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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame outlasts Clemson in wild start to ACC play

Junior midfielder Bryce Boneau heads the ball in the Irish's winning 3-2 matchup against Clemson on Sept. 9.

To close out a perfect Saturday for Irish athletics, Notre Dame men’s soccer topped Clemson in a thrilling ACC opener. The Irish jumped out to a two-goal lead early, only for the Tigers to claw back on two shots before halftime. Then, in the 50th minute, Notre Dame took an insurmountable lead on senior forward Daniel Russo’s magnificent free kick. After full time at Alumni Stadium, the No. 20 Irish remained unbeaten (4-0-1) with a 3-2 victory.

“I’m really pleased with the way we competed tonight. It was kind of a sucker punch the last few minutes to give up two goals on two shots, which was against the run of play at that moment,” Irish head coach Chad Riley said. “But I loved the response of the group and I knew they showed a lot of belief and kept playing. I had no doubt they would get the result after we got ahead.”

Notre Dame controlled the opening third of a fairly even 90 minutes. In the sixth minute, junior forward Matthew Roou earned the first chance, settling a long ball in the box and firing off a shot. But Clemson keeper Joseph Andema sized him up and made the evening’s first save.

With just two goals on their last 45 shots, the Irish finally opened the floodgates midway through the half. A 16th-minute corner leaked out for a low drive from junior defender Kyle Genenbacher. Clemson turned it away on the line, but junior forward Eno Nto slammed the rebound home for the opening goal. With Nto’s second tally of the season, Notre Dame could work on extending its 24-match unbeaten streak when scoring first.

In the following moments, Clemson responded well, unloading a barrage of prime looks. But the Irish withstood the pressure and doubled their lead in the 33rd minute. This time, Nto served as the playmaker, breaking free of a tie-up to play Bryce Boneau toward the right corner of the goal area. The junior midfielder’s first touch shot him past several defenders before an easy flick put his first career goal in the back of the net.

After freshman midfielder Nolan Spicer put two shots on goal for the Irish, Clemson equalized in no time. With exactly two minutes remaining until the break, Ousmane Sylla charged toward the left post on a smooth one-two. Notre Dame smothered his cross with three players sliding near the goal line. But Gael Gibert, the lone Tiger among them, whipped the ball over the line from the seat of his pants.

A mere 42 seconds later, Clemson drew level. Off the restart, Brandon Parrish found space from 20 yards out. Shooting low and hard, the co-captain beat senior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd and caught the inside of the left post, evening the score at two. Facing the sudden change of all sudden changes, Notre Dame regrouped at halftime.

“For me it was just like, ‘It’s tied again,’” Riley recalled. “But now you have more information to know that you can be better than this team tonight, so you go out there with a lot of confidence for the second 45 and you’ve got 45 minutes to win the game.”

Barely four minutes into the second half, Russo answered the call. Having gone without a point through four games, the forward was due a big moment. As he stepped up to a 20-yard free kick, that moment manifested itself. Russo’s left-footed smash curled into the tiniest of windows between Andema and the left post, bringing the home crowd of 1,703 to its feet. Just like that, Notre Dame led 3-2.

“It was a great finish, great free kick,” Riley said. “He works on those a lot, so it was great to see him stick it in the net.”

Two minutes later, Roou put another shot on goal. But after that, Notre Dame would fire away no more. However, even as the Tigers dominated second-half possession time, they struggled to break through the Irish backline. In the half-hour following Roou’s goal, Clemson registered just three shots.

“The big thing on our team is bend, don’t break,” Dowd said. “We knew Clemson is a phenomenal side [and] we’d be facing a little adversity. But we knew that ‘bend, don’t break’ mindset, and we were able to just handle whatever was thrown at us.”

Clemson threw its best second-half opportunity at Dowd in the 89th minute. Settling a corner kick near the back post, Sylla cut back toward the penalty spot. As he found a lane through traffic, the All-ACC midfielder wired a shot toward the upper right-hand corner. But Dowd soared through the air to his left, making Notre Dame’s save of the year to preserve the lead. After the game, the keeper spoke of his four-year experience as a guiding light in a wild game.

“It means everything for a goalie,” Dowd stated. “Giving up two quick, unfortunate goals, being disappointed ending the half and then having to fight for 40 minutes to keep a lead. Thankfully, I’ve seen it all before and I’ve done it with my boys before. I knew what had to be done and we were all able to do it.”

At the final whistle, Notre Dame exacted some revenge upon a Clemson side that had ended its previous two seasons. The Irish also captured their first ACC-opening win since 2018. To finish out its six-game homestand, Notre Dame will host Michigan State at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the ACC Network.

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