Charlie Weis never had one, the best he could do was a “Bush Push” fueled signature loss. The biggest rap on Brian Kelly was that he could never win the big game, well he finally did when the Irish defeated Clemson in pandemic 2020. It took Kelly over 10 years to get that signature win.
The latest Irish coach in search of a career defining, crowd pleasing, field storming signature win was hired 11 months ago and in game 10 of his tenure Marcus Freeman now has a signature win.
“Man, this is a game I’ll never forget,” Freeman declared postgame.
Well, you don’t easily forget signature wins, but to Freeman there is more to it than that. “That’s the beauty of being here (at Notre Dame). We got a whole bunch of kids that want to be national champions, first-round picks, but they’re selfless and they understand about the bigger picture, that it’s bigger than themselves.”
Saturday that selfless group pooled all their talents for the common Irish good and did so with devastating on Clemson, impact.
Special teams made their now “all but taken for granted” weekly contribution with a 19 yard run to the end zone by Prince Kollie off of a Jordan Bothello blocked punt. It was the sixth punt block of the year by the Irish, a new Notre Dame season record. The score was the game’s first and secured an early lead for the Irish and juiced the home crowd early on.
The defense for their part delivered 4 sacks, 4 hurries, 7 tackles for loss, and 2 Ben Morrison interceptions, one of which was of the 96 yard pick six variety. Clemson, was shut out for the first three quarters and held to just 90 yards rushing and 281 total yards of offense. The leader of the Irish defensive band continues to be linebacker JD Bertrand who had 12 tackles, a sack and 2 tackles for loss on the day.
The Irish offense held of their end of the collective. Their contribution was driven by an offensive line now operating at a level not seen since 2017 (which not coincidently was the last season of Harry Hiestand’s first stint with the Irish). The blocking was so effective against a highly touted Clemson front that the Irish had not one, but two running backs in triple digits. Logan Diggs, battered the Tigers for 114 yards and Audric Estime pounded his way to 109. In all ND totaled 263 yards rushing, the 5th time they have exceeded the 200 yard mark on the year.
Drew Pyne, suddenly looked to have regained some of the swagger lost somewhere around Stanford week as he confidently exhorted the crowd to make more noise. And on a blustery, gusty day Pyne was not statistically impressive, but he was effective. 9-17 for just 85 yards, and a 17 yard TD pass to Michael Mayer, a catch that made Mayer the all-time leader in TD catches by a ND tight end at 16. Pyne missed a couple open receivers, but did chip in 22 yards rushing including a 5-yard bootleg into the end zone. More importantly perhaps, he did not throw an interception.
The team wide contributions added up to an Irish victory party on the field that as the last seconds ticked down was joined by the celebration in the stands as thousands of Irish faithful stormed the field.
What lies ahead?
The home stretch of the Irish season will include two games in which the Irish will be favored and a third which now looks to be a tossup.
In the immediate future the now bowl eligible Irish will get to work on the Navy option. The Midshipmen always present a challenge because of their unique option style of offense. The Irish are early 17.5 point favorites to go to Baltimore next Saturday and get a win. Navy is 3-6, losers to 7-2 Cincinnati yesterday 20-10. The closeness of that score and the low point total presumably will serve as a warning to the Irish that Navy, despite their record, is up to their typical possession limiting, clock controlling option football tricks.
The week thereafter the Irish will return to South Bend for their home finale against Boston College. The Eagles stand at 2-7 in an injury plagued season. Among those injuries is former ND QB Phil Jurkovec who sat out this past week’s 38-31 loss to Duke with a knee injury. Jurkovec’s future status is unknown.
Those two games that the Irish should win will set up a regular season ending tilt at Southern Cal. The #9 Trojans stand at 8-1, their only loss came to #14 Utah by one point. USC has the look of a high scoring team that gives up a fair amount of points and a lot of yards. The Irish have won four straight against the Trojans, but this is now Lincoln Riley’s team, not Clay Helton’s.
If the Irish can run the table and get to 9-3, and they are perhaps close to an even bet to do so, lots of bowl possibilities will be open to the Irish. Unlikely, but maybe even a New Year’s Six. But before the Irish can think about that, they need to focus on staying on their current trajectory. After all, the memories of Marshall and Stanford are much too fresh to take anything for granted.
An evolving Marcus Freeman seems to understand the importance of not letting success impact the imperative of staying focused on the task at hand and the constant need for improvement. In response to a question after Clemson about the next steps in building the Irish program he said, “The challenge will be when we have success, to continue to have that mindset of improvement and selflessness and continuing to just stay together.”
Translated: Marcus Freeman’s signature win over Clemson is yesterday’s story, it’s now Navy week.