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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

The thriller against Duke was exactly the reset that Notre Dame needed

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Junior running back Audric Estime crosses the goal-line during Notre Dame’s 21-14 win over Duke on Sept. 30.


Notre Dame’s loss to Ohio State was not an easy one to get over. Everything about it, from the pregame hype to the high stakes to the countless moments when the Irish seemed to have the win secured, combined to form a defeat about as painful as they come.

Everyone spent the next several days grappling with lingering thoughts about how the result could have so easily flipped — and how the Irish could have placed themselves in prime position for a College Football Playoff berth. The team was so close to shrugging off the stigma about the program’s inability to win big games.

Saturday’s matchup with Duke didn’t put an end to all those feelings. That fateful night at Notre Dame Stadium will be tough to forget. But Notre Dame’s win – and the way they won – helped put that loss in the rearview mirror far quicker than expected.

It’s not difficult to notice the striking similarities between Notre Dame’s last two games. The home team had College Gameday in town and, playing as underdogs, looked to secure one of the program’s biggest wins in recent memory. After being shut out in the first half, the home team took their first lead midway through the fourth quarter. But they would lose it in heartbreaking fashion in the final minute.

The distraught faces seen on Blue Devil fans after graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman’s miraculous fourth and 16 conversion were nearly identical to the ones at Notre Dame Stadium after the Buckeyes’ Kyle McCord connected with Emeka Egbuka for a first down on third and 19.

Winning in the same way that they had previously lost provided the perfect reset for Notre Dame. It gave them the chance to put Ohio State in the past and be at their best entering the second half of the season.

For most of the game in Durham, though, it didn’t look like the Irish that kind of turnaround in them. Whether because of Duke not being known as a football powerhouse or Notre Dame’s 29-game regular season win streak against ACC opponents, the common narrative leading up to Saturday seemed to be that the Irish’s only chance to get back on track was to comprehensively dominate the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball.

That’s certainly not what happened, but it may have been for the best. We wouldn’t have learned much about the Irish if they had simply outclassed Duke from start to finish. Instead, the Blue Devils offered a true test of Notre Dame’s mettle.

After scoring a touchdown on their first possession, the Irish managed just a single field goal in each of the next two quarters. Meanwhile, Duke recovered from a slow start to string together a pair of long touchdown drives in the second half. The latter of second gave them a late 14-13 advantage.

The final minutes seemed tailor-made for Notre Dame to rewrite nearly every wrong from the Ohio State game. Or to fall short again in equally painful fashion.

The Irish failed time and time again to get the Buckeyes off the field during their game-winning 15-play drive. On Saturday, Duke had a third and four in Notre Dame territory with just over two minutes remaining. They led by one and needed just a single first down to ice the clock. Senior safety Xavier Watts and graduate student defensive lineman Nana Osafo-Mensah not only stopped the Blue Devils short, but blew up the run play for a two-yard loss. That could have caused Duke’s decision to punt rather than go for it.

Against Ohio State, Hartman was twice stopped short on fourth and one. He had it much harder on Saturday when he needed 16 yards on fourth down to keep the Irish alive. But he moved the chains with a season-saving 17-yard pickup. And when junior running back Audric Estimé broke through the line for a 30-yard game-clinching touchdown run on the very next play, it felt like the Irish had truly exorcised their demons from the previous week.

Some teams seem to have the innate ability to pull through in every close game. But the Irish haven’t been fortunate enough to be that type of “team of destiny.” Instead, they’re a top-10 team who has fully earned that spot. A team that battled an elite opponent for 60 minutes and fell just short. A team that then got right up off the mat to do the same in a hostile environment and delivered a clutch win, succeeding in all the ways they previously hadn’t.

When you leave consecutive games against top-20 opponents to the final seconds, it’s tough to expect to win both. Yes, the Irish could have made that final stop and defeated Ohio State. But maybe they would have then fallen short against Duke, a result that likely would have been equally demoralizing.

Notre Dame played their last two games almost evenly and went 1-1. It’s obviously not the result they would have hoped for. But it doesn’t put any of their goals for this season out of reach. And by responding from the loss with a cathartic win, they carry forward momentum and a sense of self-belief that they can overcome any obstacle.

The Irish still have everything left to play for as they prepare to face Louisville on the road this weekend and move into their final six games.

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