Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM FEBRUARY 2022 33 I t hit like a stink bomb at a sold-out movie premier. Like a flight cancel- lation alert that tanks a Caribbean vacation. Like a blackjack dealer hitting 21 after showing a six on the up card. The new era of Notre Dame football that sounded so promising and so captivating in December looked exactly that for the first two quarters of the Fiesta Bowl. Then it all crashed in spectacu- lar fashion over the next two. Marcus Freeman knew exactly what that meant when he sat down at a dais inside State Farm Stadium afterward. "The honeymoon stage is over," he said. No. 5 Notre Dame's (11-2) startling col- lapse in a 37-35 Fiesta Bowl loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State (12-2) tempered the good vibes and talk about raising ceilings from Freeman's first few weeks as Notre Dame's head coach, at least for now. One game shouldn't be the sole ref- erendum on his ability to achieve those ambitious visions, but it was a starker than expected reminder of the growth needed from him in his new job. Growth he sounded eager to attack the moment Notre Dame's team plane landed in South Bend. "I'm more motivated now to go, go, go," Freeman said. "Everything we do, from staff to personnel to recruiting to what- ever it is that this organization needs to improve, that's all my mindset is." The immediate story, though, was his team's breakdown after taking a 28-7 second-quarter lead over Oklahoma State. The Irish were well on their way to ending the pesky New Year's Six-bowl skid that stretches back to the 1993 sea- son. Instead, the Irish allowed 30 unan- swered points, 605 total yards and three touchdown drives of at least 80 yards. The day was good for ending a streak, just not one Freeman wanted to see stop. The Irish were 79-0 when leading by 21 points since 2004. They had not squan- dered a deficit that large since 1991. Notre Dame looked prepared for the start of the game, as its early sharpness demonstrated. That's a good reflection on Freeman. In-game coaching is more than de- veloping a good initial plan, though. It also requires adjusting, having experi- ence to draw on when making important decisions and getting those decisions correct. Something will inevitably go wrong or happen unexpectedly. The key is having a counter. Notre Dame didn't. It couldn't counter Oklahoma State's tweak in offensive strategy, which Free- man explained afterward. "They did a good job at getting into some 10 personnel [one running back, no tight ends] which they really hadn't shown much all year," Freeman said. "They made some good second-half ad- justments offensively and defensively." Elsewhere, the Irish couldn't find ways to help their struggling defensive backs. They couldn't run the ball. The latter was a tricky task without Kyren Williams against a top-end run defense, but it can't be absent enough to require quarterback Jack Coan to throw 68 passes and drop back 72 times. The Irish's 15 running back carries led to only 47 yards, with a long gain of 13. All told, it looked like a 17th-year head coach matched up against one wielding the big whistle for the first time. "We have to go back, look and say, 'What did their defense do in the second half schematically that gave us issues?'" Freeman said. "And let's try to find a way to make sure that never happens again." This job was always going to contain learning experiences and missteps, but the first batch came in a humbling fashion. "You like to learn from wins, but this is going to be a learning opportunity from a loss," Freeman said. "As long as every- body learns from this, we'll be fine." The learning might be steeper than anticipated and usher in more angst, but Notre Dame gave him this job because it bet on him being able to learn and adjust. His work this season with Notre Dame's defense between Game 1 and Game 12 is first-hand evidence he has done it be- fore, albeit in a coordinator role. It's also worth pointing out Notre Dame suffered from issues Freeman inherited, like a lack of depth at receiver and defen- sive back. His recruiting over the last year has already helped chip away at the latter. He's now in position to help the former. Players weren't shy about acknowl- edging their part in the collapse. "I think it came down to just executing, making tackles and covering guys," grad- uate student linebacker Drew White said. Whatever the cause, the Freeman Era's on-field debut wasn't befitting of its first month off the field. There's zero avoiding it and zero reason to treat the Fiesta Bowl as purely a write-off. "It might disappoint some people, but I understand where we're going in the future," Freeman said. There's also no reason for him to be any less bullish about it, even if he under- stands the nine months until Sept. 3, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio, will carry more fan apprehension than everyone in the pro- gram would like. What he does between now and then is the key to easing it. His focus has already shifted there. "He thanked the seniors," White said. "And then he was looking forward. He was looking forward to what's next." A whole lot of work. ✦ ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Freeman's first game as head coach ended with a stunning collapse. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Marcus Freeman's Learning Process Begins With Unease After Fiesta Bowl Collapse

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