Notre Dame wasn’t going to come up short in another big game.
On the heels of an excruciating, last-second home loss to Ohio State last week, the No. 11 Fighting Irish went on the road Saturday and pulled out a thrilling 21-14 win over No. 17 Duke.
Notre Dame blew a 13-0 lead and allowed Duke to storm back and take a 14-13 lead with 9:17 to play. The Fighting Irish sputtered offensively for most of the night, and things looked bleak when Duke pinned Sam Hartman and the Irish offense at their own 5-yard line with 2:35 to play.
But Hartman wouldn’t let his team lose.
Hartman, Notre Dame’s transfer quarterback, is the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes from his time at Wake Forest. But the biggest play of the night was made with Hartman’s legs. With under a minute remaining in regulation, Notre Dame faced a fourth-and-16 from the Duke 47.
Hartman dropped back to pass and nobody was open, so the sixth-year senior took off and ran. He knew a huge hit was coming, but Hartman still dove into traffic and picked up a clutch 17 yards for a first down to keep Notre Dame’s hopes alive.
After Hartman’s clutch run, the Irish were in field-goal range and went back to the ground.
Instead of simply setting up a field goal try, Audric Estime broke through the Duke front and reeled off a 30-yard touchdown run. It capped off a gutsy 95-yard drive and proved to be the game-winner for Notre Dame.
Following a successful two-point conversion, Duke and quarterback Riley Leonard would get one more opportunity with 31 seconds left to send the game to overtime.
Instead, the Notre Dame defense got a strip-sack on Leonard to seal a gutsy victory.
With the win, Notre Dame improved to 5-1 and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive. On top of that, Notre Dame increased its regular season winning streak over ACC opponents to 30 games.
Duke had a chance to start a season 5-0 for the first time since 1994. Instead, the Blue Devils fell to 4-1.
Notre Dame built lead, but offense sputtered
Notre Dame used a fake punt to set up an Estime touchdown run on Notre Dame’s first offensive possession. But that would be the Irish’s only trip to the end zone until Estime’s score in the game’s final minute.
The Irish, missing several receivers due to injury, really struggled to put drives together. There was a field-goal drive in the second quarter and another in the third, but Notre Dame really struggled to move the ball. The Blue Devils keyed in on Estime and the Notre Dame running attack. Before his game-winning 30-yard burst, he had just 42 yards on 16 carries.
That made life really difficult for Hartman. Freshman tight end Mitchell Evans was the only Notre Dame pass-catcher who could consistently separate. Evans caught six passes for 134 yards. Notre Dame’s other receivers had nine catches for 88 yards combined.
Duke put together a few drives in the first half but missed two field goals, including a 25-yarder right before halftime. In the second half, the Blue Devils began to wear on the Notre Dame front. Duke doesn’t have many elite offensive weapons, but has a veteran offensive line and an experienced dual-threat QB in Leonard.
Leonard was only 12-of-27 for 134 yards through the air, but his 88 rushing yards were instrumental in wearing down Notre Dame’s defense. And his lone touchdown pass of the game came on a third-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the fourth quarter.
It put Duke up 14-13 with 9:17 to go. But it wasn’t enough as Notre Dame put together that 95-yard touchdown drive to win the game.
What’s next for Notre Dame?
Now 5-1, Notre Dame feels like a team that is going to play in several more close games as the season progresses.
There’s a lot to like about this Notre Dame team, but the Irish are going to have some offensive issues against teams they can’t bully in the run game. There were several receivers out vs. Duke, but the lack of high-end pass-catchers is definitely a weakness on this team.
The schedule in the coming weeks is quite difficult, too. The Irish will travel to Louisville for another prime-time start next Saturday. The Cardinals improved to 5-0 with a win over NC State on Friday.
From there, Notre Dame will host No. 8 USC on Oct. 14 and then there will be a trip to Clemson on Nov. 4. If the Irish want to play for a national championship, there is no margin for error after the Ohio State loss last week.