On that final drive, it seemed like the first win of the Freeman era might never come. Two turnovers were brought back after further review, giving the California Golden Bears one final chance to tie the game and force an overtime.
“There was a conversation between me and God,” said head coach Marcus Freeman about that final drive. “There was some, ‘Lord, what is going on?’”
But there was no time for prayer. In that moment, it meant the defense would need to step up one final time — and that they did. A broken-up Hail Mary attempt sealed the 24-17 win, as Notre Dame football finally got off the starting blocks in 2022.
It was a huge moment for a defense that had been problematic late in games this year. Against both Ohio State and Marshall, late 90+ yard touchdowns sealed the Irish’s fate. On Saturday, the defense finished the game the way their coaches had been preaching all week.
It was a happy ending to what was ultimately an inconsistent game for Notre Dame in terms of execution. Early on, it seemed like more of the same anemic offense as the first two games. The Irish had four three-and-out possessions to open the game and totaled 28 yards and just one yard on the ground. Regardless, the defense played well. And Cal kicker Dario Longhetto’s 45-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright, meaning the game was still a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter.
After that missed field goal, Notre Dame got the ball back, but after graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy picked up 8 yards on a pass while in motion, disaster struck. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne lined up under center but couldn’t get a handle on senior center Zeke Correll’s snap, and Cal’s Oluwafemi Oladejo beat Pyne to the loose ball to flip the field for the Golden Bears.
Freeman had some words for his quarterback following the fumble.
“I told Drew, ‘Relax, man, go out and be Drew Pyne and execute,’” said Freeman.
After the Irish turnover, Jack Plummer and the Golden Bears were set up in prime field position just outside the red zone, and they did not waste it. Plummer connected twice with freshman receiver J. Michael Sturdivant to make it count.
First, Sturdivant laid out for a 15-yard catch on third and 10 to keep the drive alive. Then, on the next play, Plummer faked the handoff and rolled right. There, he looked up field and saw a wide-open Sturdivant running to the corner of the end zone. Plummer’s pass was on the money to put the Golden Bears on the board with an 18-yard touchdown. Sturdivant also received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the celebration, which backed up Cal’s kickoff 15 yards.
That mistake from Sturdivant opened the door for Notre Dame’s special teams unit to make an impact as they did all game. Coming in, the special teams unit was one of the few bright spots from Notre Dame’s first two games, and they kept it up on Saturday. On returns, junior running back Chris Tyree and junior safety Brandon Joseph consistently picked up yards, while graduate student punter Jon Sot averaged 45.6 yards over seven punts and graduate student kicker Blake Grupe was perfect on his field goal and extra point attempts.
On this occasion, Tyree received the ball on the backed-up kickoff, returning it 16 yards to set up the Irish at their own 40-yard line. From there, he took over the drive. He handled the ball six times from there with four carries and two catches, including the 21-yard touchdown grab after beating the linebacker coming out of the backfield.
Granted, Notre Dame was a little fortunate on that scoring drive, with an offside penalty bailing out Grupe. The kicker had missed a 45-yard field goal attempt after the drive stalled following a failed third-down conversion. Still, the penalty gave the offense new life and they capitalized on Cal’s mistake to even the score at 7-7.
Tyree was happy to get increased touches, but said his focus was getting the win.
“Whether I get the ball or not, I’m always going to be happy with the win, but it happened to go that way today. I got a lot of touches and the opportunity to show my skills out on the field. I’m blessed to have that opportunity and I try my best to take advantage of it every time,” said Tyree.
On the following drive, Cal found its offensive rhythm putting together a 10-play, 69-yard drive deep into Irish territory. On third and 12, the Irish sent five men and pressured Plummer, who was able to step up and get loose to pick up the first down on a huge 21-yard scramble.
Plummer then threw a perfect dime to wideout Jeremiah Hunter, who made an over-the-shoulder grab despite tight coverage from freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey. That completion set up first and goal for the Golden Bears. The Notre Dame defense tightened from there, including a huge open-field tackle from graduate student safety DJ Brown to prevent receiver Mavin Anderson from scoring on a screen pass.
Longhetto nailed his second field goal attempt of the day, this time from just 34 yards out, to give Cal a 10-7 lead.
Down three points, Notre Dame got the ball back with about four minutes left in the half. The drive started off promising before it all unraveled. Pyne was sacked on second down to set up a third and nine. Before the snap, graduate student offensive line Jarrett Patterson was flagged for a false start, making it 14 for the first down. Then, senior offensive line Zeke Correll made the same mistake and backed them up five more yards. It was the fourth false start penalty on Notre Dame in the first half, and all of them came on third down.
Following the penalties, the Irish failed to pick up the first down, and with just four seconds left on the clock, Freeman elected to punt the ball away instead of taking a chance at the end zone before the half. Down by three and showing a lot of the same problems they had against Marshall a week before, much of the home crowd, dressed in green from head to toe, booed as the Irish made their way off the field at halftime.
Notre Dame came out strong in the second half. California received the ball to start, but a quick three and out forced a punt. This time, it was the Audric Estime show. The sophomore running back had six carries on the drive, including a dive into the end zone for the touchdown. Turns out, Notre Dame ran the same play four times in a row ahead of that score.
“That play was working. We had the momentum and the O-line was pushing guys off the line and opening up holes for me,” said Estime. “We did run the same play four times, but if it works, don’t stop.”
Facing their first deficit of the game, Cal took over at the 25 after a Grupe touchback. The Golden Bears moved the ball efficiently, going down the field in a long 10-play drive that ended with Plummer running the QB sneak into the end zone on third and goal to retake the lead, 17-14.
At this point in the game, Coach Freeman told his squad to change the narrative and to do it through execution.
“I remember I said to the sideline after we gave up that touchdown drive, I think we were down three, and I said: ‘This isn’t going to be a repeat. This isn’t going to be “Here we go again.” We’re going to change the outcome of this game, and it’s going to be by our offense going out there and doing what we have to do and executing, and then our defense when we get the opportunity, we’re going to go out there and execute. And that’s what you saw. We needed that,” said Freeman.
Notre Dame tied it on the following possession, driving it 46 yards and into Cal territory. The Irish committed to the running game on this drive, handing it off seven times to Tyree and Estime.
“I wanted to run the ball. I felt like we were moving the ball and so, let’s continue to run it,” Freeman said.
Eventually the drive stalled, and Grupe came on and converted a 47-yard field goal as Notre Dame evened the score at 17.
Now, in the fourth quarter with the game tied, it was crunch time for Notre Dame on both sides of the ball. The defense responded with a phenomenal series punctuated by senior defensive lineman Jacob Lacey’s second sack of the day. Three and out Cal.
“We prepared all week for this. We knew we had a chance to get after the quarterback and we emphasized it every day,” said Lacey. “It paid off.”
With the ball back in Pyne’s hands, the offense got back to work. Working off an efficient run game, Notre Dame was able to move the ball into Cal territory, and on first down they broke out for their longest play of the game: a 36-yard completion from Pyne to Estime.
“Audric made a great cut on an angle route off the linebacker and I threw it early because they were bringing pressure. He made a great catch and just ran with it,” said Pyne.
Pyne finished off the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Michael Mayer on the next play. Mayer featured less against Cal than the first two games, with just two catches on 10 yards, but he was there when Notre Dame needed him. And Pyne found him to take a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
From that point forward, the Irish defense stepped up to the task. On the following drive, they forced a turnover on downs. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey was huge down the stretch and sacked Plummer on fourth and 10 with the Bears threatening to score.
After a quick series — and a Sot punt that pinned Cal inside their own 10 — the defense was back on the field. Immediately they showed they were up to the task, forcing two throw aways from Plummer and pressuring him in the end zone. On third down, the pressure got to Plummer, and Foskey and graduate student defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola combined for a sack that was almost a game-sealing safety.
After a Cal punt from their own end zone and another quick punt from Notre Dame, Cal took over at the 25 with a little over a minute left and no timeouts. Then, chaos ensued.
On the first play of Cal’s drive, it seemed like it was over. Plummer overthrew his receiver, and the ball went straight into the arms of junior cornerback Clarence Lewis, who slid down and began celebrating with his teammates. Unfortunately for Lewis, a flag had been thrown on the play and Irish senior linebacker and captain JD Bertrand was called for targeting and ejected from the game. It also meant 15 yards and a Cal first down.
Freeman was incredulous: “I looked at J.D. and said, ‘J.D., really?’”
Plummer and Cal began to move the ball down the field and on third and 7, it looked like the defense had sealed it again. Justin Ademilola got to Plummer again and, as the quarterback tried to escape the pocket, Ademilola was able to drag him down and force a fumble.. The loose ball was recovered by graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who returned the ball for a touchdown as the stadium erupted. But again, the call was overturned after video review made it clear that Plummer’s right knee hit the ground before he lost the football.
“It was a rollercoaster for sure,” said Lacey of the final drive. “But we knew if we were on the field, the game was in hand regardless. We weren’t worried about the next play or them scoring. We just knew we had to execute, and that’s what we did.”
After Ademilola’s sack, five seconds remained on the clock for Plummer and the Golden Bears to take one last shot at the end zone. Notre Dame dropped seven into coverage for the final play as Plummer heaved a long shot into the end zone. With every defender in the area — and three Cal receivers there as well — the ball was juggled around in the air and eventually fell harmlessly to the ground.
The defense played hard until the final whistle and lived up to the pressure in the final minute. The unit had struggled in the first two games of the year, twice giving up 90+ yard touchdown drives in the final period. Those difficulties led to emphasis from the coaching staff on finishing games.
“Found a way to finish. I’m proud of those guys. You know what? It is hard to win football games,” said Freeman.
It was Notre Dame’s first win of the season and the first of Freeman’s tenure at the helm of the program. It was also a win for Drew Pyne in his first career start for Notre Dame.
“There’s a lot of coaching that happened on that field today that we can learn from. But listen, if you don’t take a minute to enjoy these things, you’re going to regret it. That’s what I keep reminding myself is enjoy this victory. We’ll get back to work tomorrow, but again, I want to celebrate with those guys today.”
Contact José Sánchez Córdova at firstname.lastname@example.org.