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‘We have to do the right thing’: Irish send seniors off with resounding 45-7 win over Wake Forest

| Sunday, November 19, 2023

Notre Dame has lost three games this season.

And now, after its 45-7 Senior Day victory over Wake Forest, it has responded to those three losses with three emphatic wins.

Every game matters in college football, and Saturday’s dominant showing does not erase Notre Dame’s struggles over the past few weeks. But Irish head coach Marcus Freeman did not hesitate in saying that this one, the 500th all-time game played at Notre Dame Stadium and the final home game for the team’s seniors, meant a little bit more.

“It’s a special group that obviously played their last game in Notre Dame Stadium,” Freeman said after the game. “You think about the 500th game in Notre Dame Stadium, it’s something special. This place is special.”

As has been the case through most of the year, it was the Irish defense that came out of the gates firing. Wake Forest compiled -4 yards of total offense in the first quarter, picking up just a single first down across two full possessions. Graduate student defensive lineman Javontae Jean-Baptiste made the key play of the period, bringing Wake’s second possession to a halt with a key third-down sack.

The Demon Deacons would find some breathing room early in the second quarter, embarking on a touchdown drive that was aided by a pair of trick plays that went for a combined 37 yards. But that would be their final score of the day, as Notre Dame’s defense maintained its high level of play for four quarters. Wake Forest threw for less than 100 yards and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. The Irish forced a turnover in the third quarter when graduate student linebacker JD Bertrand delivered a crushing sack and senior defensive lineman Rylie Mills scooped up the ensuing fumble.

“All week, we were just honing in [on] the small details,” said sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison, who played a key role in the secondary’s standout effort. “Coach [Al] Golden called up a great defense. We trusted him and then we just went out there and executed it.”

Freeman offered similar praise of the performance on defense. He also noted that there is always room for improvement, especially for a team that had posted shutouts on Senior Day in each of the previous two seasons.

“I was talking to Coach Golden after the game and we’re upset about [allowing] 7 points,” Freeman said with a laugh. “I know tomorrow we’ll be in there and critique every single play. I’m sure defensively there will be a lot to improve, but I like to be upset about 7 points.”

Freeman echoes the attitude that the Irish defense has set all season long. Saturday’s result was a testament to a complete performance in all phases of the game by the Irish, including a game-changing play on special teams. With the Irish clinging to a 7-point lead late in the second quarter, Jean-Baptiste rose up to block a Wake Forest field goal that was recovered by senior safety Xavier Watts, who has seemingly made it his mission to be involved in every turnover that Notre Dame forces this year.

“That was really big,” junior defensive lineman Jason Onye said about the blocked field goal. “We were harping on it Friday. [Special teams] Coach [Marty] Biagi told us we were going to have an opportunity this week.”

Jean-Baptiste’s play provided the opportunity for graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman to lead a 2-minute drill that got the Irish into field goal range at the end of the first half. After missing a 47-yard field goal in the first quarter, graduate student kicker Spencer Shrader came back to drill one from 37 that gave the Irish a 10-point advantage heading into halftime. Shrader would also execute a surprise onside kick that allowed Notre Dame to steal a possession early in the third quarter.

It wasn’t the Irish’s special teams that faced the brunt of the criticism after losses to Ohio State, Louisville and Clemson, though. It was the offense, and in the final home game of the season, that same offense was at its best.

“You can be as courageous as you want, but still have a lack of confidence inside because of the performance,” Freeman said about the Irish offense that came into the game having scored less than 25 points in four of its last six appearances. “And so [their performance against Wake Forest] was much needed. It’s a testament to how they prepared, the adjustments they made, the execution of the game plan. So I’m really happy for Coach Parker and that whole offensive staff and that offensive side of the ball. Really pleased with the performance tonight.”

Notre Dame got it done on the ground. Junior running back Audric Estimé picked up 115 rushing yards and a touchdown, his fifth time surpassing 100 yards on the season.

Even more importantly, the Irish got it done through the air. Facing his former team, Hartman started slow, completing just two of his first seven passes. For the remainder of the game, he delivered the type of showing that Irish fans grew accustomed to early in the season, finishing the day with 277 yards and 4 touchdowns while avoiding any interceptions.

“He was with those guys for five years, with that coaching staff,” Freeman said about Hartman’s time at Wake Forest. “So for him to be able to put that distraction away and perform the way he did is a testament to who he is and the confidence and consistency that he provides.”

For much of the year, Notre Dame has gotten glimpses of potential from its young receiving core. Individual receivers would post big performances, but the unit struggled to put all the pieces together at the same time. That was not the case on Saturday. Freshman Rico Flores Jr. was the headliner, totaling eight receptions for 102 yards and becoming the first Irish receiver to eclipse the century mark since the 2021 season. But Notre Dame also got a touchdown apiece and 154 combined yards from freshman Jaden Greathouse, freshman Jordan Faison and sophomore Tobias Merriweather. Sophomore Eli Raridon added 39 yards and a touchdown in place of the injured Mitchell Evans.

“It’s just a testimony to just continue to battle, continue to prepare, continue to work,” Freeman said about the breakout performance from the wide receivers. “Everybody wants to catch 100 yards and have 100 yards receiving. Who is willing to put the work in so [that] when the opportunity presents itself like today, you do it? …  Continue to put that work in, and at some point, it’s going to be rewarded.”

In the end, everything came together for the Irish to earn one last win for their seniors at Notre Dame Stadium, a place where they have outscored opponents 262-71 this season.

“That was probably the biggest force this week, the past two weeks since the bye week,” Onye said about getting a win for the seniors. “We were thinking about, like, ‘We have to do the right thing, send the seniors off.’ Their sweat, the tears, their blood they’ve put into the Notre Dame jersey, the last thing we could do is make sure we send them off the right way.”

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