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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

DeFazio: Stop messing with my heart(man)

With another primetime game coming down to the wire, I’m not sure how much more my heart can take as a Notre Dame football fan. Standing behind the end zone for that final drive may very well have been the best experience I have had as a sports writer, but it was certainly the most stressful. I couldn’t help but cheer under my breath as Sam Hartman made a mad diagonal dash across the field, praying that he’d get the down and convert a near-impossible fourth and 16. At a whopping 5'3"on a good day, I was unable to see through the players on the field to confirm with my own eyes that the drive was still alive, instead having to wait for the announcement to blast from the speakers followed by the resounding cheers from the Irish fan section. What these eyes did witness, however, was all the more important.

Hartman has thrown for 14 touchdowns without an interception, the most of any quarterback in Notre Dame history. Clearly, despite his years spent at Wake Forest, something seems to click in South Bend for the sixth-year quarterback. Marcus Freeman has commented multiple times on Hartman’s value as a seasoned member of the offense, citing his experience as a major trust factor between coach and QB. However, Hartman’s true effect does not limit itself to statistics or past seasons — it is in the newfound cohesiveness and camaraderie that this team has.

Sam Hartman
Quarterback Sam Hartman looks to pass Saturday night against Duke. The Irish escaped with a 21-14 victory in the final moments.

Hartman may not be one to talk about himself, but all of his teammates have commented on his positive addition to the team. His talent on the field is certainly a topic of conversation, with junior running back Audric Estimé affirming that “Sam is one of the best in the business” following the stunning final drive against the Blue Devils. But, more often than not, the true praise centers not on his physical impact but his emotional one. He is a leader, someone they could immediately rally — not behind — but alongside.

As a senior, I have witnessed four different seasons and four different Notre Dame teams. While there have been some star players throughout that time, never has a team felt more cohesive than the unit they’ve been operating with this year. Yes, Hartman’s experience at the helm is certainly a factor in that. But something about adding him to the mix seems to have knitted the team closer together in ways no one knew they needed. Gone is the anticipation of each play of the drive, hoping that whatever they originally planned will work out. Now, there could be a minute left on the clock and still a hope that the team will be able to dig themselves out of whatever hole they are in, just like last weekend in Durham.

Now, if Plan A fails, everyone on the field is ready to step up when needed. Just this weekend, the Blue Devils did their best to shut down Estimé and the run game, limiting the star running back to 81 yards when he had been posting well above 100 in three of the four previous games this season. Instead, Hartman easily turned to the likes of junior tight end Mitchell Evans and freshman running back Jeremiyah Love, who showed up as effective playmakers that night. He uses everyone at his disposal to make the best-case scenario.

On top of this, the wide receiving corps were thinned out due to injuries, meaning more reps for those healthy enough to be on the field. Evans, who had 134 yards on the night, commented after the game that different position groups stepped up to fill those holes injured receivers left, attesting to the versatility of this team. 

“We feel like we can execute whatever we have to, whatever look comes at us,” Evans said. “We didn't panic, we didn't flinch, we weren't scared, we didn't back down. You know Sam ran when it was fourth and 16 or something like that…that’s pretty sick.”

He proceeded to note that “champions respond” to moments like these, and this year a variety of players are being used to feed that mentality. As Hartman demonstrates on the field, anyone can be turned to whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because of this, there seems to be this symbiotic trust between players and coaches that lends itself to effective gameplay in ways unmatched by past teams. A trust that Hartman will find the right guy at the right time, no matter who he is, and that that man will be ready to respond.

That is what my eyes witnessed from my place behind the end zone at Duke. As Estimé charged in for the touchdown and celebrations abounded, you could feel just how excited every member of the team was to have somehow scored. However, when Hartman met up with the huddle and immediately called for a two-point conversion, no questions were asked. The celebrators rounded back up into position, completely respecting the call from their QB. After they made good on the attempt, Freeman immediately pulled Hartman into a hug. One could sense just how much pride there was on that sideline.

“When Sam Hartman’s your quarterback, you have a lot of faith,” Freeman said postgame. “I don't want to just give credit to one person but, you know, the plays he made on that series were huge.”

Hartman’s greatest gift to the Irish has not only been his experience at quarterback but his ability to bring out the best in those he is on the field with. He is incredibly talented, and he knows his fellow players are too. Irish fans are witnessing what happens when a trusted quarterback trusts both himself and his teammates, uniting them under that shared sentiment. No matter how many future games come down to the wire or heart attacks are induced, one thing we can certainly trust is that the Irish will have done their best to utilize each other to the highest caliber of their abilities.