Not only did Notre Dame record its first win in the Marcus Freeman era, they won the game three times. Protecting a 24-17 advantage with a minute remaining, the Fighting Irish stopped a desperation drive by Cal when a Hail Mary pass from Jack Plummer finally touched the turf in the end zone. This ended a heart-stopping rollercoaster ride in the final minute of the game that will drive Notre Dame fans to their favorite pub to decompress.
The Irish believed they had sealed the victory on the first play of the sequence when Clarence Lewis intercepted a Plummer pass and slid to the ground in celebration. Unfortunately, a targeting hit on linebacker J.D. Bertrand negated the pick and the Bears kept the ball. On a third down play moments later, Jayson Ademilola sacked Plummer and the ball squirted free. Notre Dame’s Tariq Bracy scooped it up and returned it 70 yards for an apparent clinching score. However, replay showed Plummer was down while still in possession, so Cal had one play left with five seconds on the clock.
Plummer dropped back and heaved the ball into a beehive of humanity at the Irish goal line. It was batted around by multiple players before bouncing on the chest of a Cal receiver who was laying on his back. He was too surprised to corral it though and it rolled harmlessly to the ground.
Notre Dame earned its first victory in ten months but few people would have predicted it after the first quarter. The Irish offense began the game with historic ineptitude on its first five possessions. Quarterback Drew Pyne was obviously rattled in his first start and his line did not help him with a pair of false start penalties on third down plays. The hosts went three and out four times but were poised to gain their initial first down when the period ended.
On a second down and two play to begin the second quarter, Pyne fumbled the snap and the Bears recovered on the Notre Dame 33. Cal’s offense had been equally inept to that point but they quickly capitalized. Plummer hit J. Michael Sturdivant with an 18-yard scoring strike and a 7-0 lead.
A celebration penalty on the Bears helped the Irish return the kickoff to their 40 yard line. Tom Rees called a series of running plays that produced positive yards and Pyne hit a third down pass before the drive stalled. Blake Grupe came on to attempt a 45-yard field goal. The kick went wide but Cal was penalized for being offside on the play.
No one in the stadium saw movement or alignment that would merit a flag. Nevertheless, the Irish secured a first down in the process. Pyne then capitalized by hitting Chris Tyree down the middle for a 21-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Nine minutes remained in the half as Plummer got his team moving with a long scramble to convert on third down. He followed with a 33-yard pass to Hunter to bring the Bears into scoring territory. A textbook open field tackle at the Irish six by safety D.J. Brown stopped the Bears on the next series. Dario Longhetto came on to boot a short field goal for a 10-7 Cal advantage.
Notre Dame tried to respond in the last four minutes of the quarter. Pyne scrambled for a first down but his teammates halted the drive with consecutive false starts on third down. With a few seconds left, Freeman decided to punt instead of asking Pyne to launch a Hail Mary of his own. The half ended with the visitors in front.
The Irish showed plenty of energy as the third period began. A sack by Jayson Ademilola stopped the Bears in their tracks. Rees mixed a few passes with runs by Audric Estime and a targeting call against Cal moved the ball into the red zone. Estime ran it four times from there and ultimately crashed into the end zone. Notre Dame was back in front by 14-10 at the 9:14 mark.
Another scramble by Plummer and powerful runs by DeCarlos Brooks moved the ball to the Irish one yard line. Two subsequent rushes were stopped cold but Plummer broke through on a sneak to regain the lead by 17-14. The offenses that played so poorly in the early going were suddenly scoring at will.
Notre Dame answered with a pass to Lorenzo Styles and hard running by Tyree. Pyne failed to connect with Braden Lenzy on a third down throw and Grupe trotted onto the field for a long field goal attempt. He drilled it from 47-yards to tie the game at 17 just seconds into the final period.
A sack by Jacob Lacey forced Cal to punt the ball back to Notre Dame. Rees continued to mix power runs with short passes as the offensive line started to dominate. A well-thrown play action pass to Estime covered 36 yards and brought the ball to the Bears’ 6-yard line. Pyne hit Michael Mayer on a beautifully run post route on the next play to give the Irish a 24-17 lead.
There were still nine minutes remaining so no one was popping the champagne just yet. Cal managed to stop the Irish ground game but sacks by Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola thwarted Cal’s next two chances to tie the game. One final stop by the Bears defense earned them their last chance with 1:03 left.
The interception by Lewis and the replay reversal of Bracy’s scoop and score made the final sequence a surreal event. Fortunately, the Mother of Jesus did not answer Cal’s final prayer on her home turf and the Irish faithful exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
We saw the good and bad from Pyne but he battled back from a shaky start until the ledger added up in his favor. The most significant takeaways were the second half dominance by both lines and smart, effective play calling by Rees. Perhaps knowing Pyne’s physical limitations helped to focus Rees on what would work best. Perhaps the offense is just starting to find its identity. Perhaps it is a bit of both.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions:
- Will Pyne be able to connect with his receivers on play-action passes? Yes, there were a number of effective throws, culminating in the shot to Estime to set up the winning touchdown.
- Which defense will apply the most effective pressure on the quarterback? Both teams struggled early but Notre Dame solved its protection issues. The Irish defensive front dominated the second half with a relentless pass rush.
- Can Tom Rees devise a ground game without Buchner to run the zone read? Yes. Tweaks to the blocking scheme helped as well. Tyree and Estime ran hard through some nice holes.
- Which special teams will contribute impact plays? Both kickers missed a 45-yard field goal attempt but Grupe’s rocket from 47-yards to tie the score was the special teams play of the game.
- Will the Irish finally discover a reserve of energy in the fourth quarter? Definitely. The tackling and pass rush materialized when needed most. The team needs to work on its Hail Mary defense though. Just knock the ball down, fellas.
- Can Plummer maintain his 69% completion rate against the Irish? Not quite. Plummer was 16 of 37 for 184 yards. That’s lousy.
- Will Notre Dame’s defense finally force a turnover? Yes, they forced two……ummm……until they didn’t.
- How much should NBC pay for the privilege of broadcasting ND Football? The sky is the limit after today’s instant classic (note sarcasm).
Winning games is going to be hard this year. Let’s hope the first one will prove to be the toughest.