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.