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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish display depth, score 49 straight in home-opener win

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After a long weekend overseas in Dublin, Notre Dame football felt right at home Saturday afternoon. In their 2023 Notre Dame Stadium opener, the Irish scored eight touchdowns and held Tennessee State to just 12 first downs, cruising to a 56-3 victory.

“You have to enjoy these moments,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “They’re hard, and we only get 12 games and opportunities.”

Graduate quarterback Sam Hartman continued his masterful start, spearheading an Irish offense that racked up 557 total yards. Reaching 10 different targets, Hartman threw for 194 yards and two scores at a 14-for-17 clip in his South Bend debut.

“It was surreal,” Hartman said. “This experience, this process has been so cool. We’ve got a lot of ball left to play and a lot of memories still to make, but [this is] a great one to start with.”

When Hartman wasn’t dealing, Notre Dame ran all over the Tigers. Paced by junior running back Audric Estime’s 116 yards, Irish ballcarriers amassed 221 yards at a rate of 6.7 per carry. Four different running backs found the end zone.

And for the second consecutive week, Notre Dame held its opponent outside the end zone for a full 60 minutes. Forcing two turnovers, the Irish limited the Tigers to 156 yards of total offense.

“It was great going back to normal football,” junior defensive lineman Jason Onye joked. “That’s our expectation, our standard as a defense. We want to make sure we’re dominant — no matter who we face.”

Though the score suggests otherwise, the going wasn’t easy out of the gate for Notre Dame. Estime’s first three rushes produced just four yards, creating a pair of third-down situations. But Hartman converted both — once on the ground and again through the air. 

Notre Dame’s methodical march would finally reach paydirt on a 36-yard outside handoff to freshman running back Jeremiyah Love. Running behind his right tackle, Love tiptoed down the sideline and darted to the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown.

Tennessee State would answer back, driving for 55 yards on 15 plays. But the Tigers’ field goal, a 38-yarder, would mark the end of their scoring output.

“I thought after that first series, [the defense] was able to really just settle down and stop making careless mistakes,” Freeman recalled. “I would say, ‘Don’t beat Notre Dame.’ And there were a couple of times in that series, we were beating Notre Dame.”

An untimely turnover on the following kickoff nearly gave Tennessee State the lead. Zachery Drake executed a heavy hit on graduate returner Devyn Ford, forcing the football out inside the 15-yard line. Tennessee State recovered but failed to reach the end zone.

With a chance to make immediate amends for the fumble, Notre Dame’s special teams unit delivered. On the Tigers’ 29-yard field goal attempt, Jason Onye surged up the middle, deflecting the kick. 

“Before the snap, me and Rylie [Mills] were like, ‘Let’s blow up this guard,’” Onye described. “Me and him got low, got through the guard's chest and then I just put my hand up. And luckily, it hit.”

Just like that, Tennessee State’s golden opportunity had disappeared, and momentum had swung firmly back to the home sideline by the end of the first quarter.

Working for the first time in over seven minutes, the Irish offense caught fire. Estime jumpstarted the drive with a 50-yard carry up the middle, the longest run of his career. Hartman then showcased his own wheels, finishing a five-yard touchdown run with a flip over the goal line. After the score, Hartman gestured to the student section to celebrate.

“I’ve been doing that one for a while,” Hartman said. “It's kind of a Man in the Arena, ‘Are you not entertained?’ type of deal.”

Up 14-3, Notre Dame stole the pigskin right back. Two plays into the Tennesse State drive, quarterback Deveon Bryant dialed up a deep ball. But senior safety Ramon Henderson sped into its path, laying out for an interception at the Irish 43-yard line.

Notre Dame’s first defensive turnover of the season would yield points. And the score required a mere four plays. On the third, Hartman zipped a pass to junior wideout Jayden Thomas over the middle for 27 yards. One play later, the gunslinger found senior wide receiver Chris Tyree for six on a 24-yard corner route.

“That’s part of this offense and our team,” Hartman said. “You can dish [the ball] to anybody, and at any moment they’re gonna make explosive plays.”

A disruptive pass rush then made for another Tennessee State three-and-out, allowing Notre Dame to grow its 18-point lead. Halfway through the drive, which concluded on an Estime five-yard touchdown plunge, the Hartman-Thomas connection flashed again for 23 yards.

Needing any type of positive development before halftime, Tennessee State returned the fourth Irish kickoff 12 yards past midfield. A fourth-down conversion and targeting foul against graduate safety Antonio Carter II pushed the Tigers into a goal-to-go spot.

But the Irish defense — in conjunction with the crowd — held firm. Two false starts and a sack forced the Tigers to unsuccessfully attempt a field goal. And as he did at the end of the first half against Navy, Marcus Freeman kept time on the clock, using a pair of timeouts before the missed kick.

“I was really calculating when we were gonna use those timeouts,” Freeman said. “It’s crucial to have those situations. We do them in practice, but to have it live — I was so proud of the way they executed.”

That execution required going 80 yards in 53 seconds, and Hartman was up to the task. During his six-for-six drive, he found junior tight end Mitchell Evans three times in a row, adding a 24-yard delivery to freshman wideout Jaden Greathouse. At the four-yard line, Hartman found tight end Holden Staes for the sophomore's first career score.

Leaving 15 seconds in the half, Notre Dame never needed to use its one remaining timeout.

Sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli took the reins for the second half. Of the sophomore’s 130 passing yards, 40 came from a score by sophomore running back Jadarian Price, his roommate. To create the score, Angeli escaped the pocket left and checked down to the running back. Price then used his speed and a clean juke move to earn Angeli his first collegiate touchdown pass.

“Steve [Angeli] is my best friend. I happened to be his first touchdown pass,” Price said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Two Tennessee State plays later, Notre Dame was in the end zone again. Senior cornerback Clarence Lewis made the house call, taking his interception back 33 yards down the left sideline. 

“We just happened to be in a good coverage for the spread out pass. He pretty much threw it to me right after that,” Lewis said. “I love those types of plays because we’re just feeding off another after that.”

Sophomore running back Gi'Bran Payne would add another, cashing in on a 42-yard dump-off from Angeli. Soon after, freshman quarterback Kenny Minchey would take his first collegiate snaps. And as afternoon turned to evening, Notre Dame accomplished what it couldn’t a year ago: a successful home opener.

“It’s a personal challenge for us. It’s about Notre Dame football reaching its full potential on Saturday.”

Next Saturday 2-0 Irish travel to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a battle with NC State at noon. The Wolfpack represents Notre Dame’s first Power Five foe of 2023.