Hartman rewards Freeman’s ‘faith’ as Irish rally

DURHAM, N.C. — Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman never wavered in his belief that quarterback Sam Hartman would lead the Irish to a comeback win against Duke on Saturday night.

Even if Hartman had less than three minutes and nearly the entire length of the football field to get it done.

Trailing 14-13, the Notre Dame offense took the field from its own 5-yard line. Duke’s sellout crowd was in a frenzy, sensing a huge moment was on its doorstep — the potential to beat two top-15 teams in the first five weeks of the season.

But Hartman is no rookie. Now in his sixth season, he has essentially been a starter since his freshman season at Wake Forest in 2018. He has played in this stadium previously; he has led fourth-quarter comebacks previously, too. He nearly did it a week ago against Ohio State.

Notre Dame started moving the ball. The first big third-down conversion came on third-and-10, with a 19-yard pass to tight end Mitchell Evans. But an offensive pass interference penalty threatened to stall the drive and hand Duke the win. Anticipating what was about to happen, several Duke students hopped down onto the field, almost giddy.

Facing fourth-and-16 with 51 seconds left from the Duke 47, Hartman dropped back. No one was open, so he decided to take off running. Duke, which had stopped the powerful Notre Dame running game for the bulk of the game, lost sight of Hartman. He gained 17 yards. First down.

The students looked at each other as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”

Notre Dame spiked the ball on the next play. Then, Audric Estime ran 30 yards for the game-winning score with 31 seconds left on the clock, giving Notre Dame a 21-14 win and its 30th straight regular-season win over an ACC team — passing Florida State (1992-95) for the longest such streak.

As heartbreaking for the Irish as last week’s last-second 17-14 loss to Ohio State was, this week provided the euphoria that comes with winning.

“You [have] all the feelings that you can think of and fathom running off that field,” Hartman said afterward. “Those moments are very few and fleeting. You only get 12, and if you’re lucky you win most of those and then the other ones are heartbreaking.

“Last week was heartbreaking, and to come back and show resilience, it’s really Coach [Freeman]. His messaging never changes. You don’t feel like, ‘Oh because we lost, he doesn’t like us.’ He took the blame and we all took the blame, took a look in the mirror, came out here and executed.”

Freeman went back to the Ohio State game as a teachable moment for everyone — beyond the 10 men on the field. He mentioned Hartman failing to get a fourth-and-1 early in the third quarter on a run that went for no gain.

“He thought we got it, and we didn’t,” Freeman said. “There can’t be a maybe in that situation, so I don’t care if it’s fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-18. If you’re going to take off, you have to make sure we get a first down, and that’s what he did.”

On Saturday, Freeman said he told the offense before it took the field for the game-winning drive to forget about what had happened previously and focus on each play. Notre Dame struggled throughout the game to get its running game going, as the Duke defensive front set the tempo. Before the late Estime run, the Fighting Irish had only 129 yards rushing in the game.

But with Hartman, the game is never really over.

“When Sam Hartman is your quarterback, you have a lot of faith,” Freeman said. “He’s been in those moments; he’s not a first-time quarterback. This 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 ability to run for it, I truly believe in my heart he learned from last week’s fourth-and-1.”

Freeman said Estime was supposed to have gone down at the 1-yard line in that situation so the Irish could let the clock run down and then kick the game-winning field goal.

“We practice that. We probably should go down right there at the 1-yard line and kick a field goal and win the game that way,” Freeman said. “I’m glad he scored. I’m glad we won.”

Said Estime: “Not going to lie, I saw an opportunity and I took it.”

The Notre Dame defense kept the Irish in the game, slowing down Blue Devils quarterback Riley Leonard for long stretches. Duke had the ball with 2:46 left with a chance to put the game away, but Jordan Waters lost 2 yards on third down, forcing a pooch punt down to the 5 to give Notre Dame its last shot.

Hartman joked he wanted to buy defensive coordinator Al Golden “a Ferrari or something because he kept us in this game and that defense played their hearts out and gave us that chance.”

On his fourth-down conversion, Hartman said, “There’s not a lot of good calls for fourth and that long. Really it comes down to our defense. Everyone’s going to point to that as the game winner, but as you know last week, the defense has to give us a chance to get the ball back and go down and score.”

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