A program-defining win for Marcus Freeman was there for the taking on Saturday night against Ohio State. Still, the Irish fell just short in a game that Notre Dame fans will remember far more for the Irish mistakes that cost them the chance for glory rather than the thrilling contest that resulted. Instead of celebrating a big-time win, the Irish now must pick up the pieces from one of the biggest “what could have been” games in program history.
Ten Men on the field is an all-time blunder
Notre Dame had just ten men on the field for the final two plays of the game, and it is simply inexcusable. When pressed, Freeman’s answer on Saturday night wasn’t much better. He tried blaming it on not being able to take a penalty there, but they had ten men for two plays. The first was AFTER a timeout. And Ohio State substituted before the game’s final play, so Notre Dame would have been allowed to do the same, and there was no risk of penalty—just a bad, bad look from Freeman and this staff all around.
It should have never come down to the final two plays after all the missed opportunities – the biggest being the dropped interception by DJ Brown a few plays earlier that would have ended the game. Still, that simply can’t happen. It’s not just a sign of inexperience from Freeman, it’s a sign of fundamental issues with the entire game-day coaching operation. Someone in the booth needed to see that and make sure the Irish were correct for the final play. It didn’t happen.
We knew there would be growing pains with a first-time head coach, but this mistake can only happen once and never again. It’s unacceptable by ANY MEANS, but it would be unforgivable if it ever happened again. There were several questionable coaching decisions over the final four minutes, but this was one of the biggest blunders any Notre Dame head coach has ever made in a big game in the program’s history.
Many other coaching mistakes were made
Unfortunately, Marcus Freeman and his staff were almost oh-fer in every critical decision they made. They went for it on 4th and 1 instead of kicking a field goal and got stuff. Another 4th and 1, where they rushed to the line, was blown up. When Freeman did call for a field goal on a 4th he could have gone for, Spencer Shrader missed it. Almost every single critical moment like that went against Notre Dame Saturday night. Not all were bad decisions at the moment, but the outcomes will define the staff.
Aside from those decisions, the game’s final four minutes featured some of the worst coaching we’ve seen from Notre Dame in years. Instead of feeding the ball to their 230 lbs bell cow running back Audric Estime, who was finally starting to get going, they got cute with the play calling. A potential clock-draining drive was blown up after a promising start, all while Ohio State got to keep one of their timeouts – a timeout that saved them the game when they used it instead of a 10-second run-off in the final 15 seconds.
The Notre Dame staff wasn’t perfect in the first 56 minutes, but they had Notre Dame in position to win during that time. Their performance over the final four minutes, however, is the kind of coaching that costs games, and in this case, it did just that.
The ghost of Pete Bercich still haunts Notre Dame
In the 1993 upset loss to Boston College, Notre Dame linebacker Pete Bercich let a game-sealing interception through his hands on the final BC drive. Thirty-five years later, DJ Brown did the same. Brown had a relatively easy interception go off both hands in the last minute that would have ended the game. Brown dropped another interception in the endzone earlier in the game as well.
Brown isn’t the reason Notre Dame lost the game. The list of mistakes from the staff and players is lengthy, but that play will stick out for years to come and be brought up at tailgates for the next 35 years as fans trade horror stories.
Heartbreak has come to define this program when it comes to games like this. Fans have come to expect it. For as electric as it was in the stadium, there was definitely a nervousness in my section as Ohio State got the ball. We had all seen this story before, and sure enough, it played out before our eyes once again. This is a program right now that just can’t get over that final hump even when it’s right there for taking, it bounces away just like the dropped interception.
Why did Notre Dame go after Sam Hartman if they weren’t going to use him in a big moment?
Sam Hartman was fine on Saturday night, but for all intents and purposes, was outplayed by a kid making his first career road start because the staff didn’t unleash him. Hartman threw the ball fewer against Ohio State last night than Tyler Buchner did against the Buckeyes last year—that’ lunacy.
Notre Dame’s offensive game plan felt very conservative and very much “play to keep it close” instead of being aggressive. Freeman explained the play calls on Notre Dame’s final drive by saying he wants to always be aggressive. The Irish were anything but aggressive for most of the game.
Chris Tyree got just 18 snaps. Audric Estime played just 25 of 65 snaps. All Tyree has done this year is make plays when given the ball. He had one touch last night.
The season isn’t over, but…
The margin for error right now is razor-thin. I am of the belief that even if Notre Dame wins out, they’d have an uphill battle for a CFP bid with a loss. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and then, but the playoffs should be a total afterthought for all involved. With a very tough road game at Duke this weekend and another top-5 opponent coming into two in two weeks in USC, Freeman, and Notre Dame need to ensure this doesn’t get off the rails.
Teams can usually respond to losses like this in one of two ways – a strong bounce back where they take out their frustrations on the next opponent OR another let down because they let the loss linger. This will be one of the most critical weeks in the early Marcus Freeman era. He has to get this team back on track and focused, or this season could get away from them quickly.
Lost in the blunders was a hell of a game plan from Al Golden
Notre Dame fans won’t be lining up to give Al Golden any props today after the ten men fiasco and all the bad plays given up on that final drive. Still, in back-to-back seasons, Golden has had an Ohio State offense that puts up points in bunches, largely bottled up. If someone told you at noon on Saturday that Ohio State would only score 17 points, you’d have taken it 10 out of 10 times and thought that Notre Dame would win.
Marvin Harrison Jr. caught 3 passes for just 32 yards as Notre Dame bottled him up for the second year in a row. Yes, there were some big breakdowns at terrible times, but at the end of the day, Notre Dame should win every game the defense holds a high-powered offense to 17 points.
The atmosphere was electric, and the takeover didn’t happen
For all the worries about an Ohio State takeover, Buckeye fans didn’t even show out in as many numbers as Cincinnati fans did two years ago. This was nothing in even the same realm as Georgia ‘17 or Nebraska ‘00. Notre Dame’s measures to limit the takeover were largely effective, and Notre Dame fans did their part in showing up in green en-mass.
After apprehension from some over the first few years, the “green out” appears to have really taken hold with fans finally. The head coach embracing it and the football department’s marketing efforts have also helped a lot.
A win was the only thing missing from a true Notre Dame moment last night. Well, that and one extra defensive end on the final two plays of the drive.