Weeks like the one Marcus Freeman faced this week following the devastating loss to Ohio State can make or break a young coach. Factor in the embarrassing ending featuring just ten men on the field for the final play, and things get even more challenging. Teams can go one of two ways after a loss like that, and how Freeman’s Fighting Irish respond could be a turning point, positively or negatively, in his young tenure.
Last weekend’s loss to Ohio State has been litigated online all week long. There was no excuse for it, and the game will go down in infamy for Notre Dame football for years to come – likely even in perpetuity. This kind of loss can stick with you if you let it. And that is Freeman and his staff’s monumental task today – to have the Fighting Irish solely focused on Duke. They can’t let Ohio State beat them a second time – especially since they should have never beaten them in the first place.
A win tonight, and everything is still in front of this Notre Dame team. They have another tremendous opportunity for a statement win in two weeks when USC comes to town. The trip to Clemson that looked like it would loom large in August looks less and less scary with each Tiger loss. Louisville, Pitt, Wake Forest, Stanford? None should challenge this team. So win tonight, and the 11th-ranked Irish could still challenge for a playoff spot.
On the flip side, though, if the Irish can’t put last week behind them and fall to a pretty good Duke squad, then this season could get off the rails in a hurry. A loss tonight, and the Irish are 4-2, and then maybe some of those games that don’t look too scary now start to look a little more difficult.
Ask Notre Dame fans today if they think the Irish can pull the upset over USC in two weeks, and most will tell you probably not. Most turns into almost all if the Irish drop tonight’s contest in front of another College GameDay audience.
A year ago, after the road loss to Ohio State, Notre Dame came out and laid a massive egg at home to Marshall. A lot of those problems came because of a lack of production from the quarterback position, but the Irish still let the loss to the Buckeyes linger and played like they could just show up against the Herd.
Tonight’s game being on the road and against a ranked team should help this team refocus quickly. There are a lot of distractions on home game weekends for the team that don’t exist on the road. The chance to travel together and get away from the scene of the crime can also be hugely beneficial in situations like this. In fact, this being a road game makes me much more confident in Notre Dame’s ability to bounce back and get back on track.
Duke is a good team, but they are a team that Notre Dame should beat and should beat by more than the 5.5 points they are currently favored by. As lopsided as their win over Clemson was to start the season, it was a pretty hard-fought game, and the Tigers continually shot themselves in the foot over and over again. Clemson fumbled inside the Duke 10-yard-line – once at the 1-yard line – on back-to-back possessions in the second half while they trailed by just six. Since then, the Blue Devils haven’t really been tested.
Notre Dame certainly enters this game battle-tested. If the Irish are as physical this weekend as they were a week ago against Ohio State, they should take care of business. The question will be whether or not Freeman gets his team up to play at that same level after the devastating loss.
Still, Notre Dame is the better team talent-wise, and that really is not up for debate. But make no mistake, tonight is Duke’s Super Bowl. For as important as this game is for the Irish, it has the potential to be a program-defining win for Duke.
It might sound like hyperbole, but when we ultimately look back on the Freeman era years from now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we look to this game as a turning point of sorts for him. Win, and this team has everything left to play for. Lose, and the noise around the program following the unthinkable ending last week will turn into a roar.
I think Notre Dame will respond well to the loss and take care of business tonight. I predicted an 11-point Notre Dame victory in my prediction post. If that happens, it’ll be the result of a great week of coaching by Freeman and his staff to have this team refocused and ready to play.