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‘The conditions were atrocious’: Remembering Notre Dame’s 2016 hurricane game in Raleigh

| Friday, September 8, 2023

Zach Klonsinski | The Observer
Notre Dame and NC State battle in the trenches during 2016’s rain-soaked affair at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.

On Saturday, Notre Dame football will face NC State on the road for just the second time in program history. Their first trip to Raleigh, North Carolina in 2016 saw them take part in one of the most bizarre and chaotic college football games in recent memory. The Irish and Wolfpack dueled in the heart of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 storm that turned the playing field into what was described as a “100-yard slip and slide”. As the teams prepare to meet again seven years later, here’s a look back at a game that no one involved will ever forget.

The lead-up

Notre Dame entered 2016 with high expectations. On the heels of a 10-3 season, the Irish appeared capable of achieving similar success. Led by quarterback DeShone Kizer, they were ranked No. 10 nationally in the preseason poll.

But things would quickly fall apart. Their season began with a 50-47 double-overtime loss against Texas that was just the start of their close-game struggles. The Irish would finish the year just 1-7 in games decided by one possession.

Following consecutive home losses to Michigan State and Duke, Notre Dame defeated Syracuse to improve to 2-3. They then headed to Raleigh to play the 3-1 Wolfpack, hoping to earn a much-needed win that could help turn their season around.

The hurricane

The week leading up to the game was filled with discussions about the viability of playing it as scheduled. At the time, Hurricane Matthew was not expected to hit the Raleigh area with much force. Both schools, as well as the ACC, ultimately determined that the game would go on.

“We are monitoring the path and potential impact of weather in our region due to Hurricane Matthew,” NC State said in a statement released by the university prior to the game. “While we will make every effort to play our much-anticipated game with Notre Dame this Saturday as scheduled, the safety of both teams and our patrons is our first priority.”

Similar decisions were made for the Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest home games that were slated for the same day.

But things took a turn for the worse on Friday. After the Irish had already arrived in Raleigh, it became clear that the hurricane’s impact on the area would be far more severe than predicted. By Saturday morning, all North Carolina residents had been encouraged to stay indoors. Meanwhile, Irish and Wolfpack players warmed up on a drenched field that had been pounded by more than six inches of rain, preparing to take part in the sloppiest game of the year.

The game

It quickly became clear that there would be very little, if any, offense to be had by either side. Every step sent huge sprays of water into the air and every tackle required a headfirst dive into what was essentially a shallow pool. Tempestuous winds and torrential rains made it nearly impossible to get off a clean snap, much less to properly execute a string of plays and move the ball down the field.

After several fruitless possessions to open the game, the Wolfpack got on the board late in the first quarter. NC State’s Matthew Dayes broke off a 23-yard run that pushed them into field goal range. Kyle Bambard drilled a 38-yard line drive field goal that narrowly eclipsed the crossbar and gave the Wolfpack a 3-0 advantage.

That would prove enough to head into halftime with the lead. The scoreless second quarter featured three turnovers, including a pair of lost fumbles on consecutive plays, as both offenses proved powerless against the wet conditions. Notre Dame would gain just 113 yards in the entire game as the teams combined for 10 fumbles, four of which resulted in turnovers.

“I don’t know that there was anything [we could have done to make snapping better],” then-Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “The conditions were atrocious, so snapping the football was difficult, to say the least.”

A lightning delay extended the halftime break for an extra 30 minutes and an unusual Wolfpack special teams miscue set the Irish up with a golden scoring opportunity shortly after play resumed. Crouching down to catch a low snap, NC State’s punter controlled the ball with a knee on the ground. He was ruled down, giving Notre Dame possession at the Wolfpack 25-yard line. The Irish could not get any further but drew even on Justin Yoon’s 40-yard field goal.

That tie was fittingly broken on another non-offensive play. Two minutes into the fourth quarter, a Notre Dame punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown, putting the Wolfpack ahead 10-3.

Attempting to force overtime, the Irish, led by Kizer and running back Josh Adams, embarked on a gritty 18-play drive that lasted nearly eight minutes. But it was not to be. The Wolfpack forced a turnover on downs in the red zone and escaped with the victory.

The aftermath

With hindsight being 20/20, both programs faced questions about whether the game should have been played.

“If we could have went over to the indoor facility, I think Dave [Doeren, Wolfpack head coach] and I both would’ve preferred that. Those calls are outside our purview,” Kelly said. “They tell us to play the game and we’ve got to play the game. Certainly, I think when you’re coaching and preparing, you want to put your kids in a position that they can obviously succeed.”

In the midst of a season where wins were difficult to come by, Kelly lamented the Irish falling to 2-4 in a game that was largely decided by special teams execution.

“Both teams turned the ball over in very difficult conditions,” he said. “Both teams had a hard time moving the football. Both field goal kickers managed to eke one up over the uprights in sloppy conditions. And we give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown. That’s the difference in this one.”

Notre Dame would never really get their season on track. They doubled up on their 2-4 start to finish 4-8, posting a losing record for the first time since 2007. The disappointing year quickly proved to be an outlier, however. The Irish won 10 games the following season and would reach the College Football Playoff in 2018 and 2020.

As the 2023 Irish team travels to Raleigh with hopes of improving to 3-0 on the season, there are no hurricanes in the forecast for Saturday afternoon (though there is a chance of rain). Nearly seven years later, neither program has played in another game like their 2016 matchup and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

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