Recovering an onside kick with 1:35 left in the fourth usually breathes life back into an offense, shifting the momentum of a game entirely, making the question not how could they score, but how couldn’t they. When the Notre Dame special teams unit got the ball back into Sam Hartman’s hands on Saturday night, for a moment, not even the 13-point deficit seemed too tall an obstacle to be overcome as the final seconds ticked away in Louisville. But instead of pulling off a Houdini-esq escape for the second week in a row, Hartman ended the game the same way he started it – with an interception.
Saturday, the game gave gift after gift. Notre Dame was not willing to receive.
The first key opportunity came on what looked to be the first Irish three-and-out. Louisville lined up offside of its own volition, and the mistake was worth five yards. The Irish got a fresh set of downs and another shot at a go-ahead drive. Instead of taking advantage, they gave the ball right back instead, fumbling what should have been a seamless handoff rather than taking what would have been their first lead of the night.
The second present was courtesy of the Irish defense, who stuffed the line and shot the gaps on what should have been the Louisville Cardinals last possession in the first half. Notre Dame forced a three-and-out in 60 seconds to give the ball back to their own high-powered offense with 1:23 remaining. If the first six games of the season have proven anything, it’s that 83 seconds is more than enough time to get Hartman moving. But rather than taking it to the house, the line let Louisville return the defensive favor, and it was Bryce McFerson’s legs, not Audric Estime’s, that sent the ball toward the end zone at the end of the Irish possession.
At the start of the third quarter, it looked like the tide had changed: a Louisville missed field goal to end the first half, and a Cam Hart forced a fumble to start the second gave Notre Dame the chance at a redemption drive. And, in part, they did, as Spencer Shrader sent a 53-yarder through the uprights to give his team its first lead of the night. But, even there, a Chris Tyree catch on a wide-open fade the play prior feels like it would have been worth a lot more than four extra points.
The missed opportunities continued in the third. Despite a dearth of offense on the ground, Notre Dame lined up in 13 personnel on third and short with 6:38 left in the quarter. But not even three tight ends were enough to hold the line, as Louisville’s Jaylin Alderman blew through the backside B gap before Gi’Bran Payne even found footing. Forced to punt, the Irish gave the ball back to a Cardinal offense who had no similar problems pushing the rock: it took Louisville just two plays and 43 seconds to take it 64 yards home. Notre Dame’s missed tackles and inability to contain the edge certainly helped the drive’s productivity too.
At the beginning of the fourth, the Irish didn’t just look in the gift horse’s mouth – they spat in it. On Louisville’s opening drive, the referees found no pass interference in Benjamin Morrison’s tight coverage on second and 10. On the next play, neither Bryan Hudson’s snap nor Jeff Brohm’s timeout saved the Cardinals from a delay of game, setting up 15-yard line-to-gain in three down territory. The screen play that followed hardly made a dent. But before Louisville could send out the punt team, a late flag sailed in, and a face mask by Marist Liufau – one that had no bearing on the play’s defensive success – moved the sticks forward instead. And in a familiar refrain, just four plays later, the Cardinals scored again. When the Notre Dame offense got the ball back, it wasn’t down four and driving off a punt return – it was behind two scores and lined up from a touchback.
But, the moment was palpable. And, in big game situations, Marcus Freeman has emphasized that his team cannot play “not to lose” – a commitment oft demonstrated in fourth-down situations. Yes, Notre Dame needed to regain control of the game, to find some form of momentum or offensive aptitude. But on fourth down, deep in their own territory, with 11 yards to gain, 10 minutes to play, a veteran Sam Hartman, and an offense that’s been near-perfect in two-minute drill situations?
In football, heart-over-head can only take you so far.
The decision to go for it, and the resulting turnover on downs, all but sealed the Irish fate.
It certainly is much easier to quarterback on (Sun)day morning. But Notre Dame who played Louisville looked like it’d rather lose than win the easy way. And the thrill of a come-from-behind, fistfight victory can’t nearly match the heartbreak of a loss laden with missed opportunities, of four quarters slipped through groping fingers.
Who are the Irish when the end-of-game magic runs out?