Irish snatch 21-14 victory over Blue Devils with dramatic 95-yard drive
Madeline Ladd | Sunday, October 1, 2023
No. 11 Notre Dame snuck out of Durham, North Carolina, with a 21-14 victory over No. 17 Duke after a thrilling final 30 seconds.Though the Irish came out on top, they were far from perfect. Following the devastating Ohio State loss, Notre Dame hoped to come back with a vengeance and dominate Duke in prime time. Instead, it was an ugly battle until the end, coming down to the final seconds. For the majority of the game, the Irish defense played lights out, but the offense — especially graduate quarterback Sam Hartman — lacked momentum. Sloppy penalties on both sides of the ball plagued the Irish.
The Irish missed out on several key opportunities to put the game out of reach against the underdog Blue Devils. However, at the end of the game Hartman pulled through, put the team on his back and converted a near-impossible fourth and 16 scramble. Junior running back Audric Estimé then hammered the final nail in Duke’s coffin on a 30-yard touchdown run to cap the game-winning 95-yard drive.
Notre Dame’s defense sealed the game with a strip-sack of Duke quarterback Riley Leonard, recovering the fumble and closing out the win. The Irish were able to get the job done when it mattered most and extend their ACC regular season win streak to 30 games.
Luck of the Irish better late than never
The game clock read 2:35 as the Irish began their final drive at their own five-yard line in a desperate attempt to recapture the lead. Hartman looked to junior tight end Mitchell Evans for a 19-yard reception and a crucial first down on third and 10. Freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. continued the momentum with a 24-yard reception. Hartman’s next few pass attempts were unsuccessful. And an offensive pass interference call on sophomore Tobias Merriweather set the Irish up for a daunting fourth and 16.
The Duke crowd roared in anticipation of securing a signature victory. Instead, the veteran quarterback scrambled for 17 yards to give the Irish an unfathomable first down.
The Irish appeared to run a play to set up a game-winning field goal, but Estimé burst through the Duke defense for a 30-yard score to put the Irish on top himself. Hartman then connected with Flores for the two-point conversion, putting the Irish up by seven. The subsequent Duke drive was cut short on a strip-sack by the Irish defense. Graduate student defensive lineman Howard Cross III forced the ball out and graduate student linebacker Marist Liufau jumped on it.
In a win reminiscent of Ohio State’s stunner last weekend, the Irish made it count when it mattered most. Despite the evident cleanup needed, head coach Marcus Freeman came away proud of the team and their persistence.
“We were on the opposite sides this week — we had the chance to execute and we did,” Freeman said. “I’m proud of us. And yeah, there’s a lot of cleanup but there’s always a lot of cleanup but, you know, for those guys to keep believing, it’s a great feeling to coach for them.”
Inconsistent play shakes up other quarters
Though pivotal, the excitement in the dwindling moments of the game was not reflective of the entire matchup. The Irish were lackluster on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the team was unable to establish a dominant run game and felt the absence of key receivers junior Jayden Thomas, junior Deion Colzie and freshman Jaden Greathouse.
“Obviously with injuries to three guys now in that room, we didn’t have much depth,” Freeman said. “What you see through the course of the game is that you can’t rotate wideouts — they get tired. I’m so proud of the gutsy performance they had out there. For Rico to catch that two-point conversion, they continue to battle, but we were thin and we need those guys to get back next week.”
The Irish tried out a variety of ways to fill gaps. A gutsy fourth and 4 fake punt turned into a 34-yard pickup for freshman running back Jeremiyah Love, helping the offense groove on the first drive of the game. Estimé’s six-yard rush granted the Irish the game’s first touchdown moments later. The offense went relatively quiet from there on out. Evans was an exception, though, leading the way with six receptions for 134 yards.
“Obviously, our room had to step up, some of the running backs,” Evans said. “I think we all kind of did that and closed in on different kinds of blocking roles than kind of what we’ve done before in the past and executed.”
Hartman did not have his usual efficiency in the pocket. It was his worst game of the season statistically, as he finished 15-30 for 222 yards without a touchdown. However, he quelled doubts with his game-winning plays in the final seconds.
“When Sam Hartman’s your quarterback, you have a lot of faith — he’s been in those moments,” Freeman said. “He’s not a first-time quarterback, this moment wasn’t too big for him. I don’t wanna give credit to one person but the plays he made on that series were huge.”
Defensively, the Irish played great and were able to apply the pressure needed to keep the Blue Devils at bay, though not much more. Duke reached the end zone two times, although they had a myriad of other close calls. The Irish were fortunate Duke kicker Todd Pelino’s leg proved untrustworthy, as he missed two makeable field goals in the first half. The Irish defense made a big play early when senior safety Xavier Watts picked off Leonard deep in Duke territory. But the offense stalled, forcing the Irish to settle for a field goal to make it 10-0.
The Irish defense began to tire as play went on. Duke scored their first touchdown near the end of the third quarter on a one-yard run by Jordan Waters. The Blue Devils struck again to move in front on a wide-open three-yard reception by Jordan Moore. As the crowd roared in Wallace Wade stadium, the Irish seemed to fade. But after the offense went three and out, the Irish defense regrouped and gave the offense one last shot to change the course of the game. They made the most of it.
“The defense, man, Coach Golden, man, I wanna buy him a Ferrari or something,” Hartman said. “He kept us in this game and that defense was playing their hearts out and gave us the chance to see the last play of the game get the stop. Just surreal. So proud.”
Penalties plagued the Irish on both sides. The Irish garnered a total of 12 penalties for 70 yards, many of them unforced false starts or offsides. Despite the win, Freeman understood the Irish have plenty of room for improvement.
“What we can’t do is let the outcome cloud our eyes from the mistakes we’ve made,” Freeman said. “We have to be sure we’re as aggressive at attacking our mistakes as we were last week. The feeling of victory can make us ‘alright, yeah, yeah we know we can do something different,’ but we have to continue to attack everything we do and figure out why we weren’t as successful as we wanted to be.”
It certainly was not a blowout. But the Irish made a statement tonight as an elite team with their nail-biter of a win, on the road, against a top-20 opponent. They proved they can execute with their season at stake.
“Great teams find a way to win when it matters most,” Freeman said. “They find a way to execute when it matters the most.”