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Sam Hartman scores three total touchdowns in his South Bend debut, leading Notre Dame to 56-3 win vs Tennessee State

Highlights: Notre Dame rolls past Tennessee State
Notre Dame scored early and often against Tennessee State, cruising to a 56-3 win behind a solid performance from QB Sam Hartman and another dominant defensive showing.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even Notre Dame’s only mistake in the first half against Tennessee State on Saturday yielded a highlight. After the Tigers (0-1) forced a fumble on an Irish kickoff return, Notre Dame’s defense excelled in the quick-change challenge, holding Tennessee State to a field goal attempt, calming any Irish nerves remembering last season’s home-opening upset.

Only an attempt, not a field goal, courtesy of 6-foot-5 sophomore defensive tackle Jason Onye’s long reach blocking that kick. That was the closest the Tigers would get to the end zone in Notre Dame’s 56-3 rout of its first-ever FCS opponent.

“Before the snap, me and [senior defensive tackle Rylie Mills] were like, hey, let’s blow up this guard,” Onye said. “So ball snapped, me and him get low, really low, we go through this guard’s chest, and I just put my hand up.

“Luckily it hit, grateful for that.”

That was about the only luck the Irish needed. Quarterback Sam Hartman was again clinical in combining efficiency with explosiveness. Of his three incompletions on Saturday, one was intentionally thrown away, making him effectively 14-of-16 for 194 yards and two touchdowns. His first touchdown pass, in particular, showed what could keep opposing offensive coordinators awake at night in coming weeks if the 11.4 yards per pass attempt Saturday and 11.1 on the season do not do so on their own.

Hartman had just found junior receiver Jayden Thomas wide open coming across the middle of the field. Wiïde open, turning a 3rd-and-4 into a 27-yard gain to put No. 13 Notre Dame (2-0) in striking distance of a 21-3 lead. On the next snap, with the Tigers defense unable to load up on any receiver, a reality fresh in their minds after Thomas’s acreage for that third-down conversion, Hartman led senior receiver Chris Tyree across to the front pylon with a long touchdown throw.

Tyree showing those hands on a perfectly-placed Hartman ball may be the piece that adds crucial deep range to the Irish offense, something almost certainly needed at some point this month, even if it was not required to get by Navy last week and Tennessee State this week by a combined score of 98 to 6.

Scoring 11 touchdowns on the first 12 possessions of Hartman’s action this year, with that 12th ending in a missed field goal, should be considered directly a reflection of Hartman’s calm. The Midshipmen and Tigers may be the two worst teams Notre Dame will play in 2023, but the Irish avoided any back-to-back offensive mistakes to keep all those drives alive. They rarely found themselves in troubling third-down spots, hence converting 11 of their first 13 this season — and following one of those failed third downs with a successful fourth-down conversion — before Hartman found the sideline in the entire second half of his Notre Dame Stadium debut in a plain gold helmet.

“Six years, man,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said of the veteran Hartman. “That experience is so important. He’s a heck of a football player, but the ability to handle the elements — maybe not playing perfect, big games, maybe a game where you’re highly favored — he is a very experienced player, and I’m sure glad we have him.”

No matter the competition, avoiding any back-to-back mistakes through six quarters is rather absurd. Hartman had been looking forward to his South Bend debut, but even he could not be frustrated by playing only half the game. In fact, it may have allowed Hartman to understand the atmosphere even sooner.

“Talking to former quarterbacks, they say [being Notre Dame’s quarterback] doesn’t really hit you until you’re out of it,” Hartman said last month after a preseason practice. “I think that first game day (in South Bend) will be when [I] see the magnitude of it.”

He began to see the magnitude walking from the Basilica to the Stadium after pregame Mass, a crowd big enough that it may have gotten Hartman into some hot water with his mother, of all people. (Presumably, Hartman’s grin as he brought that up belied levity and not dread.)

“It was surreal,” Hartman said Saturday. “From the get-go, to Mass, coming out to a — a lot of the guys were saying this was one of the bigger crowds they’ve seen just on the walk. For me, it’s all big. I got to see my parents, I missed them, so my mom is probably mad at me because I didn’t give her a hug, hoping to make up for that at some point.”

Hartman has introduced a new magnitude for the entire Irish offense. For the second straight week, that was best demonstrated just before halftime. And just like a week ago, complementary football created the opportunity to execute a two-minute drive in a way that was hardly seen last season.

Both weeks, Notre Dame called a timeout in the final two minutes to force the opponent to attempt a field goal without running down the clock. Both Tennessee State and Navy then proceeded to miss those field goals, besides the point here, handing the ball over to Hartman.

Last week, he covered 80 yards in eight plays and 1:42 to get into the end zone before the half. Against the Tigers, he needed just six plays and 38 seconds to cover 80 yards for a score thrown to sophomore tight end Holden Staes from four yards out.

“It’s so crucial to have those type of situations,” Freeman said. “We do them in practice, but to have it live, I was so proud of the way they executed. I love the communication.”

In those kinds of moments last year, Notre Dame successfully found the end zone one out of five times.

That is a magnitude of change, one that could make some Irish fans flip for joy, just as Hartman did for his first score of the night, a five-yard scramble in which he front-flipped into the end zone, to Freeman’s unsurprising chagrin.

“You kind of don’t want to see him do that,” Freeman said with a visible wince. "... Keep your feet on the ground.”

Giving up six total points in the first two games of the season is the fewest the Irish have allowed to open a year since 1975, when they gave up three points to Boston College and shut out Purdue a week later. Again, admittedly, Navy and Tennessee State are not the staunchest of foes, but keeping both out of the end zone shows a similar consistency as the offense finding it so often.

Notre Dame has yet to so blow a coverage as to allow an explosive play. It has yet to so misread a run that the chunk gain finds the end zone. It has been thoroughly disciplined.

“It’s big, but it’s our expectation,” Onye said. “It’s our standard as a defense. We want to make sure we leave teams with no touchdowns, no scores, that’s our goal.”

Of note, the Irish gave up only seven points in the first two games of 1996.

And the 91 points scored to open the season are the most since … just 2019, when Notre Dame hung 101 points combined on Louisville and New Mexico.

This praise may focus on Hartman, the new piece of the offense that has opened up so much else, but he is also boosted by a running attack more potent than he has ever known. In two games at Notre Dame, Hartman’s backs have now averaged 6.0 yards per carry or more as many times as they did in his entire Wake Forest career.

When is the last time Notre Dame played two backup specialists, as in kicker Zac Yoakam and punt returner sixth-year Matt Salerno in the same game? No, really, we’re asking.


First Quarter
9:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jeremiah Love 36-yard run. Spencer Shrader point after. Notre Dame 7, Tennessee State 0. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:43)
2:44 — Tennessee State field goal. James Lowery 38 yards. Notre Dame 7, Tennessee State 3. (15 plays, 55 yards, 6:33)

Second Quarter
12:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Sam Hartman 5-yard rush. Shrader point after. Notre Dame 14, Tennessee State 3. (8 plays, 80 yards, 4:16)
9:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 24-yard pass from Hartman. Sharder point after. Notre Dame 21, Tennessee State 3. (4 plays, 57 yards, 2:01)
5:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 5-yard rush. Sharder point after. Notre Dame 28, Tennessee State 3. (8 plays, 53 yards, 2:55)
0:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Holden Staes 4-yard pass from Hartman. Shrader point after. Notre Dame 35, Tennessee State 3. (6 plays, 80 yards, 0:38)

Third Quarter
1:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jadarian Price 40-yard pass from Steve Angeli. Shrader point after. Notre Dame 42, Tennessee State 3. (7 plays, 82 yards, 3:28)
0:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Clarence Lewis 31-yard interception return. Shrader point after. Notre Dame 49, Tennessee State 3.

Fourth Quarter
7:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Gi’Bran Payne 42-yard pass from Steve Angeli. Zak Yoakam point after. Notre Dame 56, Tennessee State 3. (7 plays, 87 yards, 3:34)
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