Friedlander: With the game and its Playoff hopes on the line, Notre Dame responds 'like a champion'
DURHAM, NC – According to Marcus Freeman, Audric Estime was supposed to have gone down short of the end zone instead of taking it in for the go-ahead score with 31 seconds remaining Saturday.
It’s something the Notre Dame coach said his players are taught to do in that situation.
The idea is to keep the ball away from the opposing team by running the clock almost all the way down and kicking a short field goal to win the game on the final play.
But with his competitive juices flowing at full blast, Estime had no intention of pulling up.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I just saw the opportunity and I took it.”
Estime’s dramatic 30-yard run capped a dramatic 10-play, 95-yard drive that allowed the 11th-ranked Irish to escape with a 21-14 victory against a Duke team that came within an eyelash of pulling off its 2nd major upset of the season at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The 17th-ranked Blue Devils beat ACC rival Clemson in their opener on Labor Day night.
One week after giving up the decisive touchdown in the final seconds of a loss to Ohio State on a play in which it was caught with only 10 men on the field, Notre Dame flipped the script and pulled out an improbable victory of its own.
And in the process, kept its hopes for a spot in the College Football Playoff alive and kicking.
A quick check of the replay of Estime’s only big-yardage play of the night showed that Duke did, in fact, have its full complement of 11 players on the field.
But it might just as well have had 20.
Even though his offense was intent on simply setting things up for a winning kick by Spencer Shrader, Estime wasn’t going to be denied. He was originally stuffed at the line, but kept his legs moving, bounced off right end, broke 3 tackles and outraced everyone into the end zone.
“I’m just goad he scored,” Freeman said with a smile after the game. “I’m glad we won.”
AUDRIC ESTIME!!! UNREAL DRAMA IN DURHAM
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 1, 2023
Although Esime’s run proved to be the coup de grace that finally put the plucky Blue Devils away, it was only 1 of several key plays on the final possession that may very well have saved the Irish’s season.
Taking over at the 5-yard line with 2:35 remaining, quarterback Sam Hartman 1st avoided a sack in the end zone before hitting tight end Mitchell Evans with a 19-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 to keep the drive alive.
Then facing a 4th-and-16 from the Duke 47, the Wake Forest transfer pulled another rabbit out of his shiny gold helmet by scrambling for 17 yards to tee up Estime’s touchdown 1 play later.
It was a methodical march made all the more impressive by the fact it was nearly derailed by an offensive interference call.
And that it came against a Duke defense that had kept Notre Dame out of the end zone since the game’s opening possession on a night in which the offense was playing without 3 top receivers – Jayden Thomas, Jaden Greathouse and Deion Colzie, all of whom are sidelined with injuries.
“We didn’t panic, we didn’t flinch, we didn’t back down,” Evans said. “We do what we have to do. … Our mentality is that champions respond.”
— Mike BerardinoNDI (@MikeBerardino) October 1, 2023
In this case, the response wasn’t just from the adversity of letting a 13-0 halftime lead slip away. It was the bounce back that was necessary after last week’s potentially crushing home loss at the hands of the Buckeyes.
It was a character victory that while achieved on the road, felt at times as if it was a Notre Dame home game. Nearly half of the packed stands were wearing green and cheering on the visitors.
At times during the final drive, the chants of “Let’s go Irish.” could be heard by the players on the field.
“Our crowd, how they travel and how they supported us down here is incredible. It’s always appreciated and it helped us win that game,” said Hartman, who completed 15-of-30 passes for 222 yards in avenging a loss he took on this same field last November in his final regular season game for Wake Forest.
Hartman admitted that “last week was heartbreaking.” But he added that “to come back and show resilience” is a statement on the kind of team that Notre Dame is. And still has the potential to be.
It’s not the kind of team that’s determined to take its Playoff hopes all the way into the end zone rather than pull up and take a knee at the 1.
No matter what its coach says it should do.