Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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18 DECEMBER 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY JACK SOBLE AND TYLER HORKA M arcus Freeman just stood there, a few yards away from the Notre Dame sideline, stunned. He couldn't believe it. Stanford was sprinting off the field with a football, believing sophomore Irish running back Gi'Bran Payne had fumbled at the goal line with 19 sec- onds left in the first half. It would have been Notre Dame's third lost fumble and fourth turnover overall, but replay showed Payne broke the plane of the goal line before the football came loose. The Fighting Irish fans who packed Stanford Stadium breathed a very loud sigh of relief, and Notre Dame took its first two-score lead. While the play was being reviewed, Freeman gave a stern message to running backs coach Deland McCullough and the leader of the position group, junior run- ning back Audric Estimé: This team does not put the ball on the ground. "That's just Coach Freeman holding me and holding our running back group to high standards," Estimé said. "I love that, I appreciate that and it's just great coaching." From that point on, the Irish pro- tected the ball and then some. After Freeman watched his team stumble its way through 30 minutes of football, keeping the Cardinal in the game, the Irish boat raced a porous Stanford defense and dominated the second half. Notre Dame won 56-23 in Palo Alto, Calif., and finished its regular season 9-3. The Irish also avenged last season's 16-14 loss to the Cardinal. "I don't care if you were here last year or if you weren't," Freeman said. "We wanted to make sure that Legends Tro- phy got returned to Notre Dame." For most of the evening, Estimé car- ried the Irish in a historic night for the team's leading rusher. The powerful running back carried 25 times for 238 yards and 4 touchdowns. Each of those numbers represented career highs for Estimé, who may have played his last game in a Notre Dame uniform. Including Estimé, the Irish wound up with 48 carries for an astounding 381 yards as a team. They only threw the ball 15 times, completing 8 for 140 yards. Estimé set the program record for rushing touchdowns in a single season with 18, barreling his way through traf- fic and outrunning everyone when he had open space. He ran for 98 yards in the third quarter alone. However, after a week in which Free- man, the coordinators and the players stressed starting faster on the road, the Irish — to put it mildly — did not do that. Stanford broke its first big gain when sophomore quarterback Justin Lamson broke through a multi-player pile for 49 yards. Later, Notre Dame blew a coverage and left Cardinal senior running back E.J. Smith wide open for a 53-yard gain. Both plays led to Cardinal field goals. Notre Dame also fumbled twice, once when graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman unnecessarily tried to evade freshman nickel back Jshawn Frausto- Ramos for extra yards. Frausto-Ramos stripped him and recovered the fumble. Later, sophomore running back Jadarian Price fumbled a kickoff return, which promptly led to a Cardinal touchdown. "I wasn't upset about the effort that we played with to start the game, but we gotta take care of the ball," Freeman said. In the second quarter, Hartman threw off his back foot and late on an out- breaking route, and freshman safety Ché Ojarikre intercepted it. Cardinal senior kicker Joshua Karty drilled a 56-yard field goal to make it 16-14 Stanford. The Irish regrouped and outscored the Cardinal 42-7 after that. "Our guys were able to regroup, come out of the locker room with the intensity that we needed, and finished this game off the right way," Freeman said. With the blowout win, Notre Dame sealed a one-game regular-season im- provement in Freeman's second year as head coach. The Irish will head to an undetermined bowl game, to be an- nounced after the conference champi- onship games Dec. 1-2. FIRST QUARTER STANFORD 13, NOTRE DAME 7 Top moment: Junior running back FINISHING STRONG Despite a mistake-filled start, Notre Dame rode Audric Estimé's career day to a blowout win

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