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Four key moments from Notre Dame’s 45-24 win over NC State

| Saturday, September 9, 2023

Ari Denning | The Observer
Kicker Spencer Shrader scored a 54-yard field goal during Notre Dame’s match against NC State on Sept. 9, setting a program record.

It took more than five hours, but Notre Dame was able to overcome NC State — and the elements — with a 45-24 victory over the Wolfpack, improving to a 3-0 record. Here are four of the key moments that led to the Irish’s first true road win of the season.

Both offenses start slow

The first quarter provided little indication that the game would turn into a high-scoring, fast-paced shootout in the second half. Neither team picked up a single first down until midway through the first quarter, when Irish graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman scampered for 16 yards on a designed quarterback draw.

In the two games before Saturday’s match against NC State, Notre Dame’s offense was about as good as it gets. In 12 possessions with Hartman on the field against Navy and Tennessee State, the Irish scored 11 touchdowns. It was a different story in the early stages of Saturday’s game, as NC State’s impressive front seven gave them little breathing room.

The Irish began the game with two handoffs to junior running back Audric Estime that went for a combined one yard. Facing third-and-long, Hartman was strip sacked, and Notre Dame was forced to punt after recovering the fumble. Their second possession was just as unsuccessful, as they gained no yards before quickly punting.

Luckily for Notre Dame, their defense was just as strong. Wolfpack quarterback Brennan Armstrong completed just one of his first four passes, and NC State advanced the ball just four yards between their opening two possessions.

Hartman’s long run would lead to the Irish breaking the deadlock with a career-long 54-yard field goal from graduate student Spencer Shrader, but neither side found the offensive rhythm they were hoping for during the opening 15 minutes.

Irish strike with big plays after lightning delay

For that entire first quarter, it looked like the Irish may have exorcised their inclement weather demons during their last trip to Raleigh in 2016. Heavy rain in the morning gave way to warm temperatures and sunny skies through the first period.

But it looks like the Irish may never play a road game against NC State in which the weather does not play a role. Just two plays into the second quarter, it was announced over the loudspeaker that the game would be suspended due to lightning in the area.

When the game resumed nearly two hours later, the Irish offense began to take over, and they did it with several huge chunk plays.

On the very first play after the delay, Estime hit a hole created by the right side of the offensive line and did the rest of the work himself, putting Notre Dame ahead 10-0 with an 80-yard touchdown run. A few drives later, Hartman found sophomore wide receiver Tobias Merriweather for a 45-yard pickup, though that drive eventually stalled out and resulted in a missed field goal. Finally, the Irish perfectly executed an end-of-first-half two-minute drill for the third time in as many games, scoring in one play after Hartman’s 65-yard completion to senior wide receiver Chris Tyree.

The Irish offense did not consistently execute in the first half, but they were able to head into the break with a 17-7 advantage thanks to a few timely big plays.

Staes gets involved during second half

Many questions about Notre Dame during preseason revolved around how the Irish would replace Michael Mayer’s production at the tight end position. In addition to his touchdown against Tennessee State, sophomore Holden Staes provided a firm answer to those doubts during the second half, showing that Notre Dame’s tight end room is still talented and very capable of contributing to the team’s passing attack.

The Irish needed to respond after an NC State field goal trimmed their lead to 17-10. Hartman linked up with Staes for a 28-yard gain on the first play of the possession, and after an eight-yard run from Estime, Notre Dame turned to Staes again. Lined up in the backfield, he caught a short pass in the flat, broke a tackle and rumbled down the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown reception that put the Irish back up by two possessions.

The Wolfpack would quickly negate that touchdown with one of their own, but Staes was not done getting in on the action. Late in the fourth quarter, with Notre Dame leading by three possessions and looking to effectively ice the game, Staes snuck behind the backline of the defense and snared a high-arching pass from Hartman for a 35-yard touchdown, capping off what was by far the best game of his young Irish career. Staes finished the game with four receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns, all of which were career highs.

Late interceptions from Watts, Brown provide breathing room

Notre Dame never trailed in the game, but the Wolfpack remained within striking distance until a pair of key plays from the Irish secondary in the fourth quarter. After a Notre Dame punt, NC State began their first possession of the fourth looking to erase a 24-17 deficit. A holding penalty forced the Wolfpack into a third-and-17, and Armstrong threw a pass that was deflected into the hands of senior safety Xavier Watts for an interception. It was the first of his career. Just five plays later, that turned into a touchdown pass from Hartman to junior tight end Davis Sherwood, putting the Irish ahead 31-17.

On the first play of the ensuing possession, after a pair of penalties pushed NC State back into a first-and-25 scenario, Armstrong’s downfield pass over the middle of the field was read all the way by Irish graduate student safety DJ Brown. He jumped the route and picked off the second Wolfpack pass in a row. Just like the previous interception, Brown’s play was quickly followed by a Notre Dame touchdown. This time it was from Estime, who scored his second of the day on the ground to extend the lead to 21 points.

From that point on, it was smooth sailing for the Irish, who coasted through the game’s final minutes on their way to a 45-24 victory. Without the pair of interceptions from the Notre Dame safeties, the game could have easily been tight all the way to the final whistle.

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