Saturday, September 30th marked the midpoint of the season for the Fighting Irish as they took on the upstart Duke Blue Devils down in Durham, North Carolina. Can’t believe that the Irish have half their season behind them before even reaching the month of October, but here we are as Notre Dame beat Duke 21-14 to get to 5-1 on the year.
It was not the victory that most of us imagined coming off the brutal Ohio State loss, but in a situation where the season could have gone off the rails, the Irish got it done and pulled off a win in dramatic fashion. And I think it would be fair to say that Notre Dame probably deserved to win this one as much as they deserved to lose the Ohio State game, if that makes sense. If you are a Duke fan, I am sure you have spent your entire Sunday saying “what if” about so many plays as you probably feel like that was a victory for the Blue Devils that somehow just did not happen. Don’t worry Duke fans, ND fans know the feeling as a lot of us have been in that same state following our loss to the Buckeyes.
With what could go down as a season defining, and maybe even a Marcus Freeman era defining 95 yard TD drive, the Irish went up by 7 with just 31 ticks on the clock after struggling mightily for the entire second half. It was an epic game winning drive and we now have the chance to get to 6-1 next weekend with a win over Louisville which would then set up another titanic Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal matchup on October 14th at Notre Dame Stadium.
By now, those of you who follow me, you know the drill. We are going through our countdown to eleven regular season wins for our Irish and with victories in five of our first six games, our original “Eleven Reasons Why...” column has now moved to “Seven Reasons Why...” with wins over Navy (11), Tennessee St (10), NC State (9), Central Michigan (8) and Duke (7).
It’s great to be back on the winning end and having the chance to write this column, but hope you all also enjoyed my Notre Dame lacrosse column from last, week. With that out of the way, let’s get into it (and in no particular order)...
#1 - Sam Hartman runs for the first down on 4th and 16:
The best players make plays and with the game on the line and things not looking good with the Irish facing 4th down and needing 16 yards to keep the game going, Sam Hartman ran for seventeen to give Notre Dame a first down. The play kept our season alive and two plays later Audric Estime was in the endzone with a 30 yard run to give the Irish a 19-14 lead (we would get the 2 point conversion on a pass to Rico Flores to make it 21-14).
While the 4th down play was the big one, there were multiple plays made by Hartman across the 95 yard drive as he was under duress the entire time. Duke was bringing heavy pressure on just about every snap*, but he continued to avoid sacks, he kept looking down field and he just made plays. He showed out in the toughest time and his veteran leadership was apparent as he led us on the game winning drive. Amazing work by #10.
*To note, on the 4th down play, similar to the long 3rd down play against Ohio State in the final seconds, Duke opted to only rush three (just like ND did). As people say, “prevent defense just prevents you from winning.” Know both these plays are plays that Al Golden and Mike Elko would like back.
#2 - Howard Cross was everywhere on Saturday night:
On the evening, Howard Cross had 13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and 1 caused turnover. He was everywhere and continued to cement his status as Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman. He is playing at an All-American level and he is someone that our opponent needs to account for on every single play as he has been dynamic all year. And if we fast forward to the final series of the night, Cross was the one who forced the fumble that the Irish recovered to seal the victory. On a night where ND relied on our defense to win the game for us, Howard Cross was the absolute best player on the field for us.
#3 - The ND Defense played really, really well:
After getting out to a 7-0 start on our first drive of the evening, the Irish defense held Duke to a missed FG, INT, Punt, Punt, Punt and missed FG across their six first half possessions. It was winning football and if the Irish could have finished our own drives across the first thirty minutes we easily could have been up by at least 20 to 24 points.
While the defense did give up two TDs in the second half, they came to play when it mattered most as they forced Duke to punt on their second to last drive in order to get the ball back for ND’s game winning drive.
From an overall perspective the defense balled out and was the reason why we won the game. We held Leonard to less than 50% completion percentage on his passes and he was held way below his average on his rushing attempts. We caused two turnovers (Watts with the INT earlier in the first half as well) and once again were strong in the red zone. Giving up 17 points to OSU and 14 points to Duke is winning football every single week. Great work by the boys on a night where we needed a unit to step up.
#4 - Mitchell Evans is a DUDE:
Six catches for 134 yards against Duke which followed up seven catches for 75 yards against Ohio State. Mitchell Evans has taken back TE1 status after it seemed like Holden Staes was ready to supplant him. And I think the good thing is that we now have two tight ends who have proven they can make plays in the passing game and that will only lead to good things ahead for the Irish. Evans who was a man amongst boys against the Blue Devils and for a lot of the evening he WAS our offense. With our WR depth depleted, we needed someone who would step up and make plays and he did so all night long with some amazing catches and strong yards after the catch. I will be honest, I never thought we would see from Evans what we are seeing now and I could not be happier that I was so wrong. Dude is an excellent tight end.
#5 - Audric Estime house call - “Hello, it’s Big Dric...”:
After the huge fourth down pick up by Sam Hartman and the spiking of the ball on first down to stop the clock, Audric Estime took a handoff at the 30 yard line, got bottled up right away, but fought his way through and found daylight to take it the distance and get Notre Dame back in the lead at 19-14 with 31 seconds remaining. It was a tough night most of the evening for Estime as Duke’s defense was not allowing him to get his normal yards up the middle. But he showed up once again when it mattered most** and taking it the distance on that play was huge as I don’t think any Notre Dame fan wanted to put the game on Spencer Shrader’s foot. To take a game winning FG off the table was huge and Estime got the job done.
**To note, wish the coaching staff would have trusted the end of the Ohio State game to Estime as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
#6 - Punt fake to Jeremiyah Love:
On ND’s first drive, we were facing 4th and 4 from the Duke 47 yard line, the punt team came out, but instead of punting, we executed a great fake and Jeremiyah Love took it 34 yards down to the Duke 13 for a first down. It was a great play call by Coach Marcus Freeman and Marty Biagi and it eventually led to an ND touchdown to give us the lead less than five minutes into the game. In a season where our special teams have not resembled what we saw from Coach Mason and his unit last year, it was a bright spot in an otherwise tough year for our special teams’ unit.
#7 - Hopeful that Riley Leonard is okay:
I am struggling to find my 7th reason this week so just going to take this moment to say that I hope Riley Leonard is okay as he went down with what looked like a bad leg injury on Duke’s final offensive play of the night on Saturday. He was helped off the field by teammates and was in crutches there at the end so wishing him a quick recovery as he has been Duke’s best player for the past couple of years. He has a bright future ahead and he just seems like a good kid, hopefully he can make it back later this year.
Saturday night was one of those Notre Dame games that makes your heart race / heart stop. I will admit, I could barely watch what was going on, I was relying on friends’ texts and even a phone call with close friend Chris Craytor to talk me off a ledge. A loss against a good Duke team would have completely derailed this season, and for those who are looking for reasons to doubt Coach Marcus Freeman, they would have been out in full force starting late on Saturday evening. But we didn’t lose and we found a way to win and that is what a good program does.
Look, I was just as disappointed last week with the loss to OSU, and I was just as upset with the coaching gaffes that took place across the last 4 minutes of that game. But that happening and still thinking that CMF is the right person to lead our program both now and in the future can be parallel paths. And the same goes for this past Saturday night down in Durham. We were playing a good Duke football team, it was a night game, College GameDay was there and Duke was looking to get probably their biggest program win in a very long time. Our Irish were coming off an absolutely devastating loss the week before, we were down to basically three scholarship receivers, we had a ton of calls go against us......and we still found a way to get the job done and get the win. That is a good feeling and waking up on Sunday with a W is also a good feeling. And I can still question the way Notre Dame played on Saturday night, but at the same time still feel confident that CMF is the person to lead us moving forward.
Now it is on to another road game in what will be a tough environment at night at Louisville who is now 5-0. It’s time to get another big win and see you next week for “Six Reasons Why Notre Dame Beat Louisville.”