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Highlights: Notre Dame 35, No. 4 Clemson 14 — Morrison’s interceptions, Mayer’s record, Marcus Freeman’s resolve

Notre Dame welcomed No. 4 Clemson to South Bend and won in commanding fashion, 35-14, to earn their first win over a top-10 team since 2020.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Benjamin Morrison remembered Syracuse targeting him a week ago. The Orange completed a 30-yard pass on the Notre Dame freshman cornerback to key its momentary comeback. While most defensive backs survive thanks to goldfish-like short memories, Morrison instead relishes those missteps.

He stashed that mistake away, a route where Syracuse receiver D’Marcus Adams looked to have an in- or an out-option, taking the deep in path. Morrison knew Clemson would test him downfield similarly, and when the No. 4 Tigers (8-1) did so, Morrison sealed Notre Dame’s 35-14 upset on Saturday.

“All week I knew what kind of game this was,” Morrison said after his career day of two picks and seven tackles, the latter note overlooked because the former accomplishment was so decisive. “I knew they were going to test me off the previous games on what I had put on film, so I knew I had to kind of just really lock in and hone in on what I had to accomplish.”

In Clemson’s defense, the first few times it tested Morrison resulted in only incompletions. But with each pass he successfully defensed or after a particular third-and-seven he broke up, Morrison’s confidence edged closer to absolute.

“Once I was able to see things, I knew I was pretty locked in,” he said. “Once they started testing me, and things were going my way, I just felt good, so I kept going.”

That led to his first interception, a crossing route on which he said he is instructed to undercut the receiver, trusting the Irish safeties to keep a big play from breaking loose behind him. By undercutting the target, Morrison should have a better chance of knocking down the pass, or in the case of Tigers backup quarterback Cade Klubnik’s first pass attempt Saturday night, intercepting it.

“I was praying he was throwing it,” Morrison said.

He might not have prayed on the next possession, already beaten once on the drive, when Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei targeted senior receiver Joseph Ngata.

“That one was kind of cool because I’ve been struggling with that position all year long,” Morrison said. “Back-shoulder fade, back-shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. So today I was really focused on the details.

“Once I had him in the position I wanted to, I could have just played the man and [broken up the pass], but I trusted in my abilities and flipped my head around, and there the ball was.”

There indeed. Morrison made the leaping interception, managed to plant his feet inbounds, and then was sprung loose by a quick block from senior linebacker Marist Liufau. Morrison had to evade a valiant effort at a diving tackle from Tigers sophomore running back Will Shipley, but once he had done that, there was only one thing left to do.

“Honestly, I just ran.”

Morrison did not realize he was certain to score until he had crossed the goal line, unfortunate for him that Notre Dame Stadium has a video board in only one end zone, not the one he was racing toward. Morrison literally handed the ball to the referee once he had scored, very much acting like he had been there before when he very much had not.

Morrison’s two interceptions had turned a tense 14-0 evening into a 28-0 party, the eventual meeting of 77,000 fans at midfield preceded by Morrison’s reservations for six in the end zone.

Suffice it to say, Morrison earned this honor. Two interceptions and seven tackles would probably have been plenty for it, but to add a touchdown, well, that dramatic moment was the third-longest interception return score in Irish history and will be long remembered in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

Leading 28-7 and receiving a kickoff with 10:14 left in the game, Notre Dame (6-3) had no reason to do anything but continue to run the ball through Clemson’s vaunted defensive line. The Irish had gained 191 yards on 33 carries (sack adjusted) to that point, a 5.8 yards per rush average. The Tigers clearly could not stop that run, and chewing up the clock would lessen the chances of something flukey happening to let Clemson back into the game.

Notre Dame had thrown only six passes in the second half. Yet thanks to Morrison, its lead had grown from 14-0 to 28-0 and, at this point, 28-7.

Ten subsequent run plays gained 64 yards, and the Irish were on the 17-yard line with time continuing to tick. Then quarterback Drew Pyne got the play call and hesitated out of something short of confusion. Junior tight end Michael Mayer could understand why.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t know that play call was coming,” Mayer said. “I thought we were just going to run the ball. We got that call in, and Drew looked at it and was like, ‘Are we really passing it right now? We just ran the ball for however many yards.’”

Mayer was all for it. He may have realized what offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was up to. Mayer was tied with Ken MacAfee for most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in Notre Dame history, with 15 in his career. Setting that record at home would hold more meaning for Mayer.

“I was like, ‘Yeah dude, let’s go, let’s do it, this is our last chance to do it this game,” Mayer said. “I think Drew knew probably that ball was going to come to me the entire way.”

Sure enough, Mayer set the Irish record, giving him every season and career receiving record for a tight end at a program often referred to as “Tight End U.”

Freeman was riffing, rather philosophically, about the challenges for 18- to 23-year-olds to focus through success, something Notre Dame will now need to do.

“It’s easy to tune out the outside noise when you’re not winning, because it’s all negativity, right?” Freeman said.

But just before that, the literal outside noise added poignancy to his point.

“After a win over a top-five program, can we still be selfless? Can we tune out all the outside noise?” and at that moment, the fans in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel — some 40 or 50 feet away and separated from the postgame media room by only one set of glass doors — began chanting the “Seven Nation Army” echo.

That slow procession off the turf and into the night greeted Freeman twice. Once as he moved from the locker room to the podium and then again on his return. The latter featured “Freeman Freeman Freeman” chants only quelled by him taking a moment with his family and some recruits’ families. Then Freeman took a moment for himself, with that crowd.

Maybe Notre Dame has turned a corner under Freeman. Maybe more days like the September loss to Marshall and the October humbling to Stanford will come again in 2023. Either way, those few minutes will assuredly linger in Freeman’s memory, a coach comfortable enough to admit self-doubt but confident enough to leave those worries in his office and never let his players know about them in team meetings.

“You have some moments in your office when you’re by yourself that you have to take a deep dive into yourself,” Freeman said. “... When I’m in front of that group, I have to be the most confident individual they’ve ever seen. If their leader gets up there in front of them after a loss or after we don’t play well with their head down, what message does that send?”

Freeman was anything but a trumpet giving an uncertain sound on Saturday, particularly as he raised a victorious fist to that crowd in the bowels of the Stadium.

“I make sure when I walk out of my office, I’m the most confident leader that I can be. They need that. They will go as their leader goes.”

Irish quarterback Drew Pyne threw for 85 yards on 9-of-17 passing. The last time Notre Dame completed so few passes in a win — before last week’s 9-of-19 for 116 yards showing — was in 2017, when the Irish used 191 rushing yards from Josh Adams and 106 more from Brandon Wimbush to beat No. 11 USC, 49-14, despite Wimbush and Ian Book combining to go 9-of-22 for 120 yards.

The last time Notre Dame attempted so few passes in a win was in 2012, when the Irish defense shut down BYU to the tune of 243 total yards in a 17-14 win despite Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combining to go a mere 8-of-17 for 119 yards while Everett Golson was sidelined by concussion symptoms.

The last time Notre Dame threw for so few yards in a win was 2007, when three field goals, a defensive touchdown and a one-yard Jimmy Clausen rushing touchdown covered up for Clausen going 17-of-27 for 84 yards in a 20-6 win at UCLA, though running back Armando Allen added a 10-yard pass to the total tally.

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