Freeman guides No. 18 Notre Dame back from 0-2 start
SOUTH PLIAGE, Ind.
Marcus Freeman began his first full season as Notre Dame coach with a stumble and a fall.
Losing to No. 2 Ohio State was understandable. Losing the home opener to Marshall and slipping from preseason No. 5 outside the standings in the first two weeks of the season was not. And losing starting quarterback Tyler Buchner to a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 2 only made things worse.
The Fighting Irish responded to the precarious moment by winning seven of eight games – all with new quarterback Drew Pyne.
“It could have unraveled after Marshall,” Pyne said.
With the Irish (7-3) no longer in the college football playoff mix, they reasserted themselves in the national conversation after dealing with No. 13 North Carolina (9-1) and No. 9 Clemson (9-1) their only loss of the season. And that helped resurgent Notre Dame move up to 18th in the AP Top 25.
Freeman turned things around, first blaming himself for early season failures rather than calling players or coaches out. It’s a decision that has earned the respect of the players.
“I’m the first one to get up there and say, ‘Here are the areas where I need to improve,'” Freeman said. players, you lose them. As soon as you blame the coaches for everything, you lose them.
Freeman focused on starting the ground game. In its first two games, Notre Dame averaged 15.5 points and 103.0 rushing yards, which ranked it 110th out of 131 FBS programs.
The problem? What was supposed to be a talented offensive line and loaded tight end room, led by preseason All-Americans Jarrett Patterson and Michael Mayer, struggled to block effectively. Notre Dame has therefore gone back to basics.
The Irish rushed for 200 or more yards in five wins, including 263 against Clemson, who entered the game with the nation’s No. 19 running defense.
“It’s been a bit of a turbulent season to say the least,” said Mayer, one of the tight end’s top prospects in the NFL Draft next April. “We have worked hard. We kept our heads down. We did what we had to do.
Strong special teams units also helped. Notre Dame has blocked six punts in the past five games and is tied for the national lead in that category.
“It starts at the top,” said special teams coordinator Brian Mason. “Coach Freeman allows us on special teams to use some of our front row players. We have very good defensive players on the punt block team.
Notre Dame’s top-30 defense stalwarts, such as Jack Kiser, Clarence Lewis and Bo Bauer, have each blocked a punt this season and preseason All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey has two blocks.
Yet there have been too many disappointments.
The Irish lost 16-14 to struggling Stanford at home and were locked in a close game last weekend against Navy. But after back-to-back wins over ranked foes Syracuse and Clemson, the Irish overcame an 18-yard offensive effort that scored a first down and zero points in the second half to hold the contenders, 35-32.
Freeman’s confidence never wavered and his humility provided a stability that helped Notre Dame find their way back.
“He’s the same guy every day,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said. “His approach with the players has been great. I think the players respect that. They respect his consistency, his appreciation, his gratitude to them and the fact that he’s in the burrow with them.
Notre Dame closes out the regular season with Saturday’s game against Boston College (3-7) and a showdown with No. 7 USC (9-1) the following week.
Win or lose, Freeman continues to fervently pursue improvement after learning that the key to success isn’t following a perfect plan — it’s adapting to unforeseen missteps.
“If someone said to me, ‘I’m going to be a head coach for the first time. What should I do?’ Freeman said. “I would say, ‘Be yourself. Work hard, but have a sense of urgency in everything you do.’ You can’t just have a plan and think the plan will just fix things.
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