That was the gap between Notre Dame and what could have been — what almost was — a season-defining win. The gap between Marcus Freeman and the biggest victory of his young head coaching career.
Sept. 23, 2023, had all the makings of another iconic entry into the deep annals of Notre Dame football history. There was a palpable hum on campus all week, peaking in a standing-room-only crowd on Library Lawn roaring as “College GameDay” guest picker Vince Vaughn pumped his fist at the teeming mob behind him and hollered, “the Irish will prevail today.”
Come kickoff, Notre Dame Stadium, often decried for failing to produce atmospheres that lived up to its reverent setting, cleared its throat and produced a green-tinged fever pitch that could rival the cacophony of any of college football’s most hallowed venues.
For much of the game, the Irish landed body blows on No. 6 Ohio State. Notre Dame never looked capable of running away with the contest — in fact, they trailed for a little under half of it — but in a game that demands physicality, the Irish asserted themselves as the more robust team.
Gi’Bran Payne’s 1-yard touchdown to open the scoring for the Irish spoke to such a bruising approach. After four drives and two quarters failed to amass a single point for the home side, Notre Dame managed to claw and scratch their way to the Buckeye 1-yard line over the course of 13 plays and nearly eight minutes.
There, Payne charged headlong into a wall of four Ohio State defenders. Five seconds of painstaking leg-churning later, he emerged from the scrum in the endzone without his helmet, flexing and shouting, his face filled with passion.
10-7 Ohio State.
A few minutes later, the Irish repeated the feat. This time battling for 11 plays over the course of 6 minutes and 28 seconds, Notre Dame drove the length of the field through a combination of chunk yardage passes and powerful runs. Eventually, quarterback Sam Hartman scanned his options and found Rico Flores Jr. for a 2-yard score. Flores fell to the ground, cradling the ball to his chest. By the time he hit the turf, Notre Dame Stadium had already erupted.
14-10 Notre Dame.
The Irish turned to their defense to make the lead stand. The Buckeyes marched down to the Notre Dame 11-yard line, but they’d get no further. Facing third-and-1, Ohio State dialed up a dead-ahead run for star running back TreVeyon Henderson. Former Buckeye transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste dragged him down short of the first down marker. On fourth-and-1, Ohio State tried to get clever with an end-around to wide receiver Emeka Egbuka. Graduate students Jake Kiser and DJ Brown combined to stop Egbuka in his tracks. A crowd of five Irish defenders eventually powered the Buckeye receiver out of bounds, running away from the pile and yelling in jubilation.
For the first time all night, the mood in Notre Dame Stadium started to feel less like hopeful optimism and more like tangible confidence. All the Irish needed now was to grit and grind their way through another four minutes. Three first downs probably would have effectively ended the game.
Notre Dame got one. And then they punted.
The Irish didn’t lack chances to finish the job on Ohio State’s fateful final drive. Notre Dame’s defense forced three third downs and a fourth down. The Buckeyes found an answer every time, including an inexplicable third-and-19 coverage breakdown with 15 seconds remaining, setting Ohio State up on the doorstep of the Irish endzone.
One yard away from the same end zone Gi’Bran Payne forced his way into an hour earlier. The end zone Reggie Bush shoved Matt Leinart into 17 years earlier. The end zone where Pat Terrell batted down Steve Walsh’s game-winning two-point conversion 34 years earlier.
Notre Dame’s defense held their line on the Buckeye’s first effort. Then, as the clock struck zero, Chip Trayanum lunged forward to find paydirt. He followed a blocker that didn’t have anyone to block. The Irish had lined up for the final play of the game (as well as the play prior) with 10 players on the field.
A party atmosphere in the House that Rockne Built was ushered out in exchange for stunned silence. Students, minutes earlier abuzz with talk of a field storm, sulked out with all the vibrance of a funeral procession.
17-14 Ohio State. Final.