Blue and Gold Illustrated

March 2022

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

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34 MARCH 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY TYLER HORKA T he last Notre Dame head coach to win 10 games in his first year on the job might come as a surprise considering that coach's uncer- emonious departure from the position just two years later. Tyrone Willingham in 2002. The circumstances were much dif- ferent then than they are now for new Notre Dame head coach Marcus Free- man, who's set to embark on his first full season as the man in charge of Fighting Irish football this fall. Notre Dame hadn't reached double digits in the win column since 1993. The end of the Lou Holtz era couldn't quite compete with the glory days of it. The five-year Bob Davie experience was slightly better than average during his best seasons, a pair of nine-win cam- paigns, and below average during his worst, two five-win showings. Willingham came roaring out of the gates in '02. The Irish started 8-0 and rose to No. 4 in the country. Then they lost three of five to finish the season in disappointing fashion. The Irish of- fense wasn't spectacular that fall. The defense was good but it might have been a stretch to say great. Notre Dame just flat out won games, four against ranked foes. Another possible surprise? Willingham isn't just the last Notre Dame coach to win 10 games in his first season in South Bend. He's the only one who's done it. No Brian Kelly. No Holtz. No Ara Par- seghian or Frank Leahy. College football seasons had fewer games back then, of course, but the fact remains; Freeman is on the hook to do something only one coach in the history of Notre Dame football has accomplished. If he doesn't become the second, half a decade of history will get left behind. Notre Dame has won 10-plus games in five straight seasons for the first time in program history. The personnel pieces seem to be in place to extend the streak, but some questions remain. Can a new starting quarterback stay poised in harsh road environments? How will a coaching staff comprised of coaches from all over the country mesh while working for a first-year head coach? The expectations for Freeman are high. He has welcomed them. How many times has he said the words "national championship" since tak- ing over for Kelly in early December? He can't win one without winning 10- plus games. These days, it takes 14 or 15. Well, maybe 13 if an 11-1 Notre Dame sneaks into the College Football Playoff like it almost did this past season. Perhaps it's best for Freeman to just take it one at a time, though. He felt first- hand how hard it is to win in his debut at the Fiesta Bowl. He was outcoached by a savvy veteran in Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy. Lesson learned? Time will tell. A RETURN HOME As if Freeman's introduction to head coaching in the Fiesta Bowl wasn't dif- ficult enough, the first season opener of his career will come in an environment as hostile as it was friendly during his playing days. Maybe even more so. The former Ohio State linebacker will take the Fighting Irish on the road to Columbus for a matchup against what will in all likelihood be a preseason top- five Buckeyes team. Freeman has many fond memories of Ohio Stadium. He totaled 264 tackles in his OSU career. The Buckeyes reached two national championship games dur- ing his time there. But nobody in the Horseshoe is going to be thinking about a warm welcome when it's time to kick the ball off. This is 2022, not the mid 2000s. Ohio State and Notre Dame are two of five, maybe six or seven at the most, programs that have had reasonable Col- lege Football Playoff aspirations in each of the last five seasons or so. A victory in a game of this magnitude in Week 1 will work wonders in setting up the rest of the season to stay in line with those lofty goals. A loss? Questions and con- cerns come into play. That's all anyone in red will be fixated on. Notre Dame defensive analyst James Laurinaitis will also be making a home- coming. The All-American starred on the Ohio State defense at the same time as Freeman. Notre Dame defensive line coach Al Washington spent the last three seasons coaching the Ohio State linebackers. Welcome to the 2022 season, Freeman, Laurinaitis and Washington. And wel- come back to one of the most raucous at- mospheres in college football. Only this time, it's not working to your benefit. A NEW SIGNAL-CALLER Barring a completely unforeseen (and extremely late) transfer portal addition, Notre Dame is set to start a quarterback who has zero collegiate starting experi- ence for the first time since Ian Book started his first career game in 2017. Yep, it's been five years since an Irish quar- terback made his debut as a starter in a blue-and-gold uniform. It's not like offensive coordina- tor Tommy Rees is going to roll out a face Notre Dame fans do not recognize whatsoever, though. Sophomore Tyler Buchner. Junior Drew Pyne. Ever heard of them? Who hasn't? Buchner seems to be the favorite to win the job based on 2021 participation. He played 163 offensive snaps to Pyne's 53. He also appeared in 10 games to Pyne's two. There was a period of time in the middle of the 2021 season in which it felt like Notre Dame had no choice but to turn to Pyne as the starter. Graduate stu- dent Jack Coan was injured in the second half of the Wisconsin game and benched in the second half of the loss to Cincin- nati. Pyne relieved him both times. And yet, when Coan started the fol- DOUBLING DOWN? Marcus Freeman could become only the second head coach in Fighting Irish history to accomplish an impressive first-year feat Freeman lost his head coaching debut in the Fiesta Bowl, but 2022 is an opportunity for him to start his tenure in a strong manner. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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