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Crow: Notre Dame refuses to waver to turn season around

After Notre Dame’s massive upset victory over No. 4 Clemson, after Irish fans stormed the field and after he was met with raucous applause in the tunnels of Notre Dame Stadium, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman was asked a question that initially stumped him.

Why — after a season full of trials and tribulations, stunning losses and great wins — had Notre Dame just dominated one of the best teams in the country?

“You know what? I wish I could explain exactly how this season has gone. You can’t,” Freeman said. “We didn’t foresee this game going that way, this season going this way.”

Freeman, like many fans, probably did not predict an 0-2 start that included a defeat at the hands of Marshall, only the second Irish home loss since 2018. Or that the third would come five weeks later against Stanford, a team that this week lost 52-14 to Washington State. Three wins against top-25 opponents, including a convincing victory against a playoff-caliber team in Clemson, is more in line with what was expected for Notre Dame.

In hindsight, though, a season like the one that the Irish are having probably should have been expected all along. A first-year head coach, new quarterback and untested skill position players are not typically ingredients found in the recipe for national title contenders. Alabama went 7-6 in their first season under Nick Saban while Georgia finished 8-5 in Kirby Smart’s first year at the helm. Clemson, who has lost just 10 games in the last seven years combined, lost five in Dabo Swinney’s first full season.

Notre Dame was awash in good vibes and positive energy to start the season following an 11-2 finish in 2021, and the hiring of Freeman. That energy remained after a competitive loss against No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, but disappeared in a flash following the Marshall game, a loss that saw sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner knocked out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.

At that point, it would have been difficult to blame the team for shifting its focus to the future while grinding its way through a forgettable season just as Alabama, Georgia and Clemson each did in their first year under a new coach. Instead, Freeman made certain that the team would remain as locked-in as ever.

“You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing,” Freeman said. “So I make sure, when I walk out of my office, that I’m the most confident leader that I can be. They need that. They will go as their leader goes, and I have to do that.”

This approach of steadiness and staying the course was frustrating for Irish fans in the season’s early stages, as there was no moment when the switch flipped and Notre Dame began playing at the level that they were expected to. The 0-2 start was followed by a mostly uninspiring win against Cal in junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s first career start. Notre Dame played some of its best football over the next few weeks, crushing North Carolina on the road (which now looks very impressive) and beating BYU in Las Vegas (which now looks less impressive). The next weekend, though, it was back to square one, as the Irish were shut out in the first half on the way to a 16-14 home loss against a Stanford team that had not beaten an FBS opponent.

From that point on, Notre Dame has only improved, soundly beating UNLV before hammering No. 16 Syracuse on the road and now taking down the Tigers. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs, who ran for 114 yards against Clemson, said after the game that Freeman’s message of consistency made all the difference from where the Irish began the season to now.

“He’s that type of coach that’s going to come into the meeting and tell you what you need to do to get better,” Diggs said. “He’s going to keep on being the same Coach Freeman every single day of the week.”

That difference is striking — the result of steady improvement over the course of a long season. It started on the defensive end, where a unit that struggled with ceding big plays early in the year has now produced five straight excellent performances, with assistance from the special teams squad’s nation-leading six blocked punts. Offensively, Notre Dame rushed for a combined 206 yards in its two season-opening losses. The Irish have since surpassed that total in five of their last six games behind standout play from Diggs and sophomore Audric Estime, as well as a constantly-improving offensive line that Diggs referred to as “one of the best in the country” after they overwhelmed Clemson’s elite front seven.

Notre Dame’s passing attack remains an area for improvement, though Pyne has played well in several games after unexpectedly being thrust into action. Against Clemson, he was not asked to do much as the Irish leaned heavily on an effective run game. However, Pyne consistently made key plays at opportune moments through the air and on the ground in a performance reminiscent of former Irish star Ian Book, who was in attendance on Saturday. Freeman described Pyne as a “winner,” a word often used to describe Book, who won more games than any other quarterback in Notre Dame history.

All this being said, it feels like Notre Dame has figured out how to win games, and it starts up front on both sides of the ball. In Freeman’s eyes, though, keeping a consistent mindset is easier when the team is struggling and the need to improve is obvious. The Irish are now on a winning streak and have praise coming at them from every direction, and Freeman’s leadership is more important than ever.

“When you lose, it’s easy to look at yourself and say, ‘How can I get better, and what do I have to do as an individual and how can we tune out the outside noise and be intentional in our work?’” Freeman said. “The challenge will be when we have success to continue to have that mindset of improvement and selflessness and continuing to just stay together.”

The Irish, under Freeman, never wavered or lost confidence during the tough times, and there is no reason to believe that they will amid their current run of success. Notre Dame just earned the Freeman Era’s first signature win. Behind an even-keeled mentality and commitment to the process, regardless of on-field results, it is easy to imagine many more to come.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Matthew at mcrow@nd.edu.