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Notre Dame Football

Hartman Saves Postseason Hopes, Leads Notre Dame to Late Comeback Over No. 17 Duke

September 30, 2023

Quarterback Sam Hartman led Notre Dame on a 10-play, 95-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that finished with 38 seconds left, giving the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish a 21-14 victory over No. 17 Duke (4-1). 

No. 11 Notre Dame escaped Durham with its playoff hopes intact, improving to 5-1 and picking up its first win over a ranked opponent this season. 

“When Sam Hartman is your quarterback, you have a lot of faith, and he's been in those moments,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “He's not a first-time quarterback. The moment wasn't too big for him. I don't want to just give credit to one person, but the plays he made on that series were huge.”

The Irish received the ball at their own 5-yard line, trailing 14-13 with 2:35 left in the fourth quarter. Up to that point in the second half,  they had produced 69 yards of offense on 4.1 yards per play. 

On the game-winning drive, Hartman completed 4 of 8 passes for 52 yards and scrambled for a pivotal first down on 4th-and-16, diving 1 yard beyond the line to gain. 

“There's not a lot of good calls for fourth and not long,” Hartman said.

He immediately spiked the ball at the Duke 30-yard line. On the next play, running back Audric Estimé carried the ball up the middle, broke free and sprinted away from the defense into the end zone. 

The Irish converted on the 2-point conversion when Hartman found receiver Rico Flores open over the middle, giving Notre Dame a 7-point advantage. 

Duke still had a chance with 31 seconds to go, but defensive tackle Howard Cross strip-sacked Blue Devil quarterback Riley Leonard on the drive's second play, and Marist Liufau jumped on it. 

It's the first fumble the Notre Dame defense has recovered all season in 11 opportunities. 

Offensive Woes

Statistically, Hartman had his worst game of the season, going 15-31 for 222 yards without a touchdown. 

Of course, Duke entered the game with the No. 4 overall pass efficiency defense and Hartman was without a handful of his favorite outside weapons. 

In the last week, the Irish lost scholarship receivers Jaden Greathouse and Jayden Thomas due to lower-body injury. Receivers Matt Salerno and Deion Colzie were already out for extended periods. 

That left Notre Dame with three wideouts: underclassmen Rico Flores Jr. and Tobias Merriweather and senior Chris Tyree, who converted from running back in the spring. 

The receiver room finished with five catches on 15 targets for 65 yards. 

“Obviously, with injuries to three guys now in that room, we didn't have much depth,” Freeman said. “Braylon James is close. He's getting there, but he just wasn't ready today. What you see, of course, of the game, when you can't rotate wideouts, they get tired. I'm so proud of the gutsy performance that they did have out there.”

Still, that enabled the Blue Devil defense to bracket tight end Mitchell Evans, who still snagged six catches for 134 yards, and hone in on the Irish ground attack. 

For the most part, it worked. Take away runs for 17 and 30 yards from Hartman and Estime on the final drive and the Irish ran for 112 yards for 3.7 yards per carry. 

That’s nearly two yards below their season average. 

Still, the Irish found a way to win after giving away a victory over No. 4 Ohio State the weekend prior.

“It's not how you want it on the front end,” Freeman said. “You don't want it to come down to a fourth and 18th, or whatever it was. But that's a sweet victory because what I told him last week is great teams find a way to win when it matters the most.”

Pre-Snap Nightmares

The refs flagged Notre Dame 12 times for 70 yards on Saturday, with nine pre-snap penalties. That includes five false starts and three defenders jumping offsides. 

“We've got to clean up lining up offsides,” Freeman said. “That happened twice a day, and some of the pre-snap penalties (were) self-inflicted. I don't know if it's the week. I don't know, but we've got to fix it, though.”

It’s the first time the Irish have recorded that many penalties in a game since a 23-17 loss to No. 4 Georgia in 2019. 

That’s also the last season where the Irish had at least eight penalties in three games, which occurred five times that fall. 

The discrepancy between Notre Dame and Duke proved dramatic.

Duke didn’t commit its first penalty until 42 seconds to go in the third quarter and finished with two flags for 28 yards. 

Big Picture

The Irish bounced back from a heartbreaking loss to No. 4 Ohio State last weekend. 

Still, it wasn’t the clean game Notre Dame needed to build momentum before facing two more undefeated opponents in back-to-back weeks, including No. 8 USC on Oct. 14. 

They’ll need to do a much better job containing the quarterback that weekend after allowing Leonard to rush for 88 yards.

Trojan quarterback Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, will do significantly more damage while also completing a much higher percentage of passes. 

Leonard went 12-17 for 134 yards, a touchdown and an interception. 

What’s Next?

The Irish stay on the road to take on a second-straight undefeated ACC opponent in Louisville (5-0) next Saturday.

In coach Jeff Brohm’s first season at his alma mater, the Cardinals are unbeaten for the first time since 2013. They overcame a 10-0 halftime deficit on Friday to defeat N.C. State, 13-10. 

Louisville averages 494.8 yards per game but was held to 306 yards versus the Wolfpack, including 20 rush yards on 29 carries. 

The Irish will need to eliminate the pre-snap penalties on the road. The Cardinals already announced a sellout at L&N Federal Credit Union Stadium, with a capacity of 60,800.

It’s their first sellout since Notre Dame’s 35-17 victory over Louisville there to open the season in 2019.

“Give Duke credit for the crowd noise,” Freeman said. “We were trying to go on clap; we were trying to go on for a sound, and it was pretty loud out there. That's something that whenever we travel, we gotta be prepared for, so we got to do a better job there.”

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