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Notre Dame Football

Matt Salerno, a Life-Long Notre Dame Fan, Makes Improbable Catch Against Ohio State

September 7, 2022
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On Saturday evening against No. 2 Ohio State, fifth-year wide receiver Matt Salerno played eight offensive snaps, but made one of the most memorable plays of the game. 

Early in the second quarter, Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner fired a pass to Salerno 30 yards downfield on third down with two yards to go. Covered well by an Ohio State defensive back, Salerno reached for the underthrown ball as he turned toward his outside shoulder. 

As he fell to the ground, he tipped the ball up in the air twice before securing the catch on his backside for a 31-yard gain.

“At that moment, really nothing goes through your head. It's all just slow motion almost,” Salerno said. “I just remember once the ball was tipped, making sure that DB wasn't able to catch it, which was what helped me to stay focused on it. I was fortunate that it stayed close enough to my body that I could make the catch.”

The catch extended Notre Dame’s offensive possession and lead to the lone Irish touchdown of the game. On the drive, Notre Dame ran 10 plays for 87 yards, while also running 5:10 off the clock.

In addition to receiving rave reviews from the ESPN broadcast, this was a monumental moment for Salerno, a former walk-on and life-long Notre Dame fan.

He planned to attend college in South Bend regardless of his opportunities on the football team. 

“I decided I was coming to Notre Dame before I even knew I had an opportunity to walk on to the team,” Salerno said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to be on the team as well.”

But his dream was always to play football at Notre Dame, just like his grandfather, Frank Salerno, did for a brief time in the 1950s. 

As a high school senior, he shared his film with then-wide receivers coach Del Alexanders. 

“He forwarded my email to someone,” Salerno said, ‘and they basically said, 'we like your film, but let us know when you get in first, and then we'll talk.’”

Once Salerno was admitted, he spoke with members of the Notre Dame football staff for a month or two before the staff offered him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.

He entered fall camp as a freshman in 2019 with his eyes wide open from disbelief. Everyone was so much bigger and stronger than him. At first, he doubted if he even belonged on the scout team, but over time he began to compete and win reps against players who contributed on Saturdays. 

He gained more and more confidence and soon felt he could work his way onto the depth chart.

“I really thought I had a shot before my sophomore spring,” Salerno said. ”Then we had one practice, and COVID made a mess of everything. That was when Coach [Tommy] Rees became the offensive coordinator, too, and I had a good relationship with him.”

He barely played that fall. He saw the field just once during garbage times in a 66-14 win over New Mexico.

“It was equally tough as it was easy,” Salerno said. “It’s easy in the sense that it’s been my dream to come to be at Notre Dame for my whole life, so I really have nothing to complain about. 

“On the other hand, it's difficult when you feel like you’re performing in practice, and not really seeing the field. I was just trying to stay balanced and keep that perspective.”

By the 2021 season, he had earned a significant role as the team’s main punt returner. In both his junior and senior seasons, he appeared in 11 games and eventually earned a scholarship.

Now, as a contributing member of the offense, Salerno is in the position to make plays for his team, but that also comes with outside criticism, especially after a loss like the one that occurred on Saturday against Ohio State. 

Against the Buckeyes, for instance, fans were upset the wide receiver core only accounted for five catches and 139 yards of offense. 

Salerno also drew ire for an offensive pass interference call he received in the second half, which ended up stalling a promising drive.

The play occurred on another throw down the sideline. With the ball in the air, the defender stopped and threw his arms up, which forced a collision as the pair became entangled with one another. 

“I thought it was just 50-50 call,” Salerno said. “Unfortunately, it didn't go my way, but I think just as a learning experience for next time, I've got to be aware of that and not leave any doubt or leave it in the referee's hands.”

He says the best way to prevent such a play from happening again is to improve technically and soundly beat his defender off the line of scrimmage. If the defender had been on his back hip, there’s no way Salerno could have run into him.

Disappointed after the loss, Salerno wisely did his best to avoid social media and any overtly negative tweets. He also received a text from his grandfather after the game, which served as a well-timed reminder of why he’s worked so hard to be in the position to contribute.

“I've always felt like I came here to finish what he started,” he said, “so to get a text from him and then just call him right after and have a good conversation, it was a good experience.”

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