Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 12, 2022

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM NOV. 12, 2022 29 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at A llow Dabo Swinney to confirm that no, the thought is not crazy. Marcus Freeman — 10 games into his first season wielding the big whistle — and his Notre Dame staff outcoached the man who has won two of the last six national champi- onships. And in convincing fashion. Swinney went there. He uttered that O-word. Then the A-word. "This was an ass-kicking," Swin- ney said. "Period." Notre Dame's second home win over a top-five Clemson team in three years was hardly like the first. Two Novembers ago, the Irish scored a defensive touchdown and topped 200 yards only to survive in double overtime. This time, they scored a non-offensive touchdown — two, ac- tually — ran for 200 yards and blew the No. 4 Tigers out, 35-14. They took a lead before Clemson could tie its shoes. They added onto it each quarter while shutting out Clem- son's offense for almost 50 minutes. This wasn't a matchup with College Football Playoff implications for both teams, but it feels as significant to Notre Dame as the 47-40 win two seasons ago. In the short term, Notre Dame helped its bowl outlook. The Irish's established but imperfect identity worked against a top- five opponent with several future NFL Draft picks on defense and a program that many at Notre Dame see as aspirational. Clemson was a step up from a Mountain West team and a soon-to-be-unranked Syracuse outfit the prior two weeks. Notre Dame rushed for more yards against the Tigers (263) and a higher yards per carry (5.6) than it did against UNLV or the Or- ange. Swinney's best in-game adjustment to stopping the Irish's ground game might have been to find a fire alarm somewhere in Notre Dame Stadium and yank it. "We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn't shy away from our strength," Freeman said. The big-picture takeaway is the pro- gram and the culture Freeman envi- sions are showing up before his eyes. Outcoaching a future Hall of Famer isn't possible otherwise. He vowed to enhance the existing operation when hired, but not by doing his best imitation of Brian Kelly. Notre Dame would be shaped in his image and take on his traits, even if he's not building a culture from scratch. "You can't just change leaders and think it's going to continue to go like this," Freeman said. "We have to build this foundation the right way. We be- lieve it becomes infallible. You have such a strong foundation that no matter what happens, you're going to be solid." What are those infallible pillars? An offensive and defensive line-driven program. Being process-oriented rather than reactionary to results. Commit to improvement and a growth mindset ev- ery day. But not long ago, even he wondered if he had been building a foundation out of cardboard instead of cement. The 0-2 start left him confounded to the point where he later admitted, "I didn't know what was going on." His grip on the wheel was gone, and his belief in himself wavered. The three-game win streak that followed it made him believe Notre Dame had a good team. A loss to Stanford showed the Irish didn't play that way each week. "You have some moments in your of- fice by yourself that you have to take a deep dive into yourself, like, 'What are you doing?'" Freeman said. "You've got to believe in what you're doing. When I'm in front of that group, you've got to be the most confident individual that they've ever seen." Freeman's refrain remained the same: forget the outcome and fo- cus on the individual task, because good process leads to good outcome. Those early losses created a willing- ness to self-study that had to remain fervent after wins. A loss like Stan- ford should be a jolt to any competi- tor. Could Freeman retain that same urgency and improvement mindset after a 44-21 win over UNLV and a 41-24 victory over Syracuse? Beat- ing Clemson offered a clear yes. Freeman can't point to a title as the outcome this year, but he could sell Notre Dame on a scene like Sat- urday night's. Embrace day-to-day improvement, and holding Clemson to 3.6 yards per play while outrushing them by 173 yards could be reality. So could a field storming where euphoria trumps claustrophobia. And postgame press conferences to a backdrop of "Let's go Irish" chants from fans leaving the field but in no hurry to vacate the tunnel. "If you go on to win a national cham- pionship or if you're 6-3 and you lost a couple games that you didn't believe you would've at the start of the year, you can paint a beautiful picture," Freeman said. "You can make this thing the way you want as long as you continue." Freeman believed heights like those Notre Dame hit vs. Clemson were pos- sible all along, but needed the right message to keep the Irish pointed there. It won't change now. "After a win over a top-five program, can we still be selfless?" Freeman said. "Can we tune out all the outside noise? It's easy to tune it out when you're not winning because it's all negativity. "The challenge to this group is can you tune it out right now when some- body might pat you on the back and say, 'You're doing a great job.' Continue to stay focused and continue to work on the things that we know it's going to take for us to improve, because that's the challenge every week." ✦ Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Freeman and Notre Dame's staff "outcoached" the Tigers. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Notre Dame Growing In Marcus Freeman's Image

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