Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2024

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM FEBRUARY 2024 29 M arcus Freeman didn't sound like a second-year head coach. He sounded firm, confident and commanding. A 14-point halftime lead, with his Notre Dame defense pitching a shutout, wasn't enough. He needed more. He got it. "I want to attack," Freeman told Jenny Dell of CBS on his way to the locker room, where he'd soon share the same directive with his staff and players. "I want to be relentless. There's been a lot of work put into this opportunity, so we're not going to stop now. It's about finishing this game." Notre Dame outscored Oregon State 26-8 in the second half to win the 90th edition of the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, 40-8. It's the largest margin of victory in Notre Dame bowl game history. The proud program has suited up for 42 of them. In Freeman's first game as a head coach in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, Notre Dame led Oklahoma State by the same 14-point margin by which it led Oregon State Dec. 29. The Irish lost to the Cowboys, 37-35. Freeman hadn't fully figured out how to put the pedal down. He still hasn't. Not all the way. But in the Sun Bowl, he showed he knows much more about getting to top speed than he did back then. The most rewarding feeling in sports comes when coaches and athletes alike accomplish exactly what they're striv- ing for. The Irish didn't want to coast to a 10th win. They wanted to leave no doubt. Mission accomplished. The extent to which you can mea- sure Notre Dame's greatness in a game with far cloudier circumstances than El Paso's weather provided will always be a sore spot. The Beavers were not at full strength because of opt-outs and transfers, and they were led by an in- terim head coach. Outwardly, they pro- jected conviction in imminent success. Inwardly, there was turmoil. Notre Dame wasn't immune to all of those tempestuous in-or-out trans- actions. The Irish also played with a reserve quarterback. Their offensive coordinator took a head coaching po- sition less than two weeks before the bowl game. Only six scholarship wide receivers were available and only five were regularly used in the matchup. Both starting offensive tackles opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft, and the starting center transferred. And yet, the pregame vibes on the Notre Dame side of the sun-drenched field made it feel like the Irish were about to play Michigan for a spot in the national championship game. Energy oozed from everyone in blue and gold. Even injured tight ends Kevin Bauman and Mitchell Evans had extra pep in their step. Both of them are just a few months into rehabbing torn ACLs. It can be difficult to get college kids up for a noon kickoff in El Paso against a program that was left for dead in the soon-to-be defunct Pac-12 when they'd much rather face blue bloods like the Wolverines, Alabama Crimson Tide or Texas Longhorns in primetime on New Year's Day with everything on the line. Freeman still did it. "I'm just so proud of these players, the commitment to grasping this special opportunity that we have in front of us," he said. "It's not because they wanted to. It's because they put the work in. That's what I kept challenging them on: We have to put the work in that it takes to grasp this great opportunity." Notre Dame could have squandered the opportunity like it did against Okla- homa State. Barely squeaking out a vic- tory would have been less enthralling than absolutely beating down the Bea- vers, too. What the Irish did in totally dominating them sent a signal of Free- man cracking the code on how to coun- teract complacency and demand more of his charges. He was asked postgame if he thinks Notre Dame can get to the national title game soon after winning the Sun Bowl, just like the Irish parlayed a triumph in West Texas in 2010 into a 12-0 season in 2012. His answer was reminiscent of his tone a couple hours prior speaking to Dell. "I don't just want to hear about an appearance," Freeman said. "We want to win it." Notre Dame did not win it 11 years ago, of course. The Irish were throttled by Alabama, 42-14. The game was over in the second quarter. Here the Crimson Tide were again in this year's College Football Playoff, competing for it all. The Irish have some improving to do to get on their level. You can't lose three times in one year and claim you're on the verge of being the last team standing. But you can do something that's never been done at a place that has almost done it all in college football by winning a bowl game by 32 points and leaving the season with the right to feel optimistic about the next one. "I'm confident in the direction of this football program, with the guys that we're bringing in, the guys we have, the coaches that we have on this staff," Freeman said. "I'm really excited as we move forward." ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at Freeman called for more attacking from the Fighting Irish in the second half of the Sun Bowl, and he got it. PHOTO BY MARCELL GORDON Team's Response To Marcus Freeman's Halftime Message Matters

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