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Highlights: Notre Dame 24, Cal 17 — A chaotic final minute, a repeated play call and late-game dominance from the Irish defensive line

Marcus Freeman is finally off the snide, as Michael Mayer gave Notre Dame a late lead and Isaiah Foskey and a ferocious defense slammed the door in the Irish's 24-17 win over Cal in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman said he had a conversation with God. Just when it looked like Notre Dame had clinched him his first win with a Clarence Lewis interception, a targeting flag on Irish captain JD Bertrand gave Cal new life. Then Freeman’s first head-coaching triumph looked to have an exclamation point as TaRiq Bracy raced into the end zone with a recovered fumble in tow, only for Bears quarterback Jack Plummer to have been ruled down beforehand.

As much as Freeman didn’t want to think about the worst while Notre Dame clung to a 24-17 lead, it was only human nature.

“That’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “Our minds can drift, mine included, to the outcome, to the future, to ‘Okay, last week … if we can beat Cal,’ but you can’t work like that. The minute that happens, get your mind back to what it takes to give yourself a chance to have success.”

Freeman could at least work on the defensive play calls each time Cal got the ball back. Junior running back Chris Tyree could do nothing but watch as Plummer heaved the ball toward the end zone and it bounced through four players’ hands — credit to Jac Collinsworth for adding seven additional ‘I’s to “is” as that call (below) suddenly needed to be elongated, presumably not an intentional reference to Clay Davis’ catchphrase.

“I was telling [safeties DJ Brown and Brandon Joseph], they almost gave me a heart attack out there at the end of the game,” Tyree said. “It’s really exciting football to watch, especially when it goes down to the wire like that. That’s going to be a moment we never forget.”

Barroom hypotheticals years from now will wonder what if Cal had held onto that pass. Would the Bears have gone for two and the win sans overtime? Logically, it would have made sense, but it is a fool’s errand to predict what a head coach is going to do in that decisive moment. Either way, senior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey would not have worried.

He was certain the Irish would retain that tenuous lead, as they did to give Freeman a head-coaching win and halt some of the short-circuited panics outside the program.

“It was a roller coaster for sure,” Lacey said. “... We knew if we were on the field, the game was going to be over, regardless. We weren’t worried about the next play. We weren’t worried about them scoring. We just knew we had to execute, and that’s what we did.”

If there was a turning point of this game, it was when Plummer’s final pass found the turf with four zeros on the clock. But before that, Lacey’s confidence was increasingly valid as Notre Dame made Plummer’s life miserable in the fourth quarter. On four separate drives, the Irish brought down the Purdue transfer in the backfield. It was not a coincidence that Cal did not manage another first down on any of those drives following the sacks.

In the first 11 quarters of the season, up until that fourth quarter, Notre Dame had managed six total sacks. Putting Plummer on his backside with frequency turned the Irish defensive front into the expected force it was entering the season.

“It’s everything we worked for,” Lacey said after notching two of the day’s six sacks. “It’s one of our keys to victory, finishing in the fourth quarter. We talk about it every week. We fell short a couple times, but now we’re on the right track. We can still do even better, we still had some mistakes.”

At this point, it is almost comical, given how that final Cal drive unfolded, but Notre Dame is now through three full games this season having not yet forced a turnover. There is some precedent to that, given the Irish did not force a turnover in four separate games in 2020 and three in 2017, but those were all separated, not a streak like this stretch.

Grouping games in a row may be too convenient, especially when discussing a sport featuring an oblong ball, but the fact remains, Notre Dame has not forced a turnover in 2022, obviously excluding the three fumbles recovered on New Year’s Day.

Freeman saw the Irish clawing at the ball against the Bears, encouragement enough to ease his concerns.

“I did see it was more deliberate,” he said. “We were trying to get the ball out. DJ Brown gets a penalty for trying to rip the ball out, and he throws the guy down. We have to stop on the whistle, and that was the right call, but it was deliberate.

“We just can’t buy one at the end of the game. JD (Bertrand) gets the targeting, almost get a chance the last play of the game.”

Of the 11 games since 2017 in which Notre Dame did not force a turnover before this year, it went 8-3, with two of those losses coming in the costly November of 2017 and the other against Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff semifinal.

Not to look ahead to next week at North Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC or ESPN) too quickly, but the Tar Heels have turned over the ball four times through three games.

More than usual, the play of the game less one play and more a repeated play call. Trailing 10-7 shortly after halftime, gifted a 1st-and-10 just 14 yards from the end zone, the Irish did away with flair. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees dispensed with creativity. Speed on the edges may be what separates college football’s few title contenders from the rest, but in that moment, all Notre Dame needed was some old-fashioned bully ball.

So Rees called the same play four times in a row. Without knowing the football-ese play call, all Rees probably needed to say into his headset was, “Audric, up the middle, again.” Blunt communication from the coaches’ booth could have been the modus operandi of the day.

“We ran the same play four times,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “Our O-line was battling their butts off. We give the ball to [sophomore running back Audric Estime], he falls forward. I trust those guys. It’s pretty easy when I can just hand it off and score a touchdown.”

If the measure of an offense’s most basic competence is its ability to gain a yard when it needs to gain a yard, successfully relying on Estime and the offensive line was as notable a shift for the Irish as those sacks provided by Lacey & Co. were on the other side of the ball. Notre Dame exerted its will, capped off by Estime’s dive across the goal line from a yard out.

“Don’t stop,” Estime said after finishing the day with 76 yards on 18 carries. “You keep doing things that work. That play was working. We had the momentum. The O-line was just pushing guys off the line and opening up holes for me. We just executed and finished that drive. We ran the same four plays, if it works, don’t stop.”

That chaotic final minute was not the only moment human nature threatened the proper sideline headspace. When Cal responded to Estime’s touchdown with its own 10-play, 75-yard trip to the end zone to retake a 17-14 lead, Freeman could sense the Irish sideline veering toward déjà vu. The first-year head coach stopped it in its tracks.

“I said, this isn’t going to be a repeat. This isn’t going to be here we go again. We’re going to change the outcome of this game.”

Notre Dame scored on its next two drives while giving up only 81 yards on the Bears’ final 23 plays. If nothing else, that was the first time the Irish scored on consecutive drives this season.

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