Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2024

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

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8 JANUARY 2024 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED UNDER THE DOME BY TYLER HORKA T he news on Nov. 27 that three Notre Dame players, all of whom played at least 250 snaps in 2023, were entering the transfer portal was the first indica- tion that the Irish's bowl game roster will look a lot different than that of the team head coach Marcus Freeman took to California for the regular-season fi- nale against Stanford. Over the next few weeks, 10 more transfer portal entrants joined center Zeke Correll, defensive end Nana Osafo- Mensah and wide receiver Chris Tyree. Opt-outs from 2024 NFL Draft pros- pects are a reality, too. Roster rearrange- ment is unavoidable in December in this era of college football. The holiday sea- son is rife with it. Freeman is well aware. "Do they plan on transferring, do they plan on leaving? That's a part of college football, and we have to have those conversations," Freeman said. "I don't expect every sin- gle person on this team to play in the bowl game," he added. "That's just the trend right now of my previous two bowl games but obviously in college football, too." Safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams did not play in Freeman's first-ever game as head coach, the Fiesta Bowl following the 2021 cam- paign. Last year, tight end Michael Mayer did not play in the Gator Bowl. All three of those players are performing well for their respective NFL teams. There comes a time when every player talented enough to succeed at the next level puts Notre Dame on the back burner. But as much as he can, Freeman is trying to limit the collateral damage tied to opt-outs and transfers. He wants as many contributors as possible from the regular season to suit up for the Sun Bowl matchup versus No. 19 Oregon State (8-4) Dec. 29. "I do want our team to understand how important this bowl game will be to our football program," Freeman said. "It's an important game, and we want to finish this thing off the right way." Freeman's pitch is straightforward. Notre Dame had zero shot of making the College Football Playoff after losing to Louisville Oct. 7, yet all the aforemen- tioned players went out every Saturday thereafter and put everything they had on the field in the name of Notre Dame. There were five games they played in with complete knowledge a national championship was not a possibility. Why not do it all over again a sixth time? Why not play a role in getting Notre Dame to 10 wins? That's a num- ber that's been reached at Notre Dame only 13 times since the Irish won their last national championship in 1988. When you look back at Brian Kelly's Notre Dame tenure, one of the first sta- tistics that jumps out is him leading the Irish to five-straight 10-win seasons. It had never been done in program history. There are several statues standing out- side Notre Dame Stadium. None of the coaches they depict did what Kelly did. That number, 10, matters. A loss to the Beavers would leave Freeman with the same number of wins in Year 2 as he had in Year 1. All Freeman needs is enough players to suit up and help him get one more win to avoid that. He can worry about what went wrong in three losses in the offseason. But for one day, Dec. 29 in El Paso, Texas, it's about be- ing good enough to get over the top one more time. "That's my message to all of our play- ers: Game 13 for us is really no different than any game after we lost to Louis- ville," Freeman said. "This is about fin- ishing off this season with your football team, and that's my message to them. "It's that if it was only about a national championship, you had that decision you could have made it earlier in the year." Senior safety Xavier Watts stands with Freeman. He's done more than enough to give himself a shot at the NFL Draft, including leading the FBS with 7 interceptions, but he's choosing to put his draft decision on hold to play in the Sun Bowl. Identical choices are less and less common as the years go by. "I kind of just want to play football regardless," Watts said. "Even if I was, maybe, to decide to go to the draft, I think I'd probably lean toward wanting to play the game anyway. Regardless, it's your last time around all the same guys you're going to be with. It's your last time as the 2023 Fighting Irish. I prob- ably would have played if I was leaving or coming back anyway." Music to Freeman's ears. His ultimate job is to win game No. 13. "I love these guys, and I'll always sup- port them, but it's my job to give them my opinion on the importance of this bowl game and finishing the season off the right way, too," he said. ✦ UNDER THE DOME FINISHING THE RIGHT WAY Notre Dame still has much to play for in the Sun Bowl Marcus Freeman can become the ninth head coach in Notre Dame history to lead the Irish to a 10-win season. PHOTO BY LARRY BLANKENSHIP

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