'It's an upset; it happens' — Notre Dame falls to Marshall, and no one seems properly shocked
SOUTH BEND — Maybe the most shocking thing about Marshall’s shocking upset at Notre Dame Stadium was how completely normal it all seemed afterward to so many of the participants.
“This is what happens when you play good teams,” Notre Dame defensive tackle Howard Cross III said after Saturday’s 26-21 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. “It’s an upset. It happens.”
“They’re a good team,” Irish senior safety D.J. Brown said. “They have (eight) guys that transferred from higher programs, and you could see that. It’s not like it was in the past where mid-major schools would just have lower-recruited guys. Anybody can upset a team, as you saw today.”
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And that was even before word had spread that Appalachian State, Marshall’s new rival in the Sun Belt Conference, had gone into College Station and knocked off No. 6 Texas A&M. Or that Georgia Southern, another Sun Belt team, had beaten Nebraska in Lincoln.
Have yourself a day, Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill. Nice job luring the Herd away from Conference USA into your august body.
You, too, Marshall athletic director Christian Spears. The entire 16-sport Marshall athletic program has an overall annual budget of $30 million.
So, yeah, that $1.25 million wire transfer from Notre Dame for this guarantee game should come in handy.
Wild? Unforgettable? Significant?
Yes, to all of those.
But stunning? Fluky? Inexplicable?
You could see this one happening a mile away.
“This team is special,” Herd quarterback Henry Colombi said amid the on-field celebration. “Hope you guys saw that.”
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Sure, the unranked Thundering Herd entered as 20 1/2 -point underdogs. That made this Notre Dame’s first loss when favored by 20 or more since the Duke debacle in 2016, aka the “Brian VanGorder Game.”
This loss also ended Notre Dame's nation-leading streak of 42 straight wins over unranked opponents. The last time it happened was against Virginia Tech in that same 2016 season.
That 34-31 loss to the Hokies on Senior Day also marked the last time Notre Dame had blown a fourth-quarter lead to lose at home -- until Saturday.
Did we mention no Irish team had started 0-2 since 2011, Brian Kelly’s second season? Or that Marcus Freeman is the first Irish football coach EVER to start 0-3?
So much for those commemorative cups that were printed up in honor of the rookie coach’s home debut.
When did all this surrealism start to seem real to the visitors from Huntington, W.Va.?
“We knew we could do it when the schedule came out,” Colombi said of a game that was announced on March 4, 2019. “We just believed in ourselves. That’s always important.”
Colombi, who took his first college snap in 2018, was still at Utah State when then-Marshall AD Mike Hamrick got this game on the schedule. Colombi arrived in mid-January after a two-year stopover at Texas Tech.
Saturday was his 12th career start, and he’s finally back to .500. So why did it feel all afternoon like he was playing with house money?
“That’s playing together,” he said. “That’s game planning. That’s getting ready for each week the same, no matter the opponent. I’m just thankful to be a part of this group.”
On the go-ahead touchdown pass with a little over five minutes left, Colombi seemed about as unbothered as a vacationer looking for a good spot to plunk down his chair on an empty beach. He backpedaled a bit, jogged a few steps away from a disinterested Irish pass rush, did a half-turn and oh-by-the-way’d a 3-yard strike to his tight end Devin Miller in the back of the end zone.
Former Dallas Cowboys coach and backup quarterback Jason Garrett, making his Notre Dame analyst debut on NBC/Peacock, heaped streaming-app praise on Marshall’s well-traveled quarterback.
He called Colombi a “sneaky good athlete” and praised his ability to extend the play while keeping his eyes “up the field.”
What concerned the Irish defense when they studied Colombi on film and how did that play out Saturday?
“Every good quarterback is a scrambler, and they can throw passes out of the scramble,” Cross said. “So there was a lot of times linemen came free, and he was a good quarterback. He made good shots. Even when he was scrambling, he could make the shots that counted. That’s what happened.”
Said Brown: “We knew they were going to be a perimeter screen team going into it. Our focus this week was getting off blocks and tackling on the perimeter. Off of that, they do a lot of fake screen-and-go’s, so we worked that all week.”
Even with more sure tackling by slot corner TaRiq Bracy, Colombi still managed to dink and dunk his way to 145 air yards on 16 of 21 passing. He went 24 of 26 in the opener against Norfolk State, so the dude with the man bun and his third set of FBS-level travel gear has just seven incompletions in 47 attempts since donning the green.
“I really don’t think we were hurt that much in the vertical pass game,” Brown said. “It was just those intermediate throws and RPOs and things like that.”
Khalan Laborn, the Florida State transfer, averaged 5.3 yards a tote on his way to 163 rushing yards on 31 carries, including the game’s first score.
“They had a pretty good running back,” Brown said. “We didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage like we needed to. One of our goals going into the game was stop the run.”
So much for that.
And Rasheen Ali, the Cleveland product who was coming off a 1,401-yard, 25-touchdown season, wasn’t even out there for Marshall after taking a leave of absence on Aug. 23.
“We were focused on the passing a lot because of their pass game,” Cross said. “Their running back (Laborn) is like a 5-star transfer or something like that. They have a really good running back. (Coaches) really emphasized ripping the ball out, but he had a good handle on the thing the whole game.”
The same could be said on a broader scale for second-year coach Charles Huff, a running-game guru who spent two seasons (2019-20) on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Yes, the same Tide that handed Notre Dame a 31-14 exit pass from the 2020 College Football Playoff.
Najee Harris ran for 125 yards on just 15 carries in that one. That’s an 8.3-yard average, but he had a monster offensive line filled with future pros.
Marshall’s line didn’t look bad Saturday against an Irish group that might want to tone down the talking until its accomplishments catch up with the verbiage.
“Look, our whole thing was we were focusing on Ohio State,” Cross said. “It was Ohio State the whole time, and then suddenly we’re at Marshall. The whole thing was do not look (past) Marshall. They had a good season last year and the year before, so we can’t (underestimate) Marshall. They were just a good team. They’re going to do well this year.”
How the points were scored:Marshall 26, No. 8 Notre Dame 21
Set the edge? Notre Dame didn’t do much of that down the stretch against the Buckeyes or the Herd.
“It was a focus,” Cross said. “There’s a focus all week. We practice, I’m sure, harder than them. We practice harder than anybody. Freeman can tell you that. It’s just what happens when you go against a good team. Any good team will find the openings.”
Marshall — Marshall! — found enough openings to spring this upset that, while upsetting, felt less and less shocking with each passing explanation.
“They did a good job,” Brown said, “and props to them.”
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.