How it happened: Key moments that led to Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over California

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND ― So much about the Notre Dame football program has changed since it last won a football game back on Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford to end last year's regular season.

New head coach Marcus Freeman was still looking for win No. 1 of his tenure entering Saturday's game against Cal at Notre Dame Stadium. Quarterback Drew Pyne, thrust into the starting role after Tyler Buchner was lost for the season last week, was making his first collegiate start. And the Irish were wearing green jerseys (with last names on the back) vs. the Golden Bears, a color that Irish romantics get googly eyes for every time.

It all added up to Notre Dame's first victory of the Freeman era, 24-17 on a sunny, breezy afternoon in South Bend.

"Found a way to finish," Freeman said after improving his record to 1-3 as Notre Dame's football coach. "I'm proud of those guys. You know what, it is hard to win football games. It's hard. You've seen it in the first three games. It's hard. So I'm so proud of that group of guys to find away to finish."

"Found a way to finish," Freeman said after improving his record to 1-3 as Notre Dame's football coach. "I'm proud of those guys. You know what, it is hard to win football games. It's hard. You've seen it in the first three games. It's hard. So I'm so proud of that group of guys to find away to finish."

The Irish certainly didn't let win No. 1 come easy, but after 294 days, Notre Dame was victorious again.

Analysis:'Crazy day on the defensive line' helps Notre Dame hold off Cal for first win

Drew Pyne fumbles to open the second quarter

Notre Dame’s offensive felt like the continuation of a nightmare to Freeman and the 77,000-plus green clad patrons packed into Notre Dame Stadium. And even more so to Pyne, who failed to move the chains the first 15 minutes of his first college start.

Really, neither team’s offense could figure out how to move the ball, with seven punts and just one first down in the first quarter. 

The Irish were disjointed. Lorenzo Styles let a wide open pass go through his hands on one drive. Jarrett Patterson had a false start on a third-and-1, forcing the Irish to punt a play later. It felt like something disastrous was building, and then it happened in the second quarter when Pyne mishandled the snap from Zeke Correll and Cal recovered at the Notre Dame 33-yard line. 

Three plays later, Cal quarterback Jack Plummer, who finished 16-for-37 for 184 yards and a touchdown, connected with wide receiver J.Michael Sturdivent on a 18-yard touchdown to put the Golden Bears up 7-0. 

The silence in Notre Dame Stadium was deafening, as in “here we go again”. 

Cal’s offsides and targeting penalties give Notre Dame's offense new life

The two penalties that led directly to Notre Dame's first two touchdowns may have been thought about for a long time on California's trip back home.

Leading 7-0 in the second quarter, the Golden Bears had the Irish scrambling for offensive answers. To make things worse, Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe just pushed a 45-yard field goal wide left. It would have given Cal the ball back with a chance to extend its lead had Kyle Smith not jumped offside, giving the Irish a fresh set of downs. They didn't need it, because two plays later Pyne connected with running back Chris Tyree for a 21-yard touchdown to tie the game.

The Golden Bears also thought they had stopped Notre Dame when Pyne's third down pass intended for Styles fell incomplete, only for a targeting call on linebacker Blake Antzoulatos to extend the Irish drive, which was capped by Audric Estime's one-yard touchdown, giving Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) runs the ball during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Those were the types of mistake (among other things) that kept the Irish from finishing out the games against Ohio State, and especially last week's upset to Marshall. A week later, Notre Dame smelled blood in the water and finally capitalized.

Notre Dame’s 'check' sets up big pass to Estime

For as up-and-down as Pyne was, finishing 17-for-23 for 150 yards and two touchdowns, he made a high-IQ play that set up Notre Dame’s game-winning score. 

Facing a first-and-10 at Cal’s 48, Pyne changed the play at the line of scrimmage when he noticed Cal’s defense going into a cover zero formation (no deep help with man coverage across the board). That left Estime one-on-one in the linebacker. 

“They brought two off the edge and Audric made a great cut on an angle route around the linebacker,” Pyne said. “ I threw it early because they were bringing pressure. Audric made a great catch on a low ball and you just run with it.”

Estime would have scored on the play had he not stumbled inside the 10-yard line, but instead settled for a 36-yard reception to Cal’s 6-yard line. 

On the next play, Pyne found Mayer wide open to give Notre Dame a 24-17 lead with 9:16 remaining. 

The injury saga of Isaiah Foskey and how it changed Notre Dame

If Isaiah Foskey was badly hurt, he didn’t show it until after he slammed Plummer to the turf on Cal’s fourth-and-10 from the Irish 22. Foskey sacked the former Purdue quarterback for an 8-yard loss with around six minutes left, giving the ball back to his team.

After the play, Foskey was noticeably keeping his left arm and shoulder away from teammates as he jogged back to the sideline.

The injury occured in the third quarter, after Cal running back DeCarlos Brooks rumbled for a 10-yard gain to the Notre Dame 36-yard line. Foskey was somewhere in on the tackle, amongst numerous Irish defenders, but was the only one still laying when the pile broke off. He left the field on his own power. 

Cal noticed Notre Dame’s star VYPER was no longer on the field, too, and immediately attacked his replacement, Justin Ademilola, on the ensuing play. The Golden Bears ran right at Ademilola, pulling a couple of offensive lineman to his direction as Brooks gained 24 yards, setting Cal up at the Notre Dame 12-yard line. Three plyas later, Plummer punched in a one-yard keeper, to put Cal up 17-14. 

Foskey, who missed a couple of defensive series through the remainder of the game, was able to return, and made his biggest impact of the game when the Irish needed it most. 

Following the game, there was no update given about Foskey's status.

The final Hail Mary

In that final minute, the Golden Bears were more like the Golden Cats, seemingly back to life every time Notre Dame thought it had won. 

Freeman joked that there were some conversations with God as Cal worked its way over midfield, trailing 24-17. Notre Dame thought it had won the game on a Clarence Lewis interception, only for it to be called back for a targeting on JD Bertrand (Bertrand will have to miss the first half of next week’s North Carolina game). 

Then, the Irish thought they won on TaRiq Bracy’s scoop-and-score, only to see upon review, that Plummer’s knee was indeed down while he was throwing the ball. 

The Golden Bears still had one last shot at the end zone, with the ball at Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Plummer floated a pass high and deep. Notre Dame’s Jack Kiser, Ramon Henderon and Brandon Joseph simultaneously tried to grab the ball, instead popping it into the air. Joseph, again, had a chance to grab it, before a Cal player knocked it out of his grasp and into the waiting arms of wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter, who was laying on his backside.  

The ball fell through Hunter's hands to the ground. The instant reaction inside Notre Dame Stadium was more like confusion, as if Notre Dame needed permission to celebrate. 

Cal was finally out of lives. The clock had struck midnight. And Notre Dame had win No. 1 on the season.