Notre Dame grooves in fourth quarter, dispatches North Carolina State 45-24
J.J. Post | Saturday, September 9, 2023
On the final play of the third quarter Saturday, Notre Dame’s offense got beat, badly.
Facing a third and short situation, the Irish went power on power with Audric Estime running downhill. The junior running back, normally the textbook definition of hard, strong running, was blown up in the backfield. A swarm of North Carolina State defenders surrounded Estime and drove him back for a loss of yardage. The spot two yards behind the line of scrimmage might have even been generous.
It was about as uninspired — if fundamental — of a play call as could have been imagined. Notre Dame showed its hand, and the Wolfpack beat them at their own game. Heading into the fourth quarter, North Carolina State had the ball and a chance to tie the contest.
But the Irish got a second chance. A third-and-long pass by Brennan Armstrong deflected off a receiver’s hands, and opportunistic senior safety Xavier Watts dove in for the interception. Notre Dame now had the ball back and, four plays later, the Irish faced the same situation as they had at the end of the third quarter.
Third down, two yards to go. Estime in the backfield.
But this time, first-year offensive coordinator Gerad Parker dialed up a passing play.
And his graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman delivered. Dropping back a few steps and finding junior tight-end Davis Sherwood in the flat, the former walk-on tight end not only converted the third down, but found the back of the end zone to put the Irish up two scores.
It was deja vu on the next drive. Graduate student safety DJ Brown read Armstrong’s pass perfectly for an interception, and the Irish once again had the ball. Two plays later, they once again faced third-and-short.
This time, Estime got the chance to make amends for his failed first attempt. Bouncing off a tackle, he trotted into the end zone for his second score of the game.
The barrage of third-and-shorts didn’t end there for the Irish, either. After Notre Dame’s defense held the Wolfpack to a turnover on downs, the Irish would eventually face a third and two for the third time in four drives.
Parker was once again ready. This time, Hartman feigned a handoff to Estime and rolled out the other way on a bootleg. He looked downfield and found sophomore tight end Holden Staes for a 35-yard touchdown pass. The Irish went up by 28 with four and a half minutes to play, their largest lead of the game.
Staes’ second touchdown of the day would be the last one Notre Dame scored, placing a bow on a game that, at least for the first three quarters, was anything but routine.
To start the game out, the teams traded punts for the first four drives. Eventually, Irish graduate student kicker Spencer Shrader broke the deadlock with a 54-yard field goal, setting a program record for longest field goal made in the process.
Another punt for the Wolfpack preceded a weather delay that lasted nearly two hours. Notre Dame would then resume action following the delay with some lightning of their own. Estime took the first play coming out of the break 80 yards for an Irish touchdown.
The defensive slugfest then resumed, with the teams combining to trade six second quarter punts. Notre Dame sent Shrader out again with just over two minutes remaining in the half, this time from 56 yards. Shrader had the leg, but his effort struck the goalpost.
North Carolina State took the opportunity to find their offensive momentum for the first time. Driving 62 yards in a little over a minute, Armstrong found Bradley Rozner for a nine-yard score to bring the Wolfpack within one score with a minute remaining in the half.
A minute, though, proved too much time for Hartman. For the third consecutive week, the graduate student engineered a scoring drive to end the half, taking all of three plays and 30 seconds to return the Irish lead to 10 heading into the break.
In the third quarter, North Carolina State brought the game to its closest point. A 40-yard touchdown by Staes was sandwiched between a Wolfpack field goal and an Armstrong score. And with Estime stuffed on the quarter’s final play, the stage was set for a thrilling finish in Raleigh.
But timely defending and an explosive Notre Dame offense saved the day. The Irish defense wasn’t perfect, but it answered the call repeatedly with the chips down. While the offense didn’t display the pristine efficiency that defined its first two outings of the season, it did show a knack for finding big plays when they were most needed.
And with Notre Dame clearing its first major roadblock of the fall, the hype can build, and Irish fans can hope those traits will carry over into a marquee home showdown against Ohio State on Saturday, Sept. 23.