May 24, 2024

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After trading places at the podium with coach Marcus Freeman late Saturday night, Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman paused as a chant began near the main stadium tunnel.

“We love Marcus! We love Marcus!”

“Me too,” Hartman said with a smile.

The week had not started with an outpouring of support for Freeman, the second-year coach whose team had dropped two of three games to essentially fall out of the College Football Playoff race. A 33-20 loss at Louisville, not long after a heartbreaking home defeat to Ohio State, had stirred some doubt about the 37-year-old Freeman and Notre Dame’s direction.

The week ended in decidedly different and dominating fashion, as No. 21 Notre Dame clobbered No. 10 USC 48-20, the Fighting Irish’s most lopsided win against a top-10 opponent since beating USC by the same margin in 1995. Notre Dame scored on offense, defense and special teams to finish with its most points against an AP top-10 opponent since piling up 54 against No. 9 Boston College in 1992.

“Adversity is part of life,” Freeman said. “I told our guys … I want to be an anti-fragile program. I told them this on Monday. What does that mean? We just didn’t get through it, through adversity. We are better because of the adversity we faced. That’s easy to say. The challenge is do the things that it takes to make sure we’re better, and that’s what these coaches and players did.”

Notre Dame’s defense did things not done before against USC quarterback Caleb Williams and the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense entering Saturday’s game (at 51.8 points per age). The Irish became the first team to intercept Williams three times, and they did so in the first half. Led by safety Xavier Watts, who had two picks, a forced fumble and a 15-yard scoop and score in the closing minutes, Notre Dame had a 5-0 edge in turnovers, tied for the fourth-best turnover margin against an AP top-10 team in the past 20 seasons.

The Irish registered six sacks, 11 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries, overwhelming USC’s offensive line and consistently putting Williams on his heels. They also became the first team in the past 20 seasons to record five takeaways and a special teams touchdown — on Jadarian Price‘s 99-yard kick return in the fourth quarter — against an AP top-10 opponent.

Hartman joked afterward that he simply “threw the ball a couple times” and would buy defensive coordinator Al Golden “another Ferrari.”

“The mentality, the work, the preparation, all just aligned perfectly, and it’s a credit to our head coach,” said Hartman, who had two touchdown passes, including a 46-yarder to Chris Tyree in the third quarter after USC had finally reached the end zone. “Monday night, we’re in there and guys are beat up and we’re all kind of like, ‘Shoot, we’ve got to go.’ And something we said all week was, ‘What better opportunity to have USC come play?’

“It’s a moment that I’ll never forget.”

Notre Dame finished with 28 points off of turnovers. Watts became the first player to record two interceptions, a forced fumble and defensive touchdown since Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau did so against Penn State in 2022.

“It’s just crazy, something you never really imagined,” Watts said. “I was out there just playing, trying to have fun, trying to do my job, and it ended up happening.”

After tightly contested games against Ohio State, Duke and, for three quarters, Louisville, Notre Dame led by 11 points or more for the final 34:14 on Saturday. The Irish had only one drive longer than 50 yards and converted only 3 of 10 third-down plays, but they scored on all five of their red zone chances.

Freeman said he challenged his coaching staff to not focus on what happened at Louisville but why it happened. They had “difficult conversations,” reevaluated what they were doing in practice and ultimately simplified their approach to eliminate confusion.

“Weeks that you lose are really long, especially around here,” Freeman said. “The expectation is that you win every game you play. I know the hours are the same, but the weeks that you win seem to go by really fast and the next opportunity is here. But it is what it is. You have to pick your head up and go back to work.”

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