Every time the Irish come out of the Notre Dame Stadium home locker room, they are reminded to play like a champion.
Playing like a champion requires attention to detail and urgency. Yet, for some reason, even with that frequent and ubiquitous reminder before taking the field, the Irish have been inconsistent at home.
Head Coach Marcus Freeman has preached “urgency” the last few weeks in practice. The need to have a sense of urgency the “minute we step onto the practice field. The minute we come out of the locker room.”
That urgency was evident last Saturday against UNLV in the Irish’s 44-21 beatdown of the previously 4-3 Rebels. The urgency showed on special teams – the Irish blocked two punts and had solid punt returns, setting up scoring drives. The urgency was evident in senior Isaiah Foskey’s three sacks.
There are five games left in Freeman’s maiden voyage as head coach – six with a bowl game. He’s 4-4, including last season’s bowl game. Notre Dame faces three top 16 teams in the final five games of the regular season, and they’ll need urgency and consistency to beat those top teams.
In Monday’s weekly press conference, Freeman spoke about how his former coach at Ohio St., a national championship winner, Jim Tressel, stopped by South Bend en route to Chicago last week. Tressel’s message to his former player was simple: the law of progression, i.e. progress.
“The road to better is bumpy. It’s not as smooth as we all want it to be. We’re going to have to go through our ups and downs to continue to improve,” Freeman said.
“Our goal is to minimize those bumps, keep them as small as we can. It’s never a smooth line to wherever you want to go.
Instead of it being a loss in a game, maybe that’s you’re down a couple of points, and you find a way to win. Our goal is to make those hills and divots so small.”
Now, on Saturday, Notre Dame faces top 16 and 6-1 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome – now JMA Wireless Dome. In a back-and-forth game, the Orange took #5 Clemson to the wire last Saturday on the road.
The Irish defense will have a tall task in slowing down Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader, who is 6’4, 227 lbs, and can run.
Consistency and progress are how the Irish will do so.
“Consistency is something that we’re all as a program that every position on our team has to improve at,” Freeman said.
On quarterback Drew Pyne, Freeman noted Pyne’s ability to not dwell on mistakes or missed opportunities. “‘I missed a throw,’” he said on Pyne’s attitude… “He was able to not let one bad play turn into two, turn into three.”
The Irish offensive line has continued to gel, and the running game has gained steam, though sophomore running back Audric Estime continues to deal with ball security issues. Sophomore Logan Diggs ran 28 times against UNLV for 130 yards, helping the Irish backs to a total of 223 overall.
Including two plays that technically count as passes – two jet sweep forward scoops to wide receiver Braden Lenzy – the Irish ran the ball 23 straight times to end the third quarter and start the fourth quarter and scored two touchdowns on those drives.
“The ability to run the ball 22 times and get two touchdowns is really impressive,” Freeman said.
The offensive line will need to continue that dominance against Syracuse. Urgency and consistency and the law of progression.
“Urgency is the point of emphasis. Urgency throughout the entirety of the game. At halftime, it was 30-7, you look at the second half; we ended up tying them. The sign of a dominant football team, is a team that no matter the score, the series, you’re able to be effective,” Freeman said.
“We have to be able to progress towards being a dominant football team.
“I said the same thing in practice yesterday. You lose; everyone has a sense of urgency. Everyone has a critical eye. We have to have that same critical eye this week. We’ve got to increase that. Winning shouldn’t take away from the evaluation and urgency to improve.”
If the Irish approach this week of practice leading up to two straight games against top 16 teams, one a top five team, the Irish should be able to not only compete deep into the games but win at least one of them. The Irish played #2 Ohio St. to a 21-10 game that the Irish led until the end of the third quarter.
It’s time for Notre Dame to reach a new level.
“We are a good football team that sometimes doesn’t actually play like one,” Freeman said.
“We needed this [the UNLV win]. The ability to give yourself… put yourself in position to win, that’s what we focus on. For our mentality, our confidence. It’s our job as coaches to get our team to perform this way,” he said.
Removing the bumps and making the arrow in the law of progression straighter and more vertical is the next step.
If it sounds like law school, perhaps that’s because the former professor, Tressel, visited his former pupil.
With five games left in the regular season, an urgent Irish know now’s the time to fill in the divots.