One week after a grueling loss to Ohio State on a last-second touchdown, Notre Dame produced some last-minute heroics of their own on Saturday night. It was not pretty, but the No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish rallied late to defeat the No. 17 Duke Blue Devils 21-14 in Durham, NC. It is the first win for the Irish over a ranked team this season.
Sam Hartman Rises to the Occasion
Due to a Duke defense that pressured him relentlessly all night, Sam Hartman struggled to find his rhythm against Duke. But on the game-winning drive, Hartman and the Irish offense delivered in the clutch. Pinned inside their own 5-yard line, the Irish displayed determination and resilience late in the game. Despite being under pressure from an aggressive Duke defense, Hartman utilized his arm and his legs. A 17-yard scramble on a crucial fourth down proved to be a game-saving and possibly season-saving moment. Hartman delivered clutch throws (4 of 8 for 52 yards) on the drive and his pocket awareness was noteworthy during the pivotal sequence.
Facing a daunting fourth-and-16 inside the final minute of play, Hartman came up big. Struggling to spot an open receiver while evading pressure by rolling to his right, Hartman made a daring decision to run. On the receiving end of a punishing collision at the end of his scramble, Hartman gained 17 yards on the play to prolong the drive.
For the game, Hartman completed just 15-of-31 pass attempts for 222 yards. It was not a crisp effort from the experienced Irish signal-caller and arguably his worst performance of the year. On the positive side, Hartman has yet to throw an interception this season. Missing a trio of wide receivers out with injuries, Hartman once again utilized his tight ends effectively. Mitchell Evans, who stood out against Ohio State thanks to a pair of acrobatic catches, had another strong game. He hauled in six receptions for 134 yards.
Game-Winning Score for Audric Estime
Running back Audric Estime also struggled to get on track for much of the game. On the final drive, though, he stepped up after Hartman’s critical run. Estime eluded a mass of defenders and sprinted for a 30-yard touchdown run with just 21 seconds remaining. The game-winning score capped a 95-yard drive that lifted the Irish to victory. Following Estime’s score, Hartman found Rico Flores for a 2-point conversion, giving the Irish a seven-point lead that they would not relinquish. All told, Estime rushed for 81 yards on 18 carries, and he scored a pair of touchdowns.
Notre Dame Defense Seals the Victory
Duke had one last opportunity to even the score following the go-ahead touchdown. The final offensive possession, however, turned into a nightmare for the Blue Devils. Dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard lost possession of the ball as he attempted to throw, with Howard Cross III stripping it away. The loose ball was recovered by Notre Dame, sealing the victory for the Irish. The play left Leonard injured on the ground as Cross inadvertently rolled onto Leonard’s right leg. Reports following the game indicate that Leonard’s right ankle injury is not season-ending.
“It was a rough week, and everybody knows that, but they continued to battle,” said Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman in his post-game press conference. “And then to win that game the way we did, it’s not how you want it on the front end. But that’s a sweet victory because what I told them last week is: ‘Great teams find a way to win when it matters the most. They find a way to execute. I’m proud of this group. In the end, there’s a lot to clean up. There’s always a lot to clean up. But for those guys to keep battling, it’s a great feeling to coach for them.”
Key Takeaways for Notre Dame
Despite the much-needed win, the Irish have plenty of areas to improve. Called for 12 penalties, totaling 70 yards, the Irish hurt themselves throughout the game. Of the 12 penalties, nine were pre-snap. They included five false starts on offense and three on the defense jumping offsides. In comparison, Duke was called for just two penalties for 28 yards. Clearly, the Irish have work to do to clean up the inconsistencies.
The Irish offense endured a challenging outing against Duke. The coaching performance fell below par, and the on-field execution left much to be desired. In third down efficiency, Notre Dame was just three of 15 for the game. On fourth down, however, the Irish converted on all three fourth down attempts, including a successful fake punt in the first quarter. When it truly mattered, however, the offense rose to the occasion and clinched the game on a thrilling final drive.
The come-from-behind victory over the Blue Devils marked Notre Dame’s 30th consecutive regular-season win against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. Despite the ugly win, Notre Dame must play cleaner football in the weeks ahead. With No. 25 Louisville (5-0) on deck this weekend, and No. 9 USC (5-0) at home on Oct. 14, the opponents aren’t getting any easier for Notre Dame.
The Irish encountered a setback in their College Football Playoff aspirations with the loss to Ohio State. But a formidable defensive performance against Duke’s solid ground game and an offense that mounted a comeback when Duke was on the brink of a significant victory, allowed the Irish to escape Durham with a win. Freeman and his coaching staff must get the inconsistencies addressed if the Irish are going to entertain aspirations of a CFP berth.