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Though not how he hoped, Isaiah Foskey makes his mark on Notre Dame football

As Marcus Freeman emerged from the winter wonderland that was Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon, his team was feeling something it had not been all season — relaxed. All of Notre Dame’s first 10 games either had some type of chaotic, disappointing or electrifying element to them. But the Irish did not feel any need to create any unnecessary surprises in a 44-0 annihilation of Boston College.

The celebrating wasn’t just reserved for the senior class as a whole. Nor for an Irish team that appears to have finally stabilized after an up-and-down first half. However, on a day usually centered around celebrating the past, two Irish players made history in the present. Junior tight end Michael Mayer notched another illustrious milestone, becoming the third player in Irish history with 2,000 yards, a mark that has become more and more inevitable with every dominating performance he has put together over the last few years.

The other landmark statistic, however, was less of a sure thing. In January, defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey received a third round grade from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee. The third team All-American had to decide whether to take the leap to the NFL. Former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck’s all-time sacks record of 24.5 was within reach — Foskey had 15.5 by his name at the end of his junior year. But, that isn’t the reason he chose to return.

“I believe in Coach Freeman and I just believe in the whole team that we can actually win a national championship,” he said. “That’s the main reason I came back.”

Foskey’s ultimate goal will go unrealized. But Freeman has consistently preached the importance of dealing with setbacks.

“It’s never as you foresee it on Friday,” he said. “But it’s how you respond to the different events that happen.”

Foskey has handled that disappointment well, unsurprisingly being a key piece to an Irish defense that has been Notre Dame’s most consistent unit all season. While the Irish run game and punt block units have emerged down the stretch, the defense has been stout almost all season.

The Irish are top-30 in the country in scoring defense, allowing less than 21 points per game on average. But they too have evolved as the season progressed. The Irish did not force a single turnover in their first three games when a big play could have made things different against Ohio State and especially Marshall. Over their last three games, the Irish have forced eight, including a season-high five against the Eagles — something that has been a long time coming.

“I’ve been a defensive coordinator plenty of times where you stress turnovers or takeaways, and it doesn’t happen,” Freeman said. “But you keep going. You don’t get flustered — you challenge everything. You find a better way. Our guys are taking advantage of their opportunities. You can work at something tirelessly and not get the result you want. If you quit, you never get the result. But the defensive staff has continued to work on takeaways, takeaways, takeaways. I think it’s a great lesson for our entire program. At some point, it’ll come.”

The last play of that half is one Foskey will remember forever. He beat Eagles right tackle Ozzy Trapilo clean off the line and wrapped BC quarterback Emmett Morehead up before he even realized Foskey was closing in. It was his 25th in a Notre Dame uniform. He hardly celebrated it differently than any of the first 24. But everyone in Notre Dame Stadium, including his head coach, knew it meant more.

“Break(ing) the sack record is huge when you think about the elite pass rushers we’ve had in the history of Notre Dame football,” Freeman said.

On a unit that is tied for 13th in the country in sacks, Foskey leads the way with 9.5 — more than three times more than any other player.

Naturally, his impact went beyond that one record breaking play. Foskey and the Irish defensive line wrecked havoc on Morehead and the Eagles’ run game all afternoon. Foskey and friends made the big plays, with Foskey jumping on a second-quarter fumble forced by another senior linebacker, Jack Kiser. But he was also an integral part of an Irish d-line that allowed just one rushing yard in the first half.

It was a performance emblematic of what Freeman and the Irish have learned this season. While not all challenges are created equal, none will conquer themselves. After consecutive sackless games against BYU and Stanford, Foskey’s record pursuit was in jeopardy. But, the senior showed his teammates how you respond to difficult times by tallying three sacks the very next game against UNLV. He also has at least one sack in three of the four games since.

Foskey’s strong finish to the year likely means he’ll receive more bullish feedback on his NFL future. But his return to Notre Dame means his legacy will cut deeper into the program’s illustrious history. Recording 25 sacks and counting is a major reason why. So is the work he has put in off the field to become a leader for the Irish defense.

“He didn’t come just to break the record. He came back to win the national championship. He didn’t win a national championship here, but what he did for this program, and what these seniors did for this program will be the reason why we do win a national championship in the near future,” Freeman said. “I told those guys last night, just ‘thank you.’ Because they’ve built the foundation… of what is to come.”

What is to come for Foskey and the Irish remains to be seen. But if what happened Saturday is any indicator, it will probably be something pretty special.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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Sports

‘You can really see that love we have for each other’: Irish ride stellar start on senior day

As Notre Dame struggled through its first month of the season, the biggest criticism of the team was the lack of an identity. First-year head coach Marcus Freeman has talked about this all season, and perhaps nothing stood out more today.

A resurgent run game that emerged in October started to change things. But there’s more to it. And, ironically for a team that struggled so much at the start of the year, that extra push has come early in games. In its first seven games, the Irish did not score a single first-quarter touchdown. They have outscored opponents in the opening 15 minutes 61-13 since, developing the type of consistency they sorely lacked in September when almost everything was up in the air.

That just makes it that much sweeter that everything about senior day just felt right for Notre Dame.

“What these seniors did for this program will be the reason why we do win a national championship in the near future,” Freeman said.

From the opening ceremonies to junior running back Logan Diggs’ 51-yard run on the first play, Notre Dame’s 27th meeting against Boston College, which ended in a 44-0 blowout, could not have started any better.

The Irish fizzled out after the early Diggs run, settling for a 26-yard field goal on their opening drive. But their next big play was not far behind. On BC’s third offensive play, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison used a stellar read to notch his third interception in as many games. Blessed with a short field, the Irish would once again rely on Diggs. All five of Notre Dame’s plays on their 20-yard scoring drive were handoffs to Diggs. That included the 3rd-and-goal rush from the one yard line that Diggs turned into his third touchdown of the year.

“We were challenged earlier in the week that this was gonna be a game where we were gonna run the ball. Going out there to play as a unit and run the ball like we did — it’s just so much fun, and to be able to send our seniors out with a win like that — nothing better,” said sophomore left tackle Joe Alt.

The Irish would quickly extend their lead after forcing a three-and-out. This time, they did most of their damage through the air. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne kept the drive from stalling with an impressive scramble and 23-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie on third and eight. After finding Diggs on a crafty wheel route for 28 more, Pyne finished things off by finding graduate student Matt Salerno on a play-action fake.

“He is [the ultimate teammate],” Freeman said about the former walk-on. “To get his first touchdown — he deserves it.”

Boston College pulled off an impressive third and eight pitch-and-catch of their own immediately after. Eagles QB Emmett Morehead found star wideout Zay Flowers with a 38-yard dime for BC’s first big play. However, a deep shot on the very next play had a much different ending — but not a new one. A leaping Morrison secured his second pick of the day in the end zone to halt the Eagles’ momentum.

“It felt like I was a kid out there,” said Morrison. “This is a moment that you don’t get this every single weekend, so when it does happen, you just gotta actually appreciate it and just live it in for a little bit.”

The Irish turned the interception into a 10-play, 57-yard drive, finishing with a 41-yard field goal from graduate student Blake Grupe. For the second straight drive, the Eagles would immediately follow an impressive third down play with a turnover. After keeping their drive alive with an impressive catch by running back Alex Broome, graduate student Jack Kiser stripped Morehead. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey scooped up the ball for ND’s third takeaway in the game’s first 20 minutes.

“We’ve all been really prepared,” said junior safety Xavier Watts about the defense’s emergence throughout the season. “Just trying to take it to the next level.”

The Irish offense continued to take things to the next level themselves. A false start on a fourth and one prevented Notre Dame from putting the game further out of reach. But another Grupe field goal stretched their advantage to 23. Sure enough, the Irish defense delivered another knockout blow in the very next series. Senior cornerback Cam Hart knocked away a backward pass on a third and one. And senior linebacker Marist Liufau was right there to pounce on it.

Liufau returned the ball to the end zone, but because the play was originally ruled incomplete, only the recovery stood. The Irish offense made sure they would get that touchdown, though. A 26-yard rush by Diggs set up sophomore running back Audric Estime’s seven-yard scamper and tacked on seven more points, giving Notre Dame its largest lead of the season. Sophomore running back Chris Tyree joined the party on Notre Dame’s next drive. He ran for 26 yards on its first play. Three snaps later, he finished it himself with a 12-yard rush right up the gut.

Even when they weren’t forcing turnovers, the Irish defense dominated. And while much of the focus was on how Notre Dame started the first half, the way they ended it was even more significant — a sack by Foskey, the 25th of his career to pass Justin Tuck ‘05 for the most in school history.

One week after upsetting then No. 16 NC State, the Eagles offered little resistance to the Irish in any facet. As the snow turned from swirling to suffocating, with visibility the only thing lower than Boston College’s point total, they had virtually no chance of getting back in the game. Estime added his second touchdown of the game 9:06 into the third quarter. Other than junior tight end Michael Mayer becoming the third player in school history to total 2,000 yards, both sides largely played out the string the rest of the way.

This season is undoubtedly one of the most chaotic in Notre Dame’s recent history. Saturday, on the other hand, provided the type of comforting reassurance rarely afforded to the Irish this year. Notre Dame already proved it can look like the type of high-end program necessary to win the biggest of games. Their 35-14 win over then No. 4 Clemson proved as much. However, they’ll never get the chance of playing under the sport’s brightest lights if they can handle the lower-profile tests on their schedule.

“Great teams are able to play to a standard … not to an opponent. Great teams, championship teams, they set a standard saying this is the way we’re gonna work. There’s no other option,” Freeman said. “It’s something we’ll continue to strive to be.”

“It’s how you respond, to me, that really dictates the future. And that’s the challenge I always have with these guys. It’s never what you foresee on the front end, but it’s how you respond.”

Saturday’s victory was the latest chapter in Notre Dame’s impressive second-half of a response. It doesn’t mean they’ll never play down under Freeman again, but given they end the year with the Trojans and a TBD opponent in what should be a respectable bowl game when the Irish prepare for their next game without loads of national pageantry, they know they can thrive, not just survive.

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News

Winter storm warning hits campus ahead of last home football game

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and it’s already looking like a winter wonderland in South Bend, Indiana. 

The tri-campus and the greater St. Joseph County experienced continuous snowfall Wednesday, as the National Weather Service (NWS) declared a winter storm advisory beginning at 3 p.m. The warning will expire around 10 a.m. Thursday morning. 

Between two to six inches of snow could fall overnight, said Jim Andersen, lead forecaster at NWS Northern Indiana.

“It is a wet, heavy type of snow, so you might not be able to notice,” Andersen said. “But, it can create a sloppy mess.” 

Senior director of emergency management Tracy Skibins said although Notre Dame doesn’t close campus very often as a result of inclement weather, the University would do so through both the police department’s social channel and ND Alert systems (text messages and emails).

Another system is expected to move into the region from Thursday until Friday, with another two to six inches of snow possible. As of Wednesday evening, NWS forecasts a 30% chance of snow showers Saturday during Notre Dame football’s home game against Boston College, set to start at 2:30 p.m. 

Over the past couple of days, the Notre Dame Stadium crew has continuously shoveled snow in the Stadium to keep the field and stands clear, Skibins said. But there could still be a danger posed at the game, meaning fans should be extra cautious.

“Even if you shovel all the snow, you’ll still have a chance of slippery surfaces that can cause falls,” Skibins said.

As of Wednesday evening, Skibins said she doesn’t anticipate any restrictions to tailgating lots — also being constantly shoveled leading up to the game — as a result of the snow. Her advice on being careful applies to before and after the game, she said.

Temperatures should remain below freezing with forecasted highs in the upper 20s on Friday and Saturday. Normal highs this time of year are in the upper 40s, Andersen said.

In addition, Notre Dame regularly works with DTN and its weather intelligence services for large-scale events on campus. On Saturday, there will be several on-site meteorologists to monitor the weather, Skibins said.

With lots of fans en route and anticipation building for the final home game of the season, Andersen suggests bundling up.

“It definitely has a chance of being slippery walking around and could be breezy, making it feel colder,” Andersen said. “People are definitely going to want hats, gloves and the like to stay warm if they’re outside a long time Saturday.”

Skibins added that people driving to campus should bring extra blankets, batteries and snow shovels. To stay safe, she also recommends avoiding caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, which can cause body heat to lower rapidly, and prolonged exposure outside.

“Definitely plan the day out if you’re tailgating, so you aren’t outside for too long at a time,” Skibins said.

Safety messages specific to football home games are also communicated on the University’s game day Instagram.

Contact Alysa Guffey at aguffey@nd.edu.