In Notre Dame’s first 6 games, the Fighting Irish managed just 6 points during the opening quarter. If you are scoring at home, that’s 2 field goals. In 6 football games.

As a result, Notre Dame, outscored 27-6 during the 1st quarter entering Saturday’s contest against Nevada-Las Vegas, has played from behind all season. That would have been OK with Ian Book or Jake Coan at quarterback, leading a Top-25 offense. It has not been OK this season, when early deficits in the Marshall and Stanford games in particular helped give overmatched opponents the confidence needed to stay in the game on the road and ultimately leave South Bend, Ind., with a win.

On Saturday, the Fighting Irish finally started fast.

Notre Dame scored on its opening drive on an Audric Estime touchdown run and never looked back, bullying the Rebels 23-7 during the opening quarter and cruising to a 44-21 victory.

Notre Dame was far from perfect Saturday. Estime fumbled on Notre Dame’s 1st possessions of the 2nd quarter and sat the rest of the game, left to ponder his 3rd lost fumble within the past 4 games. After a great opening quarter, the Fighting Irish managed just 7 points over the next 2, failing to produce a 4-quarter game offensively for the 1st time this season. The offense might have scored 44 points, but it didn’t do it with too many big plays. The longest run play was a 21-yard Drew Pyne scramble, and while Pyne did hit Jayden Thomas for a 37-yard chunk play, the sophomore quarterback’s 205 yards passing mostly came taking what UNLV’s defense gave him underneath. The Notre Dame defense, the strength of the team all season, faced a pair of UNLV backup quarterbacks but still struggled to stop the run, allowing 142 yards to Courtney Reese, including a 74-yard dash to set up a 1st-quarter touchdown and cut Notre Dame’s lead to 10-7. There will be plenty for coach Marcus Freeman and his staff to digest when they hit the film room to start Syracuse game prep Sunday.

But they’ll get to discuss it after a comfortable victory, the 1st time that has been true all season and, ahead of the toughest stretch of the season, a needed dose of confidence for a football team that has done everything the hard way in 2022. They’ll get to talk about what needs to be better knowing the balance they so need to be successful offensively was back Saturday after a taking a hiatus in the stunning lost to Stanford. They’ll get to prepare for Robert Anae’s balanced Syracuse offense knowing they can limit a spread passing attack to just 4.6 yards per attempt with their terrific corners and steady safety play.

Winning at No. 14 Syracuse, which pushed No. 5 Clemson to the limit Saturday at Death Valley, would be this team’s finest hour. It also would send the Fighting Irish back to South Bend brimming with confidence for the Clemson game Nov. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium.

It will take more surprising performances to pull off the win against the Orange.

Take running back.

When Estime was benched, Logan Diggs, a 3-star recruit out of New Orleans spurned by his dream school, LSU, was ready to play Saturday. He ran for 130 yards on 28 carries, many of them brutally physical runs.

How about playmakers who aren’t named Michael Mayer?

Thomas’ long reception was 1 moment, but it was great to see Chris Tyree, still among the roster’s most explosive individual talents, find the end zone.

The Fighting Irish are a better team when Tyree is involved and Mayer doesn’t have to make every critical play. The All-American tight end was marvelous, of course. He had 115 yards on 6 receptions, scored a touchdown, and added a pancake block. But Mayer with help is the best Mayer.

And for all the occasional issues Notre Dame had stopping the run, the Fighting Irish produced stops when it mattered Saturday. UNLV was 0-for-12 on 3rd-down conversion attempts, unable to throw against tight coverage and under consistent pressure. The Fighting Irish forced pressures on 14 of UNLV’s 33 throws Saturday, never allowing the Rebels quarterbacks to establish a rhythm. The defensive line, considered a strength of the team all offseason, has been up and down. Notre Dame will hope Saturday’s bright performance is a harbinger of things to come. The Fighting Irish will need to be dominant to have any chance against Syracuse and Clemson.

At 4-3, the next 2 games will go great lengths to define the 1st season of the Freeman era. Win both, and a New Year’s Day bowl, perhaps the Gator or Citrus Bowl, will be in play. Split them, and the Fighting Irish likely are to finish 7-5 at worst, and while they won’t play in a great bowl, they’ll have bowl practices and a chance to improve as a program during December. Lose both, and the debates begin about whether a 6-6 Notre Dame team accepts a bowl bid or stays at home.

This isn’t where the Fighting Irish, Freeman or the Notre Dame fanbase thought this team would be at the end of October. But the stunning home loss to Marshall left little margin for error, and the Stanford loss eliminated it altogether. The Fighting Irish are who they are at this point: a team with a ceiling that can compete with a national championship contender on its home field in Week 1, but a bottom that can fall out against anyone. It seems foolish to think Notre Dame will become consistent down the stretch. Then again, until Saturday, Notre Dame hadn’t scored a touchdown during the 1st quarter. Sometimes, it just takes 1 game to change things. Sometimes, 1 game means very little and a trend is a trend. We’ll find out which this Notre Dame win was next weekend at Syracuse.