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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Irish set the stage for Ohio State with inconsistent win over Central Michigan

It's generally not a great thing when a football game ends and all a team's fans can think is "Thank God that's over."

In fairness to Notre Dame, that sentiment is more a result of what's to come than what occurred. The latter certainly has some kinks to work out, though. For all of the talk of not looking forward, Notre Dame's Week 3 showdown against Central Michigan was always going to be a primer, not a feature. That comes next week, as the Irish welcome undefeated No. 6 Ohio State into town for the biggest game of the Marcus Freeman era since the teams met 378 days ago in Columbus.

"These wins are hard to come by. We are so greedy and selfish and we want to be perfect. I was proud of the way they battled. It wasn't perfect, but they battled and they battled and they battled," head coach Marcus Freeman said.

The Irish could not have started the game any better. After luring the Chippewas defense down with three quality runs by junior running back Audric Estime, graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman took his first shot through the air and hit a 75-yard jackpot courtesy of a wide-open Tobias Merriweather streaking down the left sideline. It was only the sophomore wide receiver's fifth career reception. But three of them have gone for at least 40 yards. This one wasn't even the first to find paydirt.

But the Chippewas would not let the early deficit deter them. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty on sophomore defensive lineman Joshua Burnham, Central Michigan methodically marched down the field on the ground. Central Michigan quarterback Jase Bauer and running backs Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes combined for 34 yards on five carries. An outstretched Bailey crossed the goal line from six yards out to even the score.

Notre Dame responded with the composure they lacked in these types of moments last season. The officials were not exactly friends of the home team on the Irish's second drive. A pass interference flag was picked up. Then, an Estime first-down rush was (correctly) overturned after already announcing the initial call would stand. Yet Hartman stood strong to complete a third-and-nine pass to graduate student wide receiver Chris Tyree. And after being ruled short of the sticks on third down, Estime stayed on his feet to turn the ensuing fourth-down conversion into seven points, setting the tone en route to a career-high 176 rushing yards.

"That feels great to have my career high," Estime said. "But hopefully, let's do it again."

The Irish lacked consistency at times Saturday. But they flashed big-play upside that has been lacking in the past. The type that left them coming up short whenever a national championship contender came up on the schedule. Graduate student defensive lineman Javontae Jean-Baptiste made two explosive plays in the Chippewas backfield to force another three-and-out. Graduate student safety Thomas Harper followed suit on the next series, nearly bringing down Bauer for a sack on first down and dropping him with a bone-jarring, fumble-forcing blow the next play.

Sandwiched in between, Hartman turned the excited "ohs" drifting from the stands into jubilant cheers as he floated a 76-yard bomb into the bread basket of Tyree. Two more beautifully thrown deep balls by Hartman in the third quarter, one to junior wide receiver Jayden Thomas and another to freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr., both led to scoring drives. The first set up a Hartman sneak. The second resulted in a 50-yard kick by graduate student Spencer Shrader. It's been a long time since Notre Dame has had that type of quarterback play, the type capable of not just winning a game but taking it over.

"He's an NFL guy," Merriweather said. "The difference between college and NFL is a lot of times the quarterbacks don't get receivers a choice but to catch. And I think that's what Sam does for us."

Still, it was far from perfect for Notre Dame. While the Irish showed the ability to make game-changing plays, they also made the types of mistakes that could sink them next Saturday. Notre Dame gave Central Michigan a roughing the passer penalty, and it turned into a backward pass that went 12 yards in the wrong direction and a missed field goal. It's safe to expect Ohio State to take full advantage of similar mishaps. Same with the plague of bad tackling that was especially prevalent during the Chippewas' first scoring drive.

The absences of graduate student linebacker JD Bertrand (concussion) and safety DJ Brown (hamstring) were felt as the Chippewas found success on the ground throughout the opening half. Notre Dame's defense largely played solid in the opening half, but got sloppy again in the closing moments. Two wide-open throws for Bauer, including a 31-yard strike to Tyson Davis, brought Central Michigan back in the game as Bauer capped off the drive with a one-yard rushing score.

As Freeman said before the game, it's natural for minds to drift to the highly anticipated clash with Ohio State before it arrives. And it's easy to see why the Irish like their chances against the Buckeyes, even if they will be underdogs.

Though the Irish popped for plenty of big plays, they probably wish those moments didn't matter as much as they did. For the second straight week, Notre Dame made things harder on itself than they needed to be. The Irish committed eight penalties for 72 yards. It took a high-level pass breakup by sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison to prevent the Chippewas from making it a one-score game late in the third. A dominant fourth quarter that pushed the Irish lead to 41-17 made things feel better, but only a little. The Irish still have work to do.

"(We're) an aggressive team. Are [we] a disciplined team? Absolutely, but an aggressive team. And sometimes you have aggressive penalties," Freeman said. "You got to let these guys be aggressive. What I tell them to come out of the locker room, it's not, 'Don't make mistakes.' Sometimes, you have penalties. But it's not a discipline issue, it's an execution issue."

That alone won't be enough against the big-time opponents on Notre Dame's horizon. But now comes the exciting part: a high-stakes showdown under the lights against a top-10 opponent. It's an opportunity for a signature moment. More importantly, it's an opportunity to elevate the Freeman-era Irish to the championship-caliber level they're aspiring for.

"We always take it one week (at a) time." Estime said. "Central Michigan was our opponent this week, but now it's Ohio State, all Ohio State."