame improved to 10-0 in the Shamrock Series since it began in 2009. That included a 41-3 win over Miami in 2012 that marked the last Irish appearance at Soldier Field before Saturday.