Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2023

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

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4 DECEMBER 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED W e said the day Marcus Freeman was hired in December 2021 to replace outgoing Irish skipper Brian Kelly that the two would forever be linked in Notre Dame annals, and inevitably be compared to one another from that day moving forward. When reviewing the first two regular seasons for the two most recent Notre Dame head coaches, Freeman stacks up very well with Kelly, under more diffi- cult conditions than what his predeces- sor faced during his first two seasons in 2010 and 2011. Granted, Freeman took over a team that went 11-2 the previous year and had won at least 10 games in five con- secutive seasons. The cupboards were anything but bare. Meanwhile, Kelly took over a fading program from Charlie Weis that went only 6-6 and lost its final four games in 2009. But on the field, Freeman has faced tougher opponents than Kelly did during his first two years on the job. Kelly played only one top-10 team during those two seasons and lost that game 28-14 to No. 4 Stanford in 2011. Freeman has already played five top-10 opponents and won two of those — 35-14 over No. 5 Clemson last year and 48-20 over No. 10 USC this season — not bad, but not good enough the popular Irish skipper said. "The great programs find a way to win those games, and that's what we're all striving to be," Freeman said. "We're all striving to be that program that is on the mountaintop." A n o t h e r i m p o r ta n t m ea s u re to weighing a coach's worth is how they perform against all ranked teams. Dur- ing Kelly's first two seasons, he played only five top-25 teams, and went 2-3. Freeman has already played 10 ranked teams and won six of them. "There are plays in every single one of those games that you wish you could take back," Freeman explained. "If you execute it, it's a different record, but that's a part of growth." Another important metric to coach- ing value is winning the close games. Kelly went 4-6 in the 10 one-score games he coached in during his first two seasons here. Freeman's Irish played in nine one-score games during his first two regular seasons and won five times. Again, Freeman said that a 5-4 record in the tight ones isn't good enough and finding a way to consistently win one- possession games is what separates the great programs from the good ones. In two of Notre Dame's highest-profile games this season, the Irish lost 17-14 to Ohio State and 31-23 to Clemson. "You think about the Ohio State game, it's a one-possession, one-play game. You think about Clemson, it's an eight-point game," Freeman recalled. "I think it's easy to just say one play here, one play there. But what other aspects with your program performance can you continue to enhance to make sure that you're getting the outcome you want?" Finding ways to beat the elite and win the close games will remain ongoing challenges for Freeman, as they have been for every Irish head coach since Lou Holtz left the building in 1996. Even Holtz struggled in these settings during his first two seasons on the job in 1986 and 1987. He went 4-6 against ranked opponents and was only 2-6 in one-score games during his first two seasons, before flipping the script, go- ing undefeated and winning a national title during his third season in 1988. Avoiding the head-scratching upset is another measure worth watching for any head coach. And after losing to Marshall and Stanford last season as a three-touchdown favorite, Freeman headed into the Stanford game last weekend clear of any unthinkable losses this season. In fact, through its first 10 games, Notre Dame was at least a three-touch- down favorite four times, and it won those four games by an average of 46.8 points. Between the upset loss to Stanford in 2022 and the 2023 regular-season finale against the Cardinal last Saturday, Free- man led Notre Dame to a 14-4 record, with only one of those losses (Clemson this year) coming against an unranked opponent. "Fourteen-and-four, it's a credit to our players and our coaching staff in terms of the growth we've made, but there is a tremendous amount of growth we can continue to still do," Freeman said. "I'm growing as a leader. Our pro- gram is continuing to enhance. We have to continue to get better." ✦ In his first two seasons as the Notre Dame head coach, Marcus Freeman has faced 10 teams ranked in the top 25 at the time of the game and won six of them. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Still Much Work To Do To Reach The Mountaintop 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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