The mood in the locker room after Notre Dame’s victory over Cal last weekend was jubilant. It was Marcus Freeman’s first career win as a head coach, and it was the first win of the season for the players and coaches who worked so hard in the offseason for this moment.
Compare that to the mood of Irish fans as the game came to an end. Rather than joy, it was more a collective sigh of relief that was heard across South Bend as Cal’s last-second Hail Mary attempt finally fell harmlessly to the ground. Everyone in the stands seemed relieved that Notre Dame didn’t lose, rather than feeling happy that they won.
It is a challenge to find hope and joy in what some consider to be a lost season after just three weeks. This season hasn’t gone exactly to plan; dropping from fifth in the nation to unranked in the span of two weeks hurts, and it hurts badly.
Perhaps this is because of how high the expectations were for Notre Dame prior to the season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, and one of the best defensive players in college football, Notre Dame was ranked fifth in the country before even playing a down. Not only that, but the expectations the fans had for Marcus Freeman were astronomical. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a first-year head coach.
Irish fans everywhere, including myself, bought into this undeserved hype. And now, it seems, we are paying the price. Losses hurt the most when expectations are highest. Conversely, there is very little joy in winning the games your team expects to win.
In all honesty, expectations for a first-year head coach shouldn’t have been this high. Yes, this is Notre Dame football. And like it or not, there will always be an extremely high level of scrutiny. It is undoubtedly part of the job description. However, it seemed that the expectations placed on Freeman were higher before this season than they ever were in 12 seasons under Brian Kelly.
This may have been because of the immense success Freeman had in recruiting over the offseason. Or the fact that his players clearly love playing for him. Maybe even the lingering resentment over Kelly’s abrupt departure. Whatever the reason, the fanbase’s expectations of Freeman set them up for disappointment this year.
Still, we all owe it to ourselves to find joy in this season. This isn’t one of those “your team is terrible, here’s how to enjoy watching them anyway,” columns. Notre Dame is still a very good team that could challenge for another New Year’s Six Bowl this year. Despite the slow start, the season is far from over.
It is all too easy to fall into negativity when junior quarterback Drew Pyne throws the ball at the feet of a wide-open target. Or when the secondary allows a receiver to run free. Notre Dame fans aren’t used to seeing these kinds of mistakes. Fans have grown used to the Irish beating teams they are expected to beat, and often falling flat in the rare instances when they are the underdog. This year has changed that narrative completely. North Carolina, an unranked opponent, is currently a 1.5-point favorite ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
If the Irish manage to beat the Tar Heels this weekend on the road, celebrate like it’s the upset victory that it is. Not merely another win against a team they should beat. Winning a game on the road against a quality opponent would be a big step for Freeman and the team. And it should be treated as such.
For all of Notre Dame’s struggles this year, they are still a good team with talented players. Enjoy watching junior running back Chris Tyree break tackles in the open field. And junior tight end Michael Mayer bowling over defenders as he makes another first-down catch. And senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey’s third-down sacks.
But most of all, enjoy the wins. Here’s my advice for this weekend’s game against UNC, which is expected to be a close one. As are most of the seasons of the ones in Notre Dame’s season. Don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for disaster to strike. Instead, wait for the team to make a big play, and celebrate.
If fans are too busy waiting for failure, we may miss celebrating the unexpectedly great moments.