As Marcus Freeman emerged from the winter wonderland that was Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon, his team was feeling something it had not been all season — relaxed. All of Notre Dame’s first 10 games either had some type of chaotic, disappointing or electrifying element to them. But the Irish did not feel any need to create any unnecessary surprises in a 44-0 annihilation of Boston College.
The celebrating wasn’t just reserved for the senior class as a whole. Nor for an Irish team that appears to have finally stabilized after an up-and-down first half. However, on a day usually centered around celebrating the past, two Irish players made history in the present. Junior tight end Michael Mayer notched another illustrious milestone, becoming the third player in Irish history with 2,000 yards, a mark that has become more and more inevitable with every dominating performance he has put together over the last few years.
The other landmark statistic, however, was less of a sure thing. In January, defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey received a third round grade from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee. The third team All-American had to decide whether to take the leap to the NFL. Former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck’s all-time sacks record of 24.5 was within reach — Foskey had 15.5 by his name at the end of his junior year. But, that isn’t the reason he chose to return.
“I believe in Coach Freeman and I just believe in the whole team that we can actually win a national championship,” he said. “That’s the main reason I came back.”
Foskey’s ultimate goal will go unrealized. But Freeman has consistently preached the importance of dealing with setbacks.
“It’s never as you foresee it on Friday,” he said. “But it’s how you respond to the different events that happen.”
Foskey has handled that disappointment well, unsurprisingly being a key piece to an Irish defense that has been Notre Dame’s most consistent unit all season. While the Irish run game and punt block units have emerged down the stretch, the defense has been stout almost all season.
The Irish are top-30 in the country in scoring defense, allowing less than 21 points per game on average. But they too have evolved as the season progressed. The Irish did not force a single turnover in their first three games when a big play could have made things different against Ohio State and especially Marshall. Over their last three games, the Irish have forced eight, including a season-high five against the Eagles — something that has been a long time coming.
“I’ve been a defensive coordinator plenty of times where you stress turnovers or takeaways, and it doesn’t happen,” Freeman said. “But you keep going. You don’t get flustered — you challenge everything. You find a better way. Our guys are taking advantage of their opportunities. You can work at something tirelessly and not get the result you want. If you quit, you never get the result. But the defensive staff has continued to work on takeaways, takeaways, takeaways. I think it’s a great lesson for our entire program. At some point, it’ll come.”
The last play of that half is one Foskey will remember forever. He beat Eagles right tackle Ozzy Trapilo clean off the line and wrapped BC quarterback Emmett Morehead up before he even realized Foskey was closing in. It was his 25th in a Notre Dame uniform. He hardly celebrated it differently than any of the first 24. But everyone in Notre Dame Stadium, including his head coach, knew it meant more.
“Break(ing) the sack record is huge when you think about the elite pass rushers we’ve had in the history of Notre Dame football,” Freeman said.
On a unit that is tied for 13th in the country in sacks, Foskey leads the way with 9.5 — more than three times more than any other player.
Naturally, his impact went beyond that one record breaking play. Foskey and the Irish defensive line wrecked havoc on Morehead and the Eagles’ run game all afternoon. Foskey and friends made the big plays, with Foskey jumping on a second-quarter fumble forced by another senior linebacker, Jack Kiser. But he was also an integral part of an Irish d-line that allowed just one rushing yard in the first half.
It was a performance emblematic of what Freeman and the Irish have learned this season. While not all challenges are created equal, none will conquer themselves. After consecutive sackless games against BYU and Stanford, Foskey’s record pursuit was in jeopardy. But, the senior showed his teammates how you respond to difficult times by tallying three sacks the very next game against UNLV. He also has at least one sack in three of the four games since.
Foskey’s strong finish to the year likely means he’ll receive more bullish feedback on his NFL future. But his return to Notre Dame means his legacy will cut deeper into the program’s illustrious history. Recording 25 sacks and counting is a major reason why. So is the work he has put in off the field to become a leader for the Irish defense.
“He didn’t come just to break the record. He came back to win the national championship. He didn’t win a national championship here, but what he did for this program, and what these seniors did for this program will be the reason why we do win a national championship in the near future,” Freeman said. “I told those guys last night, just ‘thank you.’ Because they’ve built the foundation… of what is to come.”
What is to come for Foskey and the Irish remains to be seen. But if what happened Saturday is any indicator, it will probably be something pretty special.
Contact Andrew McGuinness at firstname.lastname@example.org.