Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 17, 2022

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM SEPT. 17, 2022 31 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at J arrett Patterson charged toward Notre Dame Stadium's north end zone tunnel, shoulder pads in hand and helmet discarded, his facial expres- sion a mix of dismay and seething anger. If looks could kill, everyone in his gaze would have dropped dead on first sight. Patterson, a 36-game starter on the offensive line and one of six team captains, stormed toward the exit mo- ments after the clock hit zero on Notre Dame's 26-21 loss to Marshall that sunk the Irish's record to 0-2. Director of player development Hunter Bivin blocked his and fellow attempted early defector Cam Hart's path, sending them back to sing the alma mater. They reluctantly obliged, joining their team- mates as they swayed to "Notre Dame, Our Mother" while staring into space. These are the scenes of a season that has careened off track after two games, a second-half unraveling that birthed the program's lowest point in at least a decade, a team wondering what hap- pened and a culture shock to the core. "We have to look at ourselves from the head coach on down and say, 'What do we have to do to fix the issues we're hav- ing?'" head coach Marcus Freeman said. Three games and three losses into his career, Freeman has already reached an inflection point. He has to figure out how to get his roster producing results that match its talent level. This is uncharted territory for Notre Dame's players, most of whom were around for at least one year of the 54-10 stretch from 2017-21. That five- year run fostered a culture players and coaches cherished. A culture players urged athletics director Jack Swarbrick to protect when hiring a head coach last year. A culture the players believed Freeman could uphold — a feeling they communicated to Swarbrick. Now, that culture has hit a pothole it hasn't before. Not since 2016 has Notre Dame lost consecutive games or dropped a contest to an unranked op- ponent. Those streaks are over, and they ended in a spot nobody envisioned. A spot that puts the team's cohesion to the test and Freeman's ability to foster it. "That's when we need our leadership the most, when things are at the tough- est moments, whether that's starting off 0-2 or where we go from here," Freeman said. "When it matters the most, in those toughest and hardest moments, that's when your leadership has to come out." Stopping negative momentum be- fore it imbues itself too deep would represent a real coaching accomplish- ment, especially for someone in his first year on the job. Once bad mo- mentum seeps in, it's hard to eradi- cate. It often gathers steam. Even on teams with experienced head coaches. "Times like this are hard," graduate student safety DJ Brown said. "Divi- sion in the team is the worst thing that can happen. Trying to keep everybody together and keep the positive energy." Nobody will be eager to give Free- man much credit for cleaning up the mess that happened on his watch if Notre Dame turns it around this year, of course. This uninspired start took Notre Dame's playoff goals away be- fore meteorological summer even ended. That's not an acceptable out- come for this program. But it's the spot where Notre Dame resides. The context for how Freeman re-invigorates confidence in him as the program's leader has changed two weeks into the season. Success in 2022 now looks like maintaining the culture and finding what has caused the dis- connect between Sunday through Fri- day preparation and Saturday games. "I have to be a leader," Freeman said. "I can't sit here and point fingers at any one person. You start pointing fin- gers at yourself. I'm going to evaluate myself as the leader of this program and say, 'Where can we improve?' "Then you have to challenge every- thing you're doing. We can't just say, 'Keep doing it the same way and things are magically going to improve.' We have to be strategic and honest with ourselves and honest with each other, which isn't comfortable all the time." Freeman didn't pin Notre Dame's problems on any one position unit, a wise move if he wants to ensure honest conversation occurs at every spot. The lifeless run game isn't all on the offen- sive line. A sputtering passing offense has no one culprit. The defensive break- downs and missed tackles in key situa- tions aren't confined to one position. "There are multiple different levels of lack of execution," Freeman said. Yet Freeman said he saw no signs of potential trouble in practice, call- ing it a "good week of preparation." Similarly, junior tight end Michael Mayer's frustration was audible as he wondered aloud why a preseason camp run game that seemed formi- dable then hasn't carried over. What's clear is something isn't trans- lating or something is broken. Freeman has to find what it is — and make sure nothing else breaks beyond repair. "Let's look at our preparation and see where we can enhance the way we pre- pare to make sure we're finding a better way to execute," Freeman said. "I wish there was a part, one thing — 'If we did this, bam, it would happen in a game.' "It's an evaluation of everything we're doing schematically, personnel- wise, everything." ✦ Graduate student left guard Jarrett Patterson and his Irish teammates are in uncharted ter- ritory, with losses in consecutive games and a defeat at the hands of an unranked team for the first time since 2016. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Tasks Keep Mounting As Season Veers Off Course

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