Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2024

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM JANUARY 2024 5 H ow unlikely was it for Notre Dame to land in the Sun Bowl? Repre- sentatives in El Paso had a collec- tion of mini helmets of prospective par- ticipants laid out on the table in front of them on selection Sunday Dec. 3. Not one of them was a gold Notre Dame helmet. Notre Dame head coach Marcus Free- man cracked a joke in an online press conference a day later, telling two of the reps he'd gladly bring them one of those iconic golden domes later on in Decem- ber. Consider it a Christmas gift, perhaps. It's already a massive gift for them just for Notre Dame being in the game. You can tell by the way they are eagerly antic- ipating Notre Dame and its fans' arrival. The biggest Christmas gift for Notre Dame fans — and for Freeman himself, meanwhile — would be for the No. 16 Fighting Irish (9-3) to beat No. 19 Or- egon State (8-4) Dec. 29. That's not because a victory in a game sponsored by Tony The Tiger against an opponent starting its third-string quar- terback would forever be remembered as some sort of heroic, monumental tri- umph. Rather, it would be Notre Dame's 10th win in 2023, and that's a number Freeman could point to as progress in a season that was otherwise marred by a feeble offense in the biggest moments and an inability to win the biggest games. Optics matter. If Notre Dame fin- ishes 2023 with the same record it had in 2022, the heat gets turned way up on Freeman going into Year 3. It has to. You just cannot justify turning in the same 9-4 mark with Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne one year, and Sam Hartman, a sixth-year graduate student with nearly 60 starts to his name, the next. People are quick to point to Brian Kelly not hitting double digits in the win column until his third season at Notre Dame. In fact, he went 8-5 in each of his first two seasons. Isn't that worse than Freeman going 9-4, potentially, in each of his first two? On paper, yes, But peel the paper back a bit more. You'll see that in the three years before Kelly took over, Notre Dame won 16 games. In the three years prior to Freeman taking over, Notre Dame won 32 games. Twice as many. Twice as good. Thanks, Bayou Brian. Freeman is the man in charge of a pro- gram that is expected to win at least 10 games per season. Right now, the Irish are one win away from that mark. It doesn't matter if the upcoming matchup is spon- sored by Frosted Flakes or South Bend snowflakes. It's a must-win game for Free- man. He spent a good chunk of a Nov. 27 press conference beating that drum. It was easy to overlook the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State two years ago because it was Freeman's first game as a head coach and he was put in a super unique position taking over for a 12-year head coach on one month's notice. Notre Dame also played that game without both of its best players on either side of the ball in running back Kyren Williams and safety Kyle Hamilton. That 37-35 loss was processed and moved on from rather quickly. Optimism was high leading up to Freeman's first full season as head coach. We're miles removed from the honey- moon phase now, and it would be much more difficult to dismiss a Notre Dame loss to Oregon State. The Irish have lost 11 players to the transfer portal and a few more to opt-outs as of Dec. 8, but the Or- egon State roster is even more decimated because of its head coach Jonathan Smith accepting the Michigan State job. There are no excuses for Notre Dame losing the Sun Bowl, just as there were no excuses for putting 10 men on the field against Ohio State or quarterback Sam Hartman throwing 3 interceptions against Louisville or offensive coordi- nator Gerad Parker calling two play- action passes against Clemson. The stakes are simple. Win, and Free- man becomes the ninth coach in Notre Dame history to lead the Irish to 10 wins in a single season. Lose, and he misses the mark for the second time in as many cam- paigns to begin his head coaching career. Bowl games seem to matter less and less in the new landscape of college football, but this is still 60 minutes of competition dictated by Freeman's de- cisions. And a win is still a win while a loss is still a loss. When is the latter ever — ever — accepted over the former? The answer should be never. ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at The Sun Bowl Itself Doesn't Matter As Much As The End Result Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman has an 18-8 record heading into the Sun Bowl. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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