SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 13 Notre Dame dominated Tennessee State 56-3 on Saturday to move to 2-0 with a pair of easy wins in which it didn’t allow a touchdown. Here are some initial thoughts and takeaways:
1. Midway through the fourth quarter, the video board caught Sam Hartman on the sidelines, golden helmet long since replaced by green backward hat. The screen flashed Hartman’s stat line — 14-of-17 for 194 yards and three total touchdowns — sending the student section into raptures. And Hartman saw it and heard it, which is why the quarterback tried to make it harder for the camera to see him, ducking behind quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli.
Try as he might, there is not turning focus off Notre Dame’s quarterback, who was again in masterful control of the Irish offense like a player who’s been here for six years, not nine months. Hartman has as many total touchdowns this season as total incompletions, seven apiece. It won’t stay like this forever, but Hartman expands what offense can mean to Notre Dame.
Against Tennessee State, that meant Marcus Freeman letting Hartman cook on a one-minute drill just before halftime with one timeout to spare. Hartman went 6-of-6 of the drive, hitting tight ends four times, including the score to Holden Staes.
The Irish needed 38 seconds in total.
It’s hard to remember the last time Notre Dame had a quarterback who could function quite like this, able to turn seemingly any possession into points, regardless of down, distance and time. Hartman might want to be just one of the guys on Notre Dame’s football team, but he is clearly not. The video board made that point. And if Hartman keeping playing like this against NC State next week, the rest of college football will realize it too.
Sam Hartman airs it out for a 24-yard Irish TD! 🙌|
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) September 2, 2023
2. Notre Dame planned to empty its bench on Saturday. And it planned ahead to make the most of that opportunity, particularly for quarterbacks Steve Angeli and Kenny Minchey. The former got this first real action running the playbook after replacing Hartman at the half. Angeli finished 8-of-11 for 130 yards and two touchdowns, both catch-and-runs by Notre Dame running backs. His first career touchdown was 40-yard dump in the flat to Jadarian Price, who is also his roommate.
“I was proud of Steve. Made some good decisions,” Freeman said. “It wasn’t perfect, which it’s never perfect, but I thought he did a good job of keeping drives going, making big plays on I think some third downs and obviously putting the ball in the end zone.”
Minchey got more end-of-game work but still completed both of his pass attempts. He was one 14 freshmen who got work against Tennessee State. That group included Jeremiyah Love, who scored the game’s first touchdown, and Rico Flores, who made the game’s first catch.
Depth should show against an overmatched opponent like Tennessee State. But that’s different than the plan coming together like it did for Notre Dame on Saturday. How many freshmen saw time might not impact the rest of this season in a significant way, but it’s a healthy position for the program to be moving forward.
3. It would have been easy for Notre Dame to look past Tennessee State, with next week’s trip to NC State the season’s first real test. And yet, the questions postgame to Freeman and the players skipped right through Raleigh to the season’s marquee matchups against Ohio State, USC and Clemson. And based on how the players answered, Notre Dame seems completely in the moment, particularly Hartman, threw three interceptions and took four sacks in a 30-21 loss at NC State last season.
“There’s no overlooking here,” Hartman said. “I understand the challenge, we understand the challenge at hand especially on the road.
“Obviously any game on the road and college football is always another degree harder.”
How Notre Dame handles a road environment — even with kickoff set for noon — will be question the Irish answer one way or another next weekend. Central Michigan follows at home and then Ohio State comes to Notre Dame Stadium in what could be a candidate for game of the week in college football.
The Irish still have questions to answer in Raleigh. Pass that test and then the look-ahead questions would make a little more sense,.
4. For the offseason angst around Notre Dame hosted its first FCS and HBCU opponent, the home opener was listed as a sellout and Freeman made a point of marking the occasion meaning more than a simple victory. The message seemed to hit home.
“Sometimes you have to take a minute and reflect on what an opportunity it was for our football program to play in this game, and to be the first team to play not only an FCS opponent but an HBCU, it’s really important and it’s humbling, especially being an African-American head coach,” Freeman said. “This is what you want for college football.”
Freeman embraced Tennessee State head coach and former Ohio State Buckeyes legend Eddie George postgame, ending a weekend that Notre Dame made about more than football. On Friday night, George participated in a diversity panel at Notre Dame with women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey and former Irish receiver Derrick Mayes. Freeman attended.
Notre Dame doesn’t have another FCS opponent scheduled. While the Irish are unlikely to make this level of competition a habit, it also made sure to maximize the exposure that came with hosting an HBCU program.
And yes, the Tennessee State band was as advertised during its halftime show
(Photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)