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Post: Notre Dame’s secondary rose to first real challenge against North Carolina State

| Monday, September 11, 2023

Arianna Denning
Irish senior safety Xavier Watts yells during Notre Dame’s 45-24 defeat of NC State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Sep. 9, 2023.

The buzz was real for Notre Dame’s secondary entering 2023. 

The unit had a star in Benjamin Morrison, a consensus freshman-All American who seemed to get better with every game he played as a rookie. Across from Morrison was veteran Cam Hart, who arrived at fall camp in the best shape of his life and with very real NFL Draft aspirations. Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper slotted in at the nickel, looking to emerge from a summer position battle as a reliable starter.

The safety room contained reasons for optimism as well. Though the group lacked one standout name, it entered the season with a combined 14 years of experience in the starting rotation. Continuity figured to be a major strength for a unit laden with seniors.

But until this Saturday, the buzz had been just that — buzz. Sure, Notre Dame entered its showdown in Raleigh against North Carolina State with a pair of games already under its belt. But neither of those contests had truly tested the potential prowess of the Irish defensive backfield. 

Navy threw just seven passes total in Dublin. Tennessee State threw 22 — divided between two quarterbacks — but looked clearly overmatched in the process. On Saturday, the Irish secondary received its first test. In a game where Notre Dame’s offense sputtered outside of the occasional big play and a strong fourth quarter, containing Wolfpack quarterback Brennan Armstrong was pivotal to keeping the Irish ticking.

The Irish defensive backs answered the call. Armstrong threw the ball 47 times. He completed just 22 of those passes.

It wasn’t for a lack of variety in the efforts of the NC State passing game. Armstrong tested Hart and Morrison down the sidelines. He tried the middle of the field, short throws and long throws. But the Irish secondary kept on providing answers.

And most importantly, when Notre Dame needed a big play from its defense most, its defensive backs provided. On the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack had the ball and a chance to tie the game. The energy in Carter-Finley Stadium was as palpable as it had been all game.

Until Xavier Watts stepped up. As Armstrong failed to connect with Kevin Concepcion on a third-down pass, the opportunistic senior safety dove in and secured his first interception of the season. And just like that, the Irish offense was back in business. Five plays later, Notre Dame was in the end zone, once again up two scores and in control of the game.

“It was really just an exciting moment for the team, to give us some juice,” Watts said after the game on the impact of his interception.

Head coach Marcus Freeman noted the importance of the defense in shifting the momentum of the game.

“The turning point to me was when we fumbled in our own territory and the defense forced a missed field goal,” Freeman said. “And then we go three-and-out, and then the defense has an interception. And that’s kind of when we scored and the game got out of hand.”

It wasn’t the last time the Irish secondary would put the offense in position to succeed in the final quarter. On the next Wolfpack possession, DJ Brown read an Armstrong throw to perfection and stepped in for his first interception on the season. It took Sam Hartman and company all of three plays to find the back of the end zone and put the game away for good.

It’s no secret that the secondary will need playmaking for Notre Dame to win its biggest games this year. Ohio State’s offense has struggled under new quarterback Kyle McCord, but the Buckeyes boast an armada of receiving talent. USC has the reigning Heisman winner under center in quarterback Caleb Williams. Even an upstart Duke team that has catapulted into national rankings with an impressive undefeated start to the year is led by star quarterback Riley Leonard.

Before the season started, the Irish felt confident that they could expect their secondary to make plays against top opposition. Through the first two games, they learned nothing that would dispel that notion. However, they were offered nothing to confirm it either. 

The Wolfpack offered a real challenge, and Notre Dame’s defensive backs were up for it. Watts reflected on what he and his teammates in the secondary took away from their first true test.

“Obviously there’s always things to clean up,” Watts said. “We’re a group of competitive individuals. We just learned that we can compete with a lot of people. [NC State’s] receivers are pretty good. They’re fast and quick. I think we matched up well with them.”

The trio of interceptions by the Irish defensive backfield against the Wolfpack now gives the team five on the year. Three of those have come from the quartet of senior safeties that Notre Dame needed to step up this season. 

With a top-10 showdown against Ohio State looming in just two weeks, the Irish hope its secondary’s showing in Raleigh is the sign of a new standard in South Bend.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About J.J. Post

J.J. Post is a senior in Fisher Hall. Hailing from Mountainside, New Jersey, he's currently working his way towards being the nation's foremost expert on college soccer. Whether via the button below or his overly active Twitter (@JayJayPost), feel free to reach out and talk about Notre Dame soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, baseball or softball. Or any other Notre Dame sport you can think of. Odds are he watches it as well.

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