Notre Dame's latest misstep heightens the urgency for Freeman to evolve
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This one’s on Marcus Freeman.
The constipated offense. Losing the turnover battle to the nation’s worst team in turnover margin. Getting owned on third down on both sides of the ball. And letting his first Notre Dame football team drift back toward irrelevance after a promising three-game stretch of incremental progress.
And yet maybe the most disconcerting aspect of Stanford’s 16-14 upset of the 17-point favored Irish Saturday night at sold-out Notre Dame Stadium was the aftermath.
The first-year head coach used some form of the word execution 27 times — including seven instances in his opening statement alone — during his postmortem with the media. As in “our lack of execution was frustrating.”
Never once did you really get a sense of “why” there was a dearth of it. Especially when it came to laboring for 301 total yards and 14 points against the nation’s No. 109 team in total defense.
“We'll find a way,” Freeman assured of his 3-3 football team. “Trust me.”
There’s been enough of a grasp by the 36-year-old Freeman during his first 10 ½ months on the job — sometimes even a mastery — of some of the big-picture aspects of being Notre Dame’s head football coach that coax you into believing that it’s just a matter of time until the rough edges of the game week/game day operation fall into place.
But you don’t get forever at a place like Notre Dame. Nor should anyone.
So whatever concoction Freeman is cooking up, but vaguely referencing, to stop the hemorrhaging needs to be microwavable.
A good place to start is with the realization that there is a connection between those confounding player execution errors and coaching. Own it. Fix it.
Messaging matters, too. Freeman’s stated concept that there needs to be frank self-examination after each game, win or lose, of the schemes, of personnel, of philosophy is a keeper. But there has to be more that addresses each opponent uniquely, each point in the season uniquely.
Something that harmonizes with the culture but hits the notes that inspire.
Experience as a head coach previously would have helped Freeman and maybe eliminated the Marshall debacle on Sept. 10 and Saturday night’s sting from Stanford (2-4), but maybe not.
Predecessor Brian Kelly, with 19 years of head coaching experience walking in the door, stood 1-3 in his first season with the Irish in 2010 after getting bullied and bludgeoned by Stanford 37-14 at home. And ND was 4-5 that same year after a 28-27 loss to Tulsa before rebounding with consecutive wins over Utah, Army, USC and Miami (Fla.) to finish 8-5.
Two seasons later, the Irish were playing for a national title with the program’s first No. 1 ranking in roughly two decades.
Freeman, though, walked into a program with better infrastructure, a better roster and more program momentum than Kelly or really any Irish first-year coach since a burnt-out but ever-brilliant 51-year-old Ara Parseghian passed the baton to Dan Devine after the 1974 season.
Freeman’s guts and guile on the recruiting trail during his one season as the Irish defensive coordinator under Kelly in the 2022 cycle was a revelation. He wasn’t just a guy with high ambition and ideas to shatter self-limiting myths about the kind of players Notre Dame could pursue and ultimately sign.
He made it all real.
He did it again Saturday in his head coaching role. The verbal commitment of four-star running back Jeremiyah Love, the nation’s No. 51 prospect overall and with enough mojo to perhaps eventually move up to five-star status, was the best thing that happened to the Notre Dame offense on Saturday.
And that, along with the Irish moving up to No. 2 in the Rivals team recruiting rankings two months before the early signing period, occurred roughly four and a half hours before kickoff.
Once the Irish got their hands on the ball Saturday night against the Cardinal, there was a bewildering regression right from the start.
The Irish started with a penalty on their very first play, then proceeded to go three and out. A third-down pass to a wide open tight end Michael Mayer got batted down at the line of scrimmage.
Three more first-half drives by Notre Dame in a scoreless first half ended in punts. A drive that started at the Stanford 32-yard line following a blocked punt, ended in no points. A Drew Pyne fumble with 46 seconds in left in the second quarter near midfield led to three more Cardinal points and a 10-0 halftime edge.
Notre Dame finished the half with 106 total yards. Its 301 for the game was still 141 fewer than Oregon State amassed last week with its backup quarterback, and that was the previous low by an opposing offense among the four FBS opponents Stanford has played this season.
Twitter wanted to fire offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Pyne, meanwhile, came into the game on a trajectory to finish with the highest single-season pass-efficiency rating and completion percentage in school history, but Saturday night he was skittish and inconsistent.
He finished 13-of-27 for 151 yards and a TD. That calculates to a 107.3 efficiency rating — by far the lowest of his four collegiate starts. He was also sacked twice, including once during ND’s last gasp at a last-minute rally.
“A lack of execution,” Pyne said of his performance. “I put a lot of that on myself. I’ve got to go out there and do my job and execute, deliver the ball, get us in the right protection. I’ve got to see the defense. And I’ve just got to go out there and execute.”
There’s that word again.
“When we talk about wins, we talk about team game,” Pyne continued. “When we talk about losses, we talk about how we need to get better individually. I’ve just got to go out there and execute.”
Pyne too often tried to force the ball to Mayer in tight coverage. At other times he simply missed wide open receivers — Tobias Merriweather and Braden Lenzy on sure touchdowns. Pyne did eventually synch up with the 6-5 freshman Merriweather early in the fourth quarter on a 41-yard scoring strike that gave ND a short-lived 14-13 lead.
It was his first career college catch.
“I mean, Tobias is a speed demon,” Pyne offered. He (runs) really good routes. Big target. Has great hands, and he's been working his tail off to go make a play like that. He's a great target for us, and we're going to keep building on his role.”
Besides Merriweather, there were some other redeeming performances. The Irish defense yielded 385 total yards, but held Stanford — with a future NFL quarterback in Tanner McKee — to a season-low 14 points.
Also notable were two fourth-down conversion tries the Irish defense snuffed out.
They also got Pyne the ball back with 2:30 left in the game without surrendering more points after running back Audric Estimé fumbled with Stanford recovering on its own 21.
The Irish played without nickel TaRiq Bracy, but had senior linebacker/captain JD Bertrand for his first full game since Sept. 10 after missing parts of the past three games with targeting ejections and/or suspensions.
And he racked up a season-high 13 tackles and forced a fumble by McKee only to have it overturned by replay.
"I think the biggest thing is, it needs to start with the off the field stuff,” Bertrand said of Notre Dame’s next move heading to next Saturday’s home game with UNLV (4-3). “Obviously, we don't have class next week (fall break), but it's the classroom stuff.
“It's the details in the locker room. Make sure everything we do is cleaning up after ourselves — our meeting rooms are clean — because we don't want the lack of detail in different parts of our lives going into football.
“So I think it's hard to say that you can slack off in one area of your life, but then be perfect in football. And so I think as leaders, that's going to be my main message. And I think the captains will agree with that."
Marcus Freeman’s words will matter the most. And so will his actions.
He doesn’t need to reinvent himself, but he definitely needs to evolve. Rees too, since Freeman doesn’t have the experience yet to fix that side of the ball himself.
Notre Dame went five entire seasons (2017-21) without losing to an unranked team. Halfway through Freeman’s first season, they’ve lost two such games — both at home.
Winning the little ones might not sound grandiose. But it’s the best way to pick up the pieces and figure out what’s worth playing for and fighting for over the last half of the season.
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