Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2022

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

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4 DECEMBER 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED R ock bottom arrived three sepa- rate times during the last cal- endar year for first-year Fight- ing Irish head coach Marcus Freeman since his introduction last December. The first of the three came quickly. Leading Oklahoma State 28-7 in the first half of the Fiesta Bowl last January, less than a month after he was promoted to the Notre Dame top job, Freeman watched and did little while his team gave up 30 straight points and eventually lost in his first career game, 37-35. Time heals all wounds, and be- cause Freeman's first game as a head coach came under transitional and disjointed circumstances, all was forgiven. Recruiting thrived, many top draft-eligible Irish players re- turned for another year, the roster held together and the good times re- rolled into the 2022 season. Cautious optimism continued through the season opener at Ohio State Sept. 3, when as a 17-point road underdog, Notre Dame hung tough and led the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes through much of the game before even- tually falling, 21-10. With Freeman's program seemingly stabilized, Rock Bottom II arrived a week later when the No. 8 Irish were beaten 26-21 by Marshall in arguably the most shocking upset at Notre Dame Stadium since South Florida won there in the 2011 season opener. Following a deep breath, and some deeper introspection, consecutive vic- tories over Cal, North Carolina and BYU followed. Notre Dame had climbed to 3-2 on the season, and Freeman's world was back on orbit — just not for very long. Following a commanding and calming 28-20 win over No. 16 BYU Oct. 8, a trip "down to Rock Bottom again," — bor- rowing a Jimmy Buffet line — followed in the form of a 16-14 home upset loss to Stanford Oct. 15. Freeman's words and demeanor indi- cated that this particular bottom-drop was the toughest of the three after his team had won the three consecutive games. "I can't come up with a magic an- swer," Freeman explained in his post- Stanford presser, while Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and direc- tor of athletics Jack Swarbrick watched intently. "It's a lack of execution." Freeman's simplistic "execution" explanation made sense. But it likely didn't demonstrate the direction and confidence that his two bosses were hoping for. With the Irish players still engaged and united behind Freeman's mission — even after the 3-3 start and bowl eligibility in limbo — fortunes flipped. Five straight wins moved Notre Dame to 8-3 before the USC game. And whether it beat or lost to the Trojans, there was no Rock Bottom IV to worry about. "Continue to be who you are, work tirelessly, lead with your heart," Free- man explained of staying on course, even while admitting that he lost the road map at times during his rookie year. "It's never going to be perfect. But if you work at it and you continue to find different ways to improve, man, suc- cess is on the horizon." A sincere, unconditional, and mutual appreciation between coach and players was on full display before Notre Dame's 44-0 shutout of Bos- ton College Nov. 19. One by one, the Fighting Irish seniors emerged from the stadium tunnel. And one by one, they were embraced by Freeman, while at the same time the players and their first-year skipper shared wide and warm smiles that perfectly illustrated a mutual love and respect better than any words ever could. Freeman explained how following the 0-2 and 3-3 starts, his players "could've easily started blaming, and complaining and pointing fingers." "[Instead] those guys looked at themselves, and said, 'We're going to work.' And they dragged everybody with them." In early November, All-Ameri- can junior tight end Michael Mayer summed up Freemen's first year bet- ter than anyone could. "We are going to keep fighting, and keep practicing, and keep our heads down, and keep listening to Coach Freeman, because he's a fantastic head coach," Mayer exclaimed. "That's really it. That's all I can say." And when asked what he's most thankful for during the Thanksgiving holiday, Freeman celebrated the "au- thentic relationships" that define his program, the ones that keep respect and trust strong in the present as well those that will lead to more growth and suc- cess moving forward. "Everybody in this room that has been in a real authentic relationship knows it's not always peaches and cream. It's not always bubbly and it's not always difficult moments either," Freeman said. "It's ups and downs, but it's authenticity." A heartfelt message from an authen- tic messenger. ✦ Junior tight end and captain Michael Mayer captured the unity of the Fighting Irish program behind its leader when he said, "We are going to keep fighting, and keep practicing, and keep our heads down, and keep listening to Coach Freeman, because he's a fantastic head coach." PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Marcus Freeman Turns Tough Times Into High Hopes UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at

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