Coach Marcus Freeman is off to the worst start of any head coach in Notre Dame history – 0-3. The Irish lost to a Sun Belt team against whom they were almost a three-touchdown favorite in Freeman’s first game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish fans went from elated that Freeman was hired to slightly deflated after the Irish blew a lead against top 10 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, to still pleased to see the Irish atop the early 2023 and 2024 recruiting rankings and excited for the 2022 season, to deflated yet hopeful again after a hard-fought loss to #2 Ohio State to start the season, all the way to wholly deflated with a home loss to Marshall to start the young season 0-2.
Freeman spoke in Saturday’s post-game press conference of the need to focus on every detail and to go back to basics. That the issues aren’t just one problem.
“We all have to look at ourselves as individuals, starting with the head coach on down. What do I… what do we have to do to fix the issues that we’re having. We have to look at the lack of execution in all phases and where we can improve that. We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves,” Freeman said.
Below are Three Keys to Keeping the Season and Culture of the Program Intact
For Freeman to turn this season around, and there’s ample opportunity against traditional rivals and highly-ranked competition, he must help Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees lead the offense and find an offensive identity. If quarterback Tyler Buchner’s injury is severe and keeps him out for any significant time, Drew Pyne is more than capable of being more than a game manager. Still, Rees and Freeman will have to play to their strengths – get the ball to playmakers Lorenzo Styles and Chris Tyree more frequently and get the ball out quickly while the offensive line finds its footing.
Freeman constantly talks about the need to run the ball and to be dominant up front. Unfortunately, that has not happened consistently. It’s up to Freeman and Rees to get creative to run Audric Estime, Logan Diggs, or Tyree behind Tight End and captain Michael Mayer and the best linemen. Offensive Line Coach Harry Hiestand must mix up the blocking schemes.
Rees took a gamble and called a passing play with fewer than 20 seconds left in the first half instead of having the Irish take a knee. Buchner missed a wide-open Braden Lenzy down the middle, though Lenzy did get his fingers on the ball. Explosive plays have been lacking, but specific play calls have shown they could happen. A better pass by Buchner or a better catch by Lenzy would have led to a touchdown. The Irish must execute in those instances.
Mayer talked in Saturday’s post-game press conference about how much the Irish focused on running the ball during fall camp and how capable they are. First, however, they need to execute and start clicking. Freeman remained focused on the o-line and d-line as well.
“If you can’t stop the run or get after the quarterback when it’s crunch time, or you can’t run the ball or protect the quarterback when it’s crunch time, we’re not where we need to be. If we want to be the program we all aspire to be, we’re going to need to be an o-line and a d-line program,” Freeman said.
It is early in Freeman’s tenure, and it hasn’t started how he, players, or fans expected. But if Freeman’s calling card is instilling toughness and dominating offensive and defensive lines, that’s a worthy goal. Irish fans often set former Coach Lou Holtz as the standard for Irish physicality. He was the last Irish coach to win a national championship. However, even Holtz started 5-6 in his first year in 1986, though he rallied the Irish from a disappointing season and a 17-point deficit against USC in the final game to beat the Irish’s top rival.
Former coach Brian Kelly lost to Tulsa and Navy in his first season before turning the season around, beating a ranked Utah team and USC before winning the Sun Bowl against Miami to finish the season. Kelly became the winningest coach in Notre Dame history before departing abruptly last season.
First-year coaches, even experienced ones, have growing pains; so far, Freeman has had his share. But that’s where leadership and culture must win out.
Leaders and Culture Have to Come Through
“I challenged the leaders… We have to stay together… look internally and say what do we have to do as individuals. What do we have to do as an individual to improve and to make sure we’re in position to execute,” Freeman said.
The critical question now is does the culture that the players and current head coach spoke about so glowingly last December and January when players rallied in support of Jack Swarbrick’s hiring of Freeman. Is the culture strong enough to overcome these early bumps in the 2022 road?
“That’s when we need our leadership the most when things are at the toughest moments. When it matters the most, that’s when your leadership has to come out,” Freeman said. “When things are tough, that’s when the character and leadership will show.”
“I’ve got to be a leader. You can’t start pointing the finger at any one person. I’ve got to point the finger at myself and say this is what I need to do to improve,” Freeman said.
Visibly upset after Saturday’s loss, captains Jarrett Patterson and Mayer vowed to lead. “A captain’s goal is to lead the team to victory. We’ve got a long season ahead. Our goal is to win the rest of our games… I won’t be focused on this game on Friday. I’ll be preparing for Cal,” Mayer said.
For the Irish to turn their season around, the leadership and culture of the program during these last five years of winning football must stay robust. The Irish were 54-10 in the previous five years. The senior leaders know that.
Keep the Recruiting Classes Together
Lastly, if Freeman and the team’s leaders can keep the morale high, find an offensive identity, and win, Freeman and the staff must also keep their top recruiting classes together – reassure recruits that the culture of the program is strong and that it is going in the right direction. If Freeman keeps the next two classes in the top 5 in the recruiting rankings, he will have out-recruited his predecessor. Recruits must see that the Irish have leaders who can right the ship despite a few bumpy waves.
Consensus four-star recruit and linebacker Drayk Bowen, who has been prolific in his tweeting and recruiting fellow recruits for next year’s Irish class, re-tweeted after Saturday’s loss: “When I mentioned to Dabo Swinney after the game that Marcus Freeman had lost his first three games as Notre Dame head coach, the ever-optimistic Swinney told me that Gene Stallings lost his first three games as Alabama head coach in 1990, then won the National Championship in 1992.” He also tweeted, “When things get hard, don’t run away, run through IT.”
After the loss to Marshall, fellow four-star recruit, defensive back Christian gray tweeted, “100,000,000 locked in, man.”
If those are the kinds of recruits and future leaders of the program Freeman is bringing in, and if he keeps the classes together with Bowen’s help, the Irish are in good hands.