The Notre Dame Fighting Irish flirted with heartbreak yet again, but last-minute heroics by Sam Hartman and Audric Estime helped them pull out a season-saving win against the Duke Blue Devils. Immediately reflecting upon this game, I (like my OFD colleague Hayden Adams) immediately thought of the 2019 and 2021 games against the Virginia Tech Hokies, both of which saw an Irish team coming off a crushing loss take the field against not only a game ACC opponent, but their own demons from the previous week.
As they did in those seasons, the Irish managed to triumph on Saturday night in Durham, and one can only hope that winning has a similar effect now as it did in those seasons, where the painful win was succeeded by a perfect remainder of the regular season. The Irish now set out on the second half of a four-week gauntlet against ranked competition before the bye, aiming to re-establish stability and leave their troubled ways behind them. In an attempt to channel that spirit, here is your Irish tune of the week:
With that goal in mind, let’s look at three things that led this game to go the way it did.
Howard Cross’s STAMP Game
In a solid overall defensive night for Notre Dame, it was the defensive tackle Cross whose star shined brightest. With 13 total tackles and 3.5 TFLs with one sack, Cross was the centerpiece of an outstanding defensive effort that kept the Blue Devils bottled up as long as possible before fatigue and Riley Leonard’s running ability opened things up. And at the end of the game, it was his sack of Leonard that sealed the deal for the Irish.
This is far from an isolated effort - Cross is, incredibly for an interior lineman, leading the Irish in tackles this season. The fifth-year senior has also forced two fumbles and tipped a pass at the line, all of which is putting him on pace to have one of the great defensive tackle seasons in program history. Most importantly, he has dialed up his effort as the Irish have run into adversity, becoming a game-wrecker in moments where he was desperately needed.
The best-case hope for this game was that the Irish came out focused and angry following their defeat against Ohio State and won in a blowout. Ultimately, the Irish came out angry, but not focused, and as a result barely escaped with a W. Leaving aside the actual injuries Notre Dame took into the game, particularly among the receiving corps, the Irish also hurt themselves throughout the night with boneheaded penalties (11 pre-snap from the offensive line alone, which played a major role in setting back Notre Dame’s drives) and lackluster execution - dropped passes, missed tackles, etc.
In the second half of the game, as Notre Dame’s offensive failures mounted and Duke started finding success, one got the sense that the Irish were fading and the Blue Devils were prepared to outlast them, and only a few leaders willing them to win prevented exactly that from playing out. That phenomenon is mental when you have the talent advantages that Notre Dame had in this game, and only one thing can fix it: winning.
Samwise the Brave
Speaking of willing the team to win, it’s time to give Sam Hartman one more moment in the sun because even in a game where he hardly lit up the stat sheet, he provided this team with something it desperately needed - belief. In himself, in his team, in the fact that he was going to win even when it looked incredibly dire. There is no other way to describe his decision to take off and run on 4th and 16, as a moderately athletic pocket passer, than as an incredibly gutsy act of belief.
As mentioned above, we have seen similar moments in seasons past where singular efforts by leaders of the Irish lifted up a team that had found itself in a funk, on the verge of a lost season. If Sam Hartman continues to be the leader he showed himself to be on Saturday night, Irish fans have plenty of reason to hope they can see the same results follow in the rest of 2023.