Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2022

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

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Page 4 of 47 DECEMBER 2022 5 N otre Dame was in the na- tional championship hunt at some point in the month of November in four of the last five seasons. It was expected the Fighting Irish would either qualify for the College Football Playoff as one of four semifinalists or they would be one of the best teams on the outside looking in. Expectations. Notre Dame had them. Annually. In 2017, the Irish were No. 3 in the CFP rankings as late as Nov. 11 before finishing 9-3. In 2018, the 12-0 Irish qualified as the CFP's No. 3 seed. The anomaly was 2019. The Irish (10-2) lost their second game on Nov. 26 and never rose higher than No. 8 in the rankings all year. In 2020, Notre Dame (10-1) made it into the CFP for a second time as the No. 4 seed. Last year, the 11-1 Irish ascended to No. 5, just missing out on the party as the best team to not receive an invitation. This year has not been anything like any of those seasons. Not even 2019, when both of Notre Dame's losses came to ranked opponents. The Irish lost their first two games of this season for the first time since 2011. They dropped a third game in mid-October. Two of those three defeats came to un- ranked visitors at Notre Dame Stadium. A two-loss team has never snuck into the CFP. So, in essence, Notre Dame knew it was not playing for a national championship as soon as early Septem- ber. That had not been the case in South Bend since 2016. And yet, the Irish still managed to scratch, claw and come away with enough victories to rise back into the rankings and set up a consensus top-15 matchup against Southern Cal Nov. 26. At the time of kickoff, Notre Dame was ranked No. 15 in the CFP rankings while USC checked in at No. 6. Notre Dame junior quarterback Drew Pyne was blunt about how surprising it might have been from a national per- spective for the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, as some say, to actually have some coast-to-coast intrigue about it by Thanksgiving. "At the beginning of the season, maybe a lot of people doubted this game would have the magnitude that it does," Pyne said the Tuesday before kickoff. "Our team always believed." That belief started with the head coach. Marcus Freeman admitted midseason that he didn't know what was going on after the losses to Ohio State and Mar- shall. The cruelties of coaching slapped him in the face with far more force than the South Bend wind and snow during the first winter storm of the season. Ask anyone who was at the Boston College game on Nov. 19 how that felt. Freeman inherited a program in as sound of a spot for any team that has not won a national championship in the CFP era. But he still had to make it his own. In the process of trying to do so, the Irish stumbled against vastly infe- rior foes. But as deflating as those de- fea ts we re , t h e way i n wh i c h Freeman rallied the troops to keep the ship from sinking was all the more impressive. His first season could have spi- raled completely out of control. It didn't. And that's because despite missing out on the main mission, the Irish didn't lose sight of what was right in front of them. "Winning a national champion- ship is a goal every major program has to start the season," Freeman said. "It's a big goal. But that can't be your only goal because there is only going to be one team that wins the national championship." He's right. And he's preaching to the choir. Notre Dame has not won one since 1988. But it has still had successful seasons since then, and Freeman found a way to make this one of them — even if it ends up farther down on the success scale than years like 2018 and 2020. Freeman deserves a lot of credit for the messaging that made it happen. "If you lose out on the ability to win a national championship, what other goals do you have? We have a goal to win every game we play," Freeman said. "I heard somebody say, 'Well, what are you guys playing for?' An opportu- nity to win." Notre Dame beating a top-five team at the time in Clemson and absolutely annihilating a bad Boston College team in the snow on senior day were signs that Freeman drove his point home to his players. If every year without a na- tional title was a failure, Notre Dame would have 34 of them in a row. There are lessons learned in seasons that don't end on the mountaintop. Progress made. Respect earned. This wasn't a failure of a campaign for Free- man and his comrades. Not by any means. ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at Head coach Marcus Freeman turned a 3-3 record at the midpoint of the season into a relatively successful inaugural season, winning five straight games prior to facing USC. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Success Exists In Another National Title-less Season

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