Irish Smell Blood: Notre Dame survives Cal’s initial success, and pulls away in a 24-17 win

By Morris Phillips

Once Notre Dame minimized the negativity of an 0-2 start, a halftime deficit in game three, keeping the focus on themselves and their physical advantages, the California Bears were made to pay.

Cal’s first trip to South Bend since 1967 was far more competitive than the last, but the Fighting Irish prevailed 24-17 on the strength of a decisive, fourth quarter in which Cal was shutout.

In the end, coach Marcus Freeman was the most emotional member of the Irish’s sideline, and that was a good thing for the hosts.

“I think we we’re down three, and I just said, this isn’t going to be a repeat,” said Freeman, after his first career win, excited and nearly breathless in his post-game comments. “This isn’t going to be here we go again. We are going to change the outcome of this game. And it’s going to be by our offense going out there and doing what we have to do and executing, and then our defense when we get the opportunity we’re going to go out there and execute. And that’s what you saw. We needed that. That was a big moment for us, because I could see it on some guy’s faces, and even mine, ‘Oh, shoot, here we go again.’ It’s not here we go again.”

Cal lead 7-0, 10-7 and 17-14 when Freeman made his declaration. And from that point the second half simply didn’t go Cal’s way. The Irish’s punishing run attack found the first crack in Cal’s armor, and their defense, specifically a relentless, pass rush with seven dropping in coverage kept quarterback Jack Plummer from doing anything decisive.

Trailing 24-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears drove to the Notre Dame 22, but suffered three straight incompletions followed by Isaiah Foskey’s sack of Plummer on fourth down.

Cal regained possession with 1:03 remaining and appeared cooked when Plummer was intercepted on first down. But a review of the play revealed a targeting foul on safety J.D. Bertrand that occurred before the interception and allowed Cal to retain possession.

Plummer then completed passes on four, consecutive plays to get Cal to the Notre Dame 29, but a sack, and an incomplete pass left Cal with the game’s final play from the 35. Plummer threw the ball in the end zone and saw several players tip it, including Cal’s Jeremiah Hunter, but the ball hit the ground ending the game.

“We played them down to the last play, Plummer said. “It was exciting. If we had scored there, we were going for two and try to get out of there.”

Plummer’s afternoon mirrored his team’s as a whole. The Purdue transfer finished 16 of 37 for 184 yards, with much of the production coming early and the incomplete passes late. But throughout the quarterback showed a surprising, running dynamic with 12 carries for 34 yards including a 24-yard gain in the second half. That dimension kept Cal alive at key junctures and in position to steal the game at the finish.

“We had chances to win. Too many errors. One or two more plays,” coach Justin Wilcox said.

The Bears enjoyed early success with the game’s first score, an 18-yard pass to J. Michael Sturdivant, who was wide open in the end zone behind the defense. Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne, who started in place of the injured Tyler Buchner, showed rust in the first half as did his receivers, who dropped a couple of passes.

A phantom offsides penalty on the Cal field goal coverage unit gave the Irish a second opportunity in Cal territory which they cashed in for their first score of the game. Chris Tyree’s 21-yard catch-and-run got Notre Dame even, 7-7.

At halftime, a frustrated Wilcox declined to comment on the offsides call that set up the score. Replay showed there was no movement along the Cal defensive front on the play.

The Bears open conference play on Saturday at Memorial Stadium against Arizona.

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