Death, taxes, and Irish fans anxiously watching Notre Dame survive a season opener. Three certainties in life, especially in recent years. For the third straight season, the Irish found themselves in a battle against an unranked opponent in the season opener. But just like 2019 and 2020, the Irish pulled through. Here were ten game-changing moments in a game full of twists and turns.
Lean on Mayer
Notre Dame relied on a similar recipe as 2020 at the beginning of the game. After winning the toss, the Irish put their offense on the field, looking to get an early score and quiet a capacity crowd in Tallahassee. The strategy worked, thanks largely to quarterback Jack Coan’s new favorite target. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer was a fail-safe last year on third down, and Coan fed the big playmaker over and over. A 25-yard completion started the drive, as the Irish immediately crossed midfield. Then, four players later, the Irish faced a 4th & 1. Rather than pounding it up the middle, the Irish called for a little pass down the right side to Mayer, who was wide open for a 41-yard touchdown.
The offense was full of uncertainty entering this one, and to an extent, it still is. But Mayer proved that he continues to be a fantastic playmaker, despite two uncharacteristic drops on Sunday night. He finished with nine catches for 120 yards.
Jashaun Corbin’s 89-Yard Run
Notre Dame had simply dominated Florida State’s offense to this point in the game. Through two drives, the Seminoles had lost 19 yards and not gained a first down. After quarterback Jordan Travis threw incomplete on first down, Florida State was again behind the chains. On second down, Travis handed off to Jashaun Corbin. Last year, this wasn’t a recipe for success against the Irish. In 2020, Notre Dame didn’t give up a 100-yard rusher until their final regular-season game, shutting down Travis Etienne and other premier backs. However, Corbin found a seam, broke an early tackle, and galloped for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Corbin’s run tied the game and set Doak Campbell Stadium rocking again. After succeeding in briefly quieting the raucous crowd with defensive domination, the Irish found themselves in a game after Corbin broke loose.
Brian Kelly’s Sideline Talk with Jack Coan
After averaging under three yards per play in four drives after the game-opening touchdown, Notre Dame’s offense needed a spark.
Head coach Brian Kelly approached Coan on the sideline and proceeded to have a conversation that looked very calm, and Coan immediately nodded and went to his receivers. According to the ESPN broadcast, Coan told his receivers, “I’ve got this”.
After that, Coan began his record-breaking Irish debut in earnest, as he led Notre Dame to a field goal and touchdown on the ensuing possessions. That was good for a 17-14 lead and just a sprinkling of what Coan would do throughout the game. He finished with 366 passing yards – the most by an Irish quarterback in their debut. He also tossed four touchdown passes. After the early success with Mayer, Coan faced some adversity. But his leadership and poise under pressure were as advertised in a sterling debut performance, ultimately helping Notre Dame survive a Week 1 upset effort.
Kyle Hamilton’s Unreal Interception
The second half got off to a roaring start. Florida State scored in just three plays, but the Irish responded with a four-play drive. Irish up 24-20, this game was the ultimate tug-of-war battle. But then, Notre Dame’s best player stepped up. All-American safety Kyle Hamilton had two interceptions, and his third-quarter effort was truly spectacular.
Jordan Travis did what most quarterbacks do – he threw to the other side of the field as Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton started the play on the right hashes and started fading to his left as Travis scrambled. When Travis released the ball, he was at the left hashes. The projected top-10 draft pick accelerated the final 20 yards to make a remarkable diving interception. That spurred the Irish to another touchdown and a two-possession cushion for the first time in the game.
Fourth Down Stop
This moment was courtesy of an odd decision from Florida State head coach Mike Norvell. Faced with 4th & 2 from their own 33, with a little under six minutes to play in the third quarter, the Seminoles went for it. The play broke down, and Travis hurled a deflected pass that was intercepted by cornerback Clarence Lewis. The Irish took the field position and used just three plays to drive 32 yards, punching it in for a 38-20 lead. Finally, it felt like the Irish were in control.
Notre Dame Dials Back The Pressure
However, just as soon as Notre Dame’s offense had kicked into high gear with 21 third-quarter points, the defense began to falter. Almost inexplicably, the Irish dialed back their defensive pressure. New defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman featured three-man fronts that invited the Seminoles to run the ball. With that having been the driving success of their offense, Florida State engineered a 15-play, 75-yard drive. The Seminoles ran the ball eleven times and scored to make it 38-28 after a two-point conversion. The lifeless ‘Noles were back in the game with plenty of time on the clock. Could Notre Dame survive the late Seminole charge? A comfortable advantage turned into a game in doubt once more.
A truly improbable moment happened in the fourth quarter. McKenzie Milton, who doctors predicted would never walk without pain after a 2018 injury, entered a college football game for the first time in almost three years. The former UCF signal-caller was Travis’s backup in this clash. However, when Travis took a big hit that knocked his helmet off, it was Milton’s moment. It was an absolutely surreal moment, as Milton then elevated the Florida State offense in a way that was needed.
Milton completed a 22-yard pass on his first snap, and then a 15-yarder on 3rd and 11 late in the drive. Corbin finished off an 88-yard drive, and the Seminoles were within three. Milton finished 5-7 for 48 yards and opened up Florida State’s short passing game in a way that Travis couldn’t. He was absolutely incredible, making for an exceptionally special moment, despite the eventual result.
This play may have saved the Irish in this game. All the momentum was with the Seminoles, as they were driving to tie or win the game. Facing a 3rd and 7 from the 25-yard line, Milton seemed poised to get another first down, or maybe take a shot at the end zone and the lead. However, the snap never rose above his ankles, rolling backward about ten yards. It could have won the game for Notre Dame, except Milton recovered it and chucked an incomplete pass. That kept the ensuing field goal attempt at a manageable 43 yards, tying the game.
Until that fumbled snap, the defense looked exhausted, having been on the field for much of the fourth quarter. A Florida State touchdown felt like a very realistic possibility, and a poor snap may have allowed Notre Dame to survive.
Another emotional swing of events, as the Irish had 40 seconds to get into field goal range. Mayer had made that a realistic possibility with a 22-yard reception across midfield, punctuated with a partial hurdle. However, one play later, Mayer was open on an out route, and he dropped a pass as he turned upfield. The pass would have left Notre Dame roughly a 47-48 yard field goal for the win.
While it was eventually no-harm, no foul, it was an uncharacteristic drop for Mayer and one that caused an extra fifteen minutes of elevated heart rates among Irish fans.
Missed Field Goal
Quite frankly, it wasn’t until Florida State kicker Ryan Fitzgerald missed wide left that this game felt in Notre Dame’s control. The Irish made a nice defensive stand and originally looked like they had forced a long 50-yard field goal attempt. Ironically, Fitzgerald made that kick, but Norvell had challenged the previous play. He succeeded in overturning a fumble call that made the kick a 37-yarder, but this time, Fitzgerald hooked it.
And finally, after a game of ebb and flow, the Irish finally had the final momentum swing they needed. They didn’t need much offensive yardage, as they gained just a single yard. But it didn’t matter, as kicker Jonathan Doerer’s effort was pure.
Notre Dame Survive Seminoles, Head Back Home
This game was not clean or pure by any stretch for the Irish. But ultimately, what matters is that the ‘0’ in the loss column remains intact. Notre Dame survives another season opener, and it’s not possible to ring up a second straight unbeaten season without winning the first one. While the inconsistent effort could have short-term consequences for the Irish in the polls, it will not matter by the time Playoff rankings are released. The Irish have won 19 straight regular-season games, and they bring a home winning streak of nearly four years back to South Bend next season. They’ll take on Toledo for their home opener.