When Notre Dame opened as a 13.5-point underdog to Ohio State back in May, head coach Marcus Freeman made waves with his response.
“Make it 14,” Freeman said.
Well, he got his wish and then some. The Irish enter their Saturday showdown with the Buckeyes as 17.5 point underdogs.
“We’ll use that in the team meeting today,” Freeman said on Monday. “I remember the one time we were on College Gameday [when Freeman made the ‘make it 14′ comment], I said just keep making [the spread] go up and up.”
Freeman’s brash confidence is not meant to be disrespectful to Ohio State. He’s repeatedly referred to the Buckeyes as a great team and a great program. But he does have well-placed confidence in his roster, a team that has several potential first-round draft picks and a roster that saw several players forgo NFL Draft aspirations last year to return for a national championship run.
There are questions to be sure. First-time starting quarterback sophomore Tyler Buchner has talent. But does he have the composure to stay level-headed in a manic environment? Can one of his targets in a thin wide receiver corps establish themselves as a true No. 1 target? Can any of Notre Dame’s three running backs make up for the missing production of Kyren Williams? Can the Irish secondary contain Ohio State’s aerial attack?
Freeman has done so many things right over the course of his tenure as head coach at Notre Dame. But of course, there’s one blemish — the one game he’s actually coached. The Irish came out hot in the Fiesta Bowl, taking an early 28-7 lead against Oklahoma State. But they ultimately fell, 37-35 in a game that the Irish failed to make necessary adjustments down the stretch.
Recruiting wins are great. There is legitimacy in building off-field momentum. But if Notre Dame comes out and loses by 20, a lot of that built-up goodwill is going to dissipate. No recent Irish regular season game has generated the type of emotion and build-up of this contest. The nine-month ramp-up since both teams finished their successful 2021 seasons has created palpable tension and hype as the matchup nears. And now, the challenge for the Irish lies in playing with the right level of emotion.
“The emotions you have … we get to go play a great team. We get to play in a great, hostile environment. You get the emotion, the excitement about going into a place like that and getting to compete against a great program like Ohio State,” Freeman noted. “How can you keep it contained and focus on the things that matter, and that’s the preparation. And that’s what we can control between now and Saturday. We have to be very intentional and have a great week of preparation.”
For Freeman, there could be added emotion in making his regular season head coaching debut against his alma mater. But he continues to remain adamant that this isn’t the case for him, referring to himself as “emotionless” in the matter.
“My focus is Notre Dame football and preparing this team. And then when we get to September 3rd, Ohio State happens to be the opponent,” Freeman said.
Instead, the Irish’s head coach is focusing on harnessing the inevitable emotions of his players and applying those emotions in a beneficial manner on the gridiron.
Freeman’s embraced this throughout the offseason and summer and fall camps. He knows the environment will be hostile. But he wants to emphasize that the Irish are still playing football. He’s tried new tactics, such as moving a Notre Dame practice to a local high school, just adding to the idea that no matter where they’re playing or practicing, the mission remains the same. He’s added a new level of intensity to Irish practices, something that current players have lauded.
For a program that has frequently found itself boat-raced against elite opponents, starting fast and generating early momentum is important. As such, Freeman has added competitive twists to practice that frequently come in the form of early competitions between the offense and defense. Usually, these additions come right out of stretching, boosting the competitive nature of the practice instantly. This includes red zone drills, receiver-defensive back one-on-one competitions, and more.
“We try to start practice with some openers and different situations. The minute we’re done with stretching, we go right to a competitive situation,” Freeman explained. “It’s a mindset, but it’s also about execution … starting fast has been important for us since the day I became head coach. You can’t start slow against a team like Ohio State.”
For nine months now, the college football world has watched Marcus Freeman build momentum for this Notre Dame program that hasn’t been seen in years. Now, they’ll watch him take center stage in Columbus, Ohio. His group of gold-clad underdogs will be in tow, now underdogs of 17.5 points.
But why not make it 18? To quote Freeman, why not “keep making it go up and up”? The Irish will be ready regardless.