Notre Dame has been pushing its freshman receivers toward a game like this, stumbling as the youth paired with 24-year-old quarterback Sam Hartman never quite clicked. At least until it did in a 45-7 win against Wake Forest, as Rico Flores Jr., Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison combined for 15 catches, 212 yards and two touchdowns. Flores put up 102 yards on his own, the first 100-yard performance by an Irish wideout since the Fiesta Bowl 24 games ago, in Marcus Freeman’s head coaching debut.
“It’s just a testimony to just continue to battle, continue to prepare, continue to work,” Freeman said. “Because you don’t know when the opportunities present themselves. That’s a conversation, a message I had to the team this week. In terms of individuals, you don’t know when your opportunity is coming.”
Though the Irish offense has had more hurdles to clear than youth at receiver, there’s little doubt this was among the biggest restrictor plates put on offensive coordinator Gerad Parker’s playbook. The coaches have tried to simplify, swap and plead with the receivers. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was simply time.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 18, 2023
Flores and Greathouse enrolled early, but freshman wideouts have historically been bit players in Notre Dame’s offense, not headliners. And Faison enrolled as a walk-on football player who was on a lacrosse scholarship, hardly a profile to build a passing game around, even if he flashed in training camp. That inexperience helped make Hartman’s sole season at Notre Dame a different challenge than the one he expected. A quarterback who arrived with 110 career touchdown passes couldn’t make this pass game go on his own. Now he doesn’t have to.
As Hartman exits Notre Dame Stadium with more career touchdown passes than all but three other college quarterbacks all time, perhaps the Irish receivers showed what’s to come. Even if the quarterback will be different next year.
A ‘weird game’ for Hartman
If the development of Notre Dame’s receivers was the story of what’s to come, how Hartman handled facing his former team was the story of what’s already passed. Hartman was a three-time captain in Winston-Salem, N.C., before becoming a one-year captain in South Bend. Head coach Dave Clawson talked about embracing Hartman after the game.
“It was a weird game,” Hartman said. “To say it was just another game would be a lie.”
Hartman finished 21-of-29 passing for 277 yards and four touchdowns, looking like the quarterback who elevated expectations for Notre Dame into the stratosphere in September. It’s been a comedown ever since statistically, although the fan base continued the season-long embrace Saturday. The video board showed Hartman after his final snaps as Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” played. Hartman said a female student threw a marshmallow from the stands at him that landed in his hot chocolate.
He chugged it.
As Hartman exited his news conference, he thanked athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s media relations team, the journalists in front of him and the janitorial services in the stadium. It’s safe to say Hartman got a lot out of his single season in South Bend, even if he didn’t get everything.
He downplayed his touchdown totals and yards, deferring attention to the seniors who had been here longer. Still, as Hartman exited Notre Dame Stadium, he soaked in the moment, revving up the crowd that cheered him in kind.
“Just happy for a win,” Hartman said.
Defense appears close to its best
If Notre Dame’s pass game feels like a labor of offense, to throw into the Irish defense is something much worse. Making his first career start, Wake Forest quarterback Michael Kern went 11-of-20 for 81 yards. The Demon Deacons’ most effective pass play was a reverse option throw. It was hard to expect anything else considering Notre Dame has allowed seven passing touchdowns all season against 14 interceptions.
The Irish defense might not be perfect, but how it defends the pass looks close to it.
“If you can’t stop the run playing pass defense, then you’re not going to be able to play a lot of pass defense,” Freeman said. “That’s a credit to coach (Al) Golden and different schemes we use in our pass defense. We can’t play coverage. We can’t play coverage if we don’t believe we can stop the run.”
Wake Forest had moderate success on the ground (36 carries, 134 yards), but it was never enough to get Golden out of his defensive comfort zone. Wake Forest didn’t hit a pass of longer than 20 yards, and it’s longest run was a broken trick play. From start to finish, Notre Dame’s defense appeared to be close to its best.
If that defense travels to Stanford next weekend and into the bowl season, Notre Dame should be in great shape to close with a 10-win season.
(Photo of Notre Dame receiver Rico Flores Jr.: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)