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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

‘I pray for moments like this’: Morrison leads Irish defense in rout

Freshman corner back Benjamin Morrison stepped in front of the pass and was off to the races, sprinting 96 yards into the end zone and the national spotlight. 

“I was just running,” Morrison said of his fourth-quarter pick six, which changed the score to 28-0 in favor of the Irish and effectively sealed the 35-14 upset victory. “Once I hit the end zone, I knew I scored.”

Saturday night may have been the first time many college football fans had heard of him, but among those at Notre Dame, the freshman cornerback has been steadily building a name for himself since arriving on campus for fall camp. 

The former three-star recruit from Phoenix picked the Irish over the likes of Oregon and Washington and was not expected to play a significant role heading into the season. He did not enroll early, but after a strong fall camp and performing well in early season games, he was thrust into the starting lineup prior to the game against BYU, and he hasn’t looked back. 

In the season opener against Ohio State, Morrison earned the reputation of someone who won’t back down, briefly jawing with Buckeyes star running back TreVeyon Henderson before officials stepped in. 

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

His attitude might be an anomaly, but Morrison sets his own standard.

“I had high expectations for myself,” Morrison said prior to the loss against Stanford. “You don’t come to Notre Dame just to be average.”

Benjamin Morris celebrates his interception return for a touchdown with Isaiah Foskey during Notre Dame's 35-14 victory over Clemson. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

Morrison’s interception against Clemson was the apex of his best game of the season. On the previous drive, Morrison intercepted Clemson’s backup quarterback Cade Klubnik’s only pass of the game to put Notre Dame in great field position at the 14 yard line. It took them just three plays to punch it in and extend the lead to 21-0.

“I’ve been taught here, when you’re in that situation, always undercut everything,” he said of his first interception. “I knew if he threw it he would have to pay for it.”

Freeman praised Morrison’s ability to rebound quickly from mistakes.

“Just a mentally tough kid,” Freeman said. “Got a [pass interference] called against him and comes back and gets an interception; and got a ball caught on him and then comes back and gets a pick six.”

He finished the contest with seven total tackles in addition to two interceptions, and an impressive pass breakup on a third down to stop a promising Clemson drive in its tracks. 

“I know the player I can be and who God has called me to be,” Morrison said. “All week I knew what type of game this was and I knew they were going to test me off the previous games on what I’ve shown on film. I knew I had to lock in and hone in on what I wanted to accomplish.”

Morrison said he had been struggling with fade routes all season, before his stunning pick six.

“That was kind of cool because I’ve been struggling with that position all year long,” he said. “Back shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. So today I was really just focused on the details. Once I had them in the position I wanted to, I could have just played to the man, but I trusted my abilities and put my head around there.”

His performance was all the more impressive given his somewhat rocky outing against Syracuse the previous week.

“I was tested a lot,” Morrison said of that game. “I knew I didn’t perform the level I wanted to perform at, so I knew what I wanted to accomplish.”

Morrison has “a special set of parents,” Freeman said.

His father, Darryl, played in the NFL for four seasons and later became a pastor that “helps him spiritually and mentally stay in the right mindset,” according to Freeman. 

He is the youngest of five siblings — all of whom are or were college athletes, competing in football, volleyball and gymnastics. Freeman described his mother, JoAnn, as an “incredible woman,” noting that Morrison’s play and attitude is “a reflection of his upbringing.” 

“I gotta give credit to my dad for putting me in the position I am today,” Morrison said after a practice prior to the Stanford game. “He’s really helped me as a young man, as a player.”

Morrison also noted that he calls his mother multiple times every day despite having to balance the rigorous schedule that being a student athlete at Notre Dame entails.

Clemson’s game plan seemed to be to test the young corner throughout the game Saturday, but he was more than ready for the challenge.

“I think the confidence came from the preparation, and once I was able to see things then I knew I was pretty locked in,” Morrison said. “Then once they started testing me and things started going my way, I just felt good so I just kept going.”

The rest of Notre Dame’s secondary was also outstanding Saturday night; they limited Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei to less than 200 passing yards, two years after he set the record for most passing yards ever by an opposing quarterback at Notre Dame stadium with 439. 

Their job was made easier by a front seven that had Uiagalelei under near-constant pressure any time he attempted to drop back to pass. He was sacked four times, hurried four more and hardly had any time to get rid of the ball. 

“My team gets all the credit — the front is crazy. They allow all the pressure,” Morrison said. “You come to a school with a good D-line that forces some interceptions, which happened tonight.”

His emergence has been a revelation to a Notre Dame defense which many expected to struggle at cornerback this season. Alongside fellow freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey, who has also seen significant snaps this year and performed well, the position seems to be in good hands for years to come. 

“It means everything just because I pray for moments like this, dream of moments like this,” Morrison said. “For it to actually come into full circle is a cool feeling, awesome feeling.”