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Irish hearts shattered on last-second Buckeyes score

| Sunday, September 24, 2023

Marcus FreemanMary Voltava
Marcus Freeman walks off the Notre Dame Stadium field after the Irish lost 17-14 to Ohio State on Saturday night.

They stood in scattered, stunned silence, green the appropriate color to describe the feeling shared by the 80,000+ draped in green on another storied Saturday. This Notre Dame football program has seen just about everything before — but the somber feelings were as fresh as ever.

There’s no quantitative way to measure pain. Maybe the Bush Push hurt worse than this. Perhaps the Boston College loss in 1993 one week after beating No. 1 Florida State in the game of the century. Or Notre Dame’s overturned near-walk-off touchdown in 2014 against that same Seminoles team in enemy territory.

It didn’t matter to Notre Dame, who suffered a torturous 17-14 defeat to Ohio State when the Buckeyes beat the gun on Chip Trayanum’s one-yard stretch into the end zone. Every cut hurt the Irish more and more and more until Notre Dame bled out at the cruelest moment, with victory not just within their reach, but their grasp.

“Obviously, as I just told the team, it’s disappointing,” said Irish head coach Marcus Freeman. “[We] had a lot of opportunities to win that game and then we didn’t. Credit to [Ohio State] for continuing to battle back and be resilient when we went up. And, you know, we got to finish that game. [It’s] tough.”

Ask the capacity crowd at Notre Dame Stadium what the worst of those small cuts was, and you might hear a different answer from each of them. Two unsuccessful fourth-and-one attempts, one of which needed a replay review to keep the sticks still. A missed 47-yard field goal from graduate student Spencer Shrader. The botched first-down handoff on what could’ve been a game-sealing set of downs late in the fourth quarter. The ensuing incomplete screen that it caused, leaving valuable time on the clock for the Buckeyes. Graduate student safety DJ Brown’s near-game-sealing pick, not to mention the ensuing 3rd-and-19 conversion that happened just moments later. And of course, the lack of an eleventh player on the field for what, for all intents and purposes, were the last two meaningful plays of the night.

“We were trying to get a fourth D-lineman on the field and I told him just stay off because we can’t afford a penalty. I didn’t have any time-outs,” Freeman said.

“We can’t be down [in that spot],” said graduate student safety Thomas Harper. “We’ve got to be better players, and coaches.”

And yet, there the Irish were, three seconds away from jubilation of the highest degree. After an everything-but-the-finish first half of offense, Notre Dame offered signs of life after the Buckeyes pushed their backs against the wall with a 61-yard sprint to the end zone by TreVeyon Henderson on Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage of the second half.

That challenge sparked a pair of impressive, lengthy response drives from the Notre Dame offense. Marches down the field of 13 plays in 7:39 and 11 plays in 6:28, respectively. Neither featured a play that went for more than 30 yards; the longest in either drive was a 28-yard strike to freshman wide receiver Jaden Greathouse to pull the Irish from the shadow of their own goal line. That play came after a wildcat touchdown from sophomore running back Gi’Bran Payne broke the four-plus quarters of defensive suffocation from Ohio State that dated back to last September.

“I think it was just being patient, trying to as much as we can,” said graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman. “It was a quick game, fast game it seemed like. But, yeah, I think we started running the ball well, so they started maybe loading the box a little bit. But, again, nothing really paid off in the end when you lose.”

The Irish came into the game hoping to prove they could truly go for punch-for-punch with Ohio State after a 21-10 loss a year ago that didn’t reflect the gap between the two teams. This year’s margin of defeat did that — it just wasn’t the message Notre Dame hoped it would send.

There was no shortage of contributors to Notre Dame’s efforts. The Irish knew it would take a top-to-bottom performance to knock off the Buckeyes for the first time since 1936. From graduate student defensive end (and former Buckeye) Javontae Jean-Baptiste (eight tackles, one quarterback hurry) to freshman running back Jeremiyah Love (57 yards on eight carries, many coming in the third quarter when the Irish offense was in its biggest need of a boost), there’s no one player or even moment to blame. The margins could not have been smaller.

That’s what amplifies the pain to the magnitude it crescendoed to as Buckeyes exchanged hugs and handshakes 160 feet away from Irish agony. Somehow, Notre Dame did both everything it needed to win and everything it needed to lose.

The young talent at running back and wide receiver shined, with freshman Rico Flores Jr.’s fourth-quarter touchdown snag nearly standing as the game-winner. But the deep ball was never there for Hartman and company. The Irish offensive line delivered its best pass protection of the season, especially given the talent on the other side. But establishing a ground game, Notre Dame’s bread and butter, proved tricky all night. Marvin Harrison Jr. was held to just 32 receiving yards, his third-lowest total in the last two seasons. But Emeka Egbuka and Cade Stover still gave Kyle McCord ample support.

In the end, the mistakes proved to be just a hair too much for the Irish to overcome. The issues with Notre Dame’s performance would have been there whether Trayanum fell short or not. But history is written by the victors, and it will be the poised McCord, the timely defensive stands and the humbling final play the Buckeyes served the home crowd that will define this night.

“It’s a long season. You know, that hurts. Close game. You know, big fan — big crowd. It’s tough,” said Hartman. “It’s about bouncing back and that’s all we can do.”

As the lights turned off and the LED wristbands darkened, the Irish signal-caller spoke like someone who’s been here before to a fanbase that’s been here before. Because they both have, and that amplifies anything and everything around Notre Dame football — for better, or, tonight, for worse.

“I’m sure later in the week we can find something,” he said, “But right now, it’s pretty low, pretty dark.”

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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