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Highlights: Notre Dame 41, Central Michigan 17 — Hartman’s deep passes complement Irish trenches’ dominance

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Central Michigan at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 16: Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Antonio Carter II (4) catches the football and runs it in for a touchdown in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Central Michigan Chippewas on September 16, 2023 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 9 Notre Dame’s uncomfortable halftime lead of 21-14 told one story. The game flow of the first half told another. Central Michigan (1-2) never threatened the Irish (4-0) as Sam Hartman calmly directed an explosive offensive showing to secure a 41-17 victory and top-national billing for next week’s primetime tilt with No. 6 Ohio State (3-0).

After the Chippewas tied the game at 7 on their second possession, one kept alive by a roughing the passer personal foul call on Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Joshua Burnham, they would have the ball within one possession of the Irish for exactly three more plays.

That is controlling a game. Perhaps not dominating it — Notre Dame won 63.6 percent of the game when measured by quality drives and quality drives allowed — but controlling it. Central Michigan had exactly one drive with a chance to take a lead against the Irish, the opening drive, a three-and-out halted in its tracks by a stop from Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Howard Cross on a 3rd-and-2. It had exactly one drive on which it could tie the Irish, a three-and-out marked by two tackles from Notre Dame defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste followed by him hurrying Chippewas quarterback Jase Bauer into an incompletion.

By the end of the first quarter, the Irish never needed to worry about their overmatched foe. To be more precise, when Hartman connected with senior receiver Chris Tyree for a 76-yard touchdown less than a minute into the second quarter, Notre Dame took complete control of the game, a grip it would not relinquish, even if Central Michigan scored just before halftime to make things feel worrisome, in notable part because of a pass interference call in the end zone.

“I told them at halftime, if you need me to give you a rah-rah speech — that’s not what this team needed,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “This team needed to settle down and really look at the mistakes that happened in the first half and why it was a seven-point game.”

Those mistakes set up both Chippewas touchdowns, but it was a seven-point game through two quarters in large part because Central Michigan won the opening coin toss and opted to receive, thus creating the extra possession just before halftime that led to the 21-14 score.

A sequence of a 21-yard run from junior running back Audric Estimé, a 39-yard completion to junior receiver Jayden Thomas and then a one-yard Hartman touchdown rush to open the second half proved that truth.

Notre Dame controlled the game, even that optically-tense first half.

And anytime a college football team controls a game, it is safe to assume it did so starting in the trenches.

“We ended up having 342 passing (yards) and 236 rushing (yards). In order to have those type of numbers, your offensive line has to play well,” Freeman said. “If they don’t play well in the pass game and run game, your stats aren’t going to look like that. …

“Defensively … I thought they did a good job getting some pressures on the quarterback and getting to him early.”

This may be obvious. Of course the Irish have better trench play than the Chippewas. That is the most fundamental difference between a Playoff contender and a MAC hopeful. But it was still the piece that granted Notre Dame the cushion to allow those defensive penalties that perpetuated Central Michigan’s scoring.

The Chippewas managed two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries on 65 Irish snaps. Notre Dame sacked Bauers twice, notched two other tackles for loss and hassled the surprise starter — Central Michigan starting quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. did not make the trip to South Bend due to illness — another five times, all on just 54 Chippewas snaps. To do the quick math to emphasize how clearly the Irish offensive and defensive lines won in the trenches: Central Michigan got into Notre Dame’s backfield on 7.7 percent of the snaps, while the Irish ended up in the Chippewas’ backfield on 16.7 percent.

Notre Dame controlled the game.

Anyone who can drop two deep touchdown passes right into his receivers’ hands without them breaking stride earns these honors, maybe doubly so in South Bend, where such a quarterback has been a want, not a reality, for more than a decade.

“The difference between college and NFL a lot of times, the quarterback doesn’t give you a choice but to catch it,” sophomore receiver Tobias Merriweather said after his three catches for a career-high 91 yards. “They throw it on you and it’s going to be there, you have to expect it to be there. That’s what Sam does for us.”

(Editor’s Note: Expect to read that quote frequently this week as Notre Dame’s tilt with Ohio State approaches next Saturday at 7:30 ET on NBC.)

Hartman finished with 330 yards on 16-of-26 passing, an absurd 12.7 yards per pass attempt. Context: Anything above eight is generally considered efficient and/or explosive.

Hartman’s throw to Tyree was — if this is possible — perfect. He forced his fastest receiver to accelerate just a bit to get to the ball, and the converted running back looked only comfortable tracking the deep ball from one shoulder to the other. In the air, the pass traveled 48 yards.

If it was overthrown, obviously it would have been incomplete. If it was underthrown, the best-case scenario would have been Tyree making a slightly contested catch and quickly being tackled at about the 35-yard line.

Instead, one of the more beautiful touchdown passes you will ever see.

In part thanks to that Tyree catch, in part thanks to Merriweather’s opening score, in part thanks to Estimé’s 17-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 to redeem being stopped on third down … Notre Dame cracked open a 40 for the fifth straight game, a first in Irish history.

Notre Dame is in its 136th season of football. It has never before scored 40 points in five straight games. The 40th point came on sophomore tight end Holden Staes’s one-handed snag with fewer than six minutes to go, a play that would normally be heaped with praise but on this particular afternoon was something of an afterthought.

The last time the Irish scored at least 40 points in four straight games was the four games concluding with Lou Holtz’s last home game as Notre Dame’s head coach, a 62-0 shellacking of Rutgers in 1996.

Hartman did not even leave the field before he began reminding the Irish fans of what is next.

“Show up, be early and be rowdy,” Hartman said on the field in a video board interview, asked about the Buckeyes’ visit. His pronunciation included more than one ‘w’ in “rowdy.”

A reporter jokingly asked Estimé if he is thinking about joining the Notre Dame track team this spring.

“That’s the goal,” he laughed. “If they allow me, why not?”

His two hurdles of Chippewas defenders were gasp-inducing. They assuredly made Freeman wince as much as Hartman’s somersault onto his head in the end zone against Tennessee State did.

Estimé is athletic, no one will deny that. By cutting his Popeyes habit by 75 percent this offseason, along with some added sprint work, he has gained speed enough to score from 80 yards last week and have another 72-yard run Saturday undone by a holding penalty. But hurdling defenders only exposes him to injury.

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