It’s hard to believe that just last week, there were many Notre Dame fans across the country expecting the Irish to finish the season 11-1 after a hard-fought loss to Ohio State in the opening week of the season. Fast forward a week and the narrative is completely different following a stunning Irish defeat to the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Being a lifelong Notre Dame football fan, I have faced plenty of lows. USC’s reign of terror over the Irish during the Charlie Weis era. A 3-9 season in 2007. The national championship blowout loss to Alabama in 2013. A 4-8 season in 2016. And of course, the pair of recent CFP losses.
Despite all of those painful memories, this might be an all-time low for me. That Marshall game will forever be burned into my head as I sat in the student section in utter disbelief. Notre Dame usually finds a way to win games like that one. But that just wasn’t the case last Saturday. I had never left a Notre Dame football game early. But I did on Saturday after the Drew Pyne interception because I didn’t want to waste more time on a team that had looked lackluster and effortless all day.
Last December, when Marcus Freeman was announced as head coach, I had full faith in Freeman. I truly believed that he would be the coach to finally get the Irish to a national title. After a stunning 0-3 start to the Freeman Era, I am now beyond skeptical.
In each of Freeman’s three losses, the Irish have led in the second half and have looked like the better team in parts of each game. And just like clockwork in all three of the games, the team utterly collapses, forgets how to play defense in the fourth quarter and fails to execute late in the game. It’s one thing to have less talent than the other team and be outplayed. But that hasn’t really been the case in any of the three losses. In each of those games (yes, even Ohio State), the Irish proved they had the talent to go toe-to-toe with their opponent and win the game.
Ultimately, those close losses come down to one thing: coaching. The Irish have been out-coached in each of the three losses, and ultimately, that has been the difference. I could point fingers at offensive coordinator Tommy Rees as well, but I think the problem has been bigger than him so far. This is, after all, the Freeman Era. This is Coach Freeman’s football team. There has to be some sense of urgency in this football program, and I don’t get the sense there is right now. A loss to Marshall should be a big deal. But it seems like the fanbase and media are waving if off like everything is going to be alright.
Freeman said after the loss to Oklahoma State in the bowl game that the “honeymoon phase is over.” After the atrocious beginning to this season, the relationship is even more than post-honeymoon strained now. Freeman must do everything in his power to right the sinking ship that is Notre Dame this season. Even though the Irish will be playing mostly for pride here on out, Freeman has to energize his team and get them back to playing Notre Dame football.
I haven’t given up on Freeman this yet. But I am angry, confused and anxious. The recruiting has been great under Freeman, and I still believe Freeman can be a great head coach at Notre Dame. But I need to see something from him this year that proves that to me.
For that reason, this weekend at Cal is a must-win game for Coach Freeman. Another loss at home to a sub-par opponent will raise even more doubts about Freeman and could send this season into free-fall — if it isn’t already.
So, what do the Irish need to do to get into the win column? Losing sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner to a season ending injury certainly isn’t going to help, but hopefully the team can rally around Drew Pyne. If Pyne is going to be successful, though, the offensive line has to improve drastically. The Irish have failed to establish a run game in both games this season. And that, in turn, has made it difficult to find consistency in the passing game. The Irish should have three solid backs in junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs. Now is the time to get those three going offensively.
Aside from the offensive line, the Irish need to take care of the football. They didn’t do that at the end of the Marshall game, and it arguably made the difference. The Irish might find themselves in a lot of low scoring games and handing the opposing team good field position will cost the Irish greatly.
The defense has not been the issue this season. But they have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, recording only three sacks this season. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey has been relatively quiet for the Irish this season. He needs to energize the Irish front seven going forward and generate some turnovers to help out a struggling Irish offense.
Let’s take a quick detour and look back to 2011, the last time the Irish started 0-2. Last week was not the first time the Irish suffered a horrible loss in the home opener. In fact, in Brian Kelly’s second season as head coach, the Irish lost the home opener to South Florida — a game I was actually at as an excited ten-year old Notre Dame fanatic. Despite the loss, the Irish managed to finish a respectable 8-5 and beat some quality opponents. The following season, the Irish completed a perfect 12-0 regular season.
I see plenty of parallels between last week’s Marshall game and the South Florida game. And if the Irish can clean up a couple of the things I mentioned, there’s no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame can get some wins this year and build confidence into next season.
These next few weeks are crucial, though. The Freeman Era is currently teetering on the brink of disaster and how this football team finishes out this year will be pivotal in Marcus Freeman developing himself as a legitimate head football coach. Marcus Freeman, I am rooting for you. But it’s time to win some football games. If these losses keep cascading into more defeats, the Freeman Era might burn out as quickly as it took over.
Contact Nate Moller at firstname.lastname@example.org