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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke

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The Beautiful and the Damned

The incurable Irish hangover

Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

He rolls out — the down’s late and yards are long. The line holds, but can’t hold without holding much longer. The routes develop and he works through his reads, but it's tight coverage on the first, no luck on the second, and the third. He stutters behind the line of scrimmage and clutches but it’s useless: he’ll have to do it himself. Sprinting around to the outside and dashing across the line, he keeps his team alive, breathing new life into a game all thought was hopeless just moments before as he idled in the pocket.

That’s what happened last Saturday as Sam Hartman, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, picked up a clutch first down on Notre Dame’s final — and ultimately game-saving — drive against Duke.

But it’s also what happened in 2019, almost identically, when Ian Book scrambled his way across the 36-yard line to move the sticks and ultimately save the Irish from a season-deflating loss to Virginia Tech.

A two-minute drill rally after trailing in the fourth to a team the Irish have no business losing to. That struggle of a game coming the week after a gutting loss to a higher-ranked, legitimate opponent. Is it Duke the week after Ohio State? Or Virginia Tech the week after Michigan? Maybe it's even the Hokies in 2021, when the Irish scraped by with a laces-to-leather laser from Jon Doerer with 17 seconds left in the fourth, the week after a Cincinnati statement in South Bend?

Those who don’t learn from the past really are doomed to repeat it.

Notre Dame can’t seem to find the antidote necessary to overcome the psyche-blow it sustains from losses in big game situations. Although a win is a win, there has to be a better way to achieve it than scraping by on lucky fourth downs to sustain season-saving drives as the clock winds down. And, whatever remedy they do have to correct the losses they come alarmingly close to in late-game situations is clearly not a cure-all either — all it takes is one look at the 21-26 Marshall loss that followed similar Ohio State heartbreak in 2022.

The Irish have to find a cure for the hangover. They won’t actually compete for a National Title in the CFP era until they do.

This year I thought they had it. They looked nothing short of beautiful in their first four games, thrashing opponents with the type of statement wins indicative of real greatness. Notre Dame was finally doing something it doesn’t usually do — beating everyone it’s supposed to in the way and with the margin it should. But, if the last two weeks represent the repetition of a pattern we know all too well, perhaps there’s a chink in the Irish armor we didn’t know was there. Notre Dame might just be both — the beautiful, and the damned.

Can Marcus Freeman make this team only the former? I honestly don’t know.

There’s the bullying, bowling-ball backs — not just one or two, but five, each offering a different look and skill set. There’s the man-against-boys tight end Notre Dame is so good at developing in Mitchell Evans, whose power routes and yards-after-catch prowess give him an average of 15 yards per reception across the first six games. The offense certainly gets a lot of help from the line, too, which features experience and leadership in the likes of Joe Alt, Zeke Correll, and Blake Fisher.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Notre Dame at Duke Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But most of all, there’s Sam Hartman. He’s poised in the pocket, patient enough to work through reads with care, and exchange a leveling for a completion, but experienced enough to know when he needs to use his own legs to get it done. He’s a natural leader and selfless teammate, quick to credit anyone but himself for a team achievement, big or small. He’s taken thousands of snaps in college football, won barn-burners and lost blowouts, and seen almost every look an NCAA defense has to offer. In two-minute drill situations this year, he’s been almost unbeatable. What more can a coach ask for than that?

On the other side of the ball, it’s all coming up roses too. Defensive backs who can actually stay in man coverage against speed, holding matchups stride-for-stride without interfering. Safeties who actually have almost as much offensive experience as defensive, are able to turn on a dime to snag interceptions like they’re the ones running the routes. And linebackers who hurry the opposing field marshal, even when they aren’t running a true blitz.

So, why couldn’t this team escape the curse? Is it the lack of a clear sticky-fingered, go-route receiver? Is it a disjointed coaching staff who’s still learning how to work together? Those seem less like explanations, and more like excuses, particularly given that they probably would have appeared in earlier games if they were the root cause. It seems like this is less of a physical issue for the Irish and more of a mental one. Either way, it's one that must be surmounted sooner rather than later if Notre Dame wants a nod that’s more than nominal from the Playoff Committee.

Ohio State v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The good news? With another marquee matchup approaching in No. 9 USC, the Irish have a chance to prove they’ve broken the cycle. But while the rest of the world circles October 14 on its calendar, I’m far more interested in what happens in the two weeks after. With a bye week and then a visit from the Pittsburgh Panthers, how the Irish respond will reveal far more about who this team really is — and what they could truly be – than any close losses to top teams ever could. Are the Irish truly beautiful? Or are they just perpetually damned?

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