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Football

Fueled by early failure, Freeman remains motivated, confident

| Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Are bowl games just consolation prizes as some fans claim they are?

If that’s the case, it’s a consolation prize that certainly meant a lot to those competing on Saturday. For Notre Dame, it mattered in large part due to the 35-year-old roaming the sidelines in a white Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl sweatshirt. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick hired Marcus Freeman as head coach in December after Brian Kelly up and left for LSU. Freeman did all the right things in his first month, flying around the country to seal up an elite recruiting class and mitigating any negative effects of the Kelly departure. But eventually, Freeman had to make his debut on the field. And four hours later, a story of pain and heartache, familiar to Irish fans in the last twelve years, etched its place in the first pages of the Marcus Freeman era. 

“As the leader of this program, again, it’s a pit in your stomach, as I told the group a minute ago, you want to bottle it up, and you want to remember how this feels,” Freeman said, before emphasizing, “The honeymoon stage is over.”

When Oklahoma State kicked off at 11 a.m. local time, it had been 34 days since Notre Dame last played a football game. It felt like eons ago that Notre Dame beat the Cardinal 45-14. After taking Stanford down, head coach Brian Kelly gave the game ball to tight end Michael Mayer and said the Irish should be in the College Football Playoff. Days later, he was named the head coach at LSU. The move threw the Irish football program into utter turmoil, but they emerged with their guy at the helm in Freeman. And thus began a month-long whirlwind. Finally, backed by 29-year-old offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, Freeman and the Irish marched into State Farm Stadium to take on the ninth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys. 

And then, the game happened. 

The Irish jumped out to a 28-7 lead before surrendering 30 unanswered points to the Cowboys and losing 37-35. The final stunned Irish fans in Glendale — this game immediately felt in-hand and, in some ways, it felt won before the kickoff. A few hours later, the Irish were stuck with more questions than answers after a 10th straight loss in a major bowl game. 

“They deserve a winning product. They deserve a team that every week goes out there and wins,” Freeman said of the Notre Dame fanbase. “It’s our job to make sure we prepare and do everything necessary to give this team, the fan base, the university, and everybody else that deserves it a really, really good product out on that field. So we’ll get back to work. That’s the only thing we know how to do.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman prepares his players for Oklahoma State at the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. The Irish fell to the Cowboys 37-35.

Offense torches elite defense early

There were a lot of good things that happened in Arizona for the Irish. The offense looked virtually unstoppable in the early going. While a lack of depth and one-dimensionality led to second-half struggles, the Irish still scored five touchdowns against the Cowboys. No other offense notched more than three this season. 

“It was obviously a first time for me being on the offensive side of the ball and listening to their communication. I thought it was really good,” Freeman commented. “Again, the play-calling and execution are two different things. Tommy [Rees] did a great job of getting a call in, felt like he had a great rhythm, and he did a great job.”

That being said, Rees’ youth showed as well. His game-planning was fantastic at the start, but as Oklahoma State adjusted, he seemingly faltered. The Irish’s first 34 plays of the second half resulted in 123 total yards (3.6 yards per snap) and zero points. Two turnovers also hurt.

“That has nothing to do with the play calls. It’s about execution…So we’re all going to look at ourselves; right? We’re all going to point the finger at ourselves and say what can I do as an individual to make sure we’re more prepared?” Freeman said, refusing to blame his offensive coordinator for the second-half slump. 

Quarterback Jack Coan also didn’t want to imply that Rees was at fault, “Coach Rees had a great game plan…Honestly, I feel like they were just making more plays, to be honest. I don’t think they were doing anything crazy to confuse me or the offense. At the end of the day, they were just making plays and we weren’t.” 

However, some decisions were certainly questionable from a play-calling perspective. Entering the game with really just five available wide receivers — only three of whom had played significant snaps — the Irish leaned heavily on the passing game. Coan attempted 68 passes — 33 more than his previous career-high. The exhaustion shone through as the Irish receivers failed to gain much separation from their coverage down the stretch. Meanwhile, with three healthy running backs, the Irish called just 17 designed runs. Even Oklahoma State defenders said after the game that the one-dimensional play calling made their job easier. 

Defense Flashed Dominance

Defensively, the Irish faced their own set of challenges. The defense played without Kyle Hamilton again. And, with Freeman elevated to head coach, they didn’t technically have a defensive coordinator either. So, it was defensive line coach Mike Elston calling plays for the first time on Saturday, and he too seemed prepared but inexperienced. Elston’s defense held the Cowboys without points on six of their first seven drives. However, as the Irish offense struggled, that meant more time on the field for the defense, and their execution wavered.

The Irish forced just one punt in the second half. However, they didn’t give in either. The fact that Notre Dame still had a chance was largely due to the defense. The Cowboys took four straight possessions to the red zone and came away with just six points. Two forced field goals and a pair of forced fumbles kept it a one-possession game. 

So again, there wasn’t a talent gap. There wasn’t a lack of preparation. And there were a lot of successes and positives to take away. And most importantly, the Irish have the fuel to move forward. 

“This is a special group; and for those that aren’t coming back, they’re going to be greatly missed,” Freeman said. “More than anything, I think there’s a group that’s, one, disappointed, but two, motivated to right what happened today and to start the progression for the future.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Freeman greets freshman running back Audric Estime ahead of the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame’s backfield had just 17 carries, but the future is bright with Estime and strong ’22 and ’23 recruiting classes at the position.

Freeman Era moves forward

The second-half collapse was concerning, but again, remember this is the first game of Freeman’s tenure. He, Elston and Rees gave the Irish at least a chance to win a New Year’s Six game. That’s something that hadn’t been done since the Lou Holtz era. While Saturday represented the 27th anniversary of Notre Dame’s last major bowl win, it also marked the 26th anniversary of the last time the Irish lost in a major bowl game by less than 14 points. 

So, was it really a disastrous start to the Marcus Freeman era? Despite allowing the comeback, Notre Dame proved that they could compete on the big stage. Not only that, but they proved they could compete even after a tumultuous month, missing their most valuable offensive player in Kyren Williams, and with a coaching staff full of inexperience. Against a top-10 defense, one of the most experienced coaches in the nation and a starting lineup full of experienced veterans, Notre Dame battled. Twice, they had fourth-quarter drives in Oklahoma State territory with a chance to take the lead. They were right in it until the end and came up just two points short.

The Irish battled under Freeman, Rees and Elston, and that’s more than they’ve shown on this stage before. Now, Freeman gets a full offseason to catch his breath and begin adding value to the program. Come September, Freeman will have his full coaching staff and a 2022 recruiting class with his handprints all over it. And don’t forget the currently top-ranked 2023 recruiting class waiting in the wings.

“[I will] do everything in my power that I can do to make sure this team improves every single day and that we improve, as an organization, in terms of how we recruit, our culture, how we develop these guys. That’s where my mindset is.” Freeman said.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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