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Death, Taxes and Mediocrity: What’s Next For Notre Dame?

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

By Liam Gaudet

Fans and players alike were left in disarray on the night of November 29th, 2021 when murmurs broke that Louisiana State University was pursuing Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly for their vacant head coaching position. Not long after the rumors began, the news was confirmed. The winningest coach in program history was headed to Baton Rouge to lead the tigers. This news came as a surprise to nearly everyone in the college football community, as Kelly had just wrapped up his fifth straight 10 win season at Notre Dame, and was preparing for a late playoff push following a dominant 45-14 showing against bitter rival Stanford. Nobody knew that this would be the last game that Kelly would lead the blue and gold, and fans were quick to push the panic button. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was quick to answer the bell, however, and named defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman as the predecessor to Brian Kelly. Fans and alumni alike rallied around this news, as it was announced that a newly lead Notre Dame team would face the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. It was hard to imagine that a team that had rallied and garnered so much momentum over a tumultuous month of change would enter this matchup unmotivated. The announcement of Marcus Freeman had breathed new life into a Notre Dame program that appeared lost and uncertain after the departure of a coach that had managed to surpass the great Knute Rockne in all time wins. From the base up, support for Freeman poured in. Highly touted recruits including tight end Eli Raridon and linebacker Drayk Bowen both spoke highly of Freeman on social media while the search for a coach was ongoing. The locker room boomed with excitement as the announcement was made official, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Notre Dame was knocked back to reality after it was announced that arguably their best two players, Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams, would forgo the bowl game in preparation for the upcoming NFL draft. Although this news wasn’t surprising, it definitely didn’t help their chances against a very stingy Cowboy team. Additionally, big game history did not favor the Irish at all. Dating back to 1993, Notre Dame had yet to win a New Year’s Six bowl matchup, going 0-8 in that timeframe. With losses at the hands of powerhouses including Alabama (2012, 2020), Ohio State (2016) and Clemson (2018), it appeared as if the Irish were always on the outside looking in. The upcoming game against Oklahoma State, however, appeared to be the first big game where the Irish weren’t significant underdogs, and the majority of the fanbase seemed to be excited, as opposed to cautiously optimistic. The first 25 minutes of play in the Fiesta Bowl went seamlessly for Freeman and the Irish, as they cruised to a three score lead late in the second quarter. The Irish scored with ease on their first possession, as Coan ripped a seam pass between the numbers to standout freshman Lorenzo Styles, and had the Irish

faithful roaring in full force. Coan would follow up a surgical drive by beating the blitz on a slip pass to Chris Tyree for a 53 yard score. Super sophomore Micheal Mayer would add two scores in the second quarter, and it appeared all was going as planned for Marcus Freeman, as they led 28-7 with under a minute to go in the half. In typical Notre Dame fashion, playing a full 60 minutes was never an option. On the final possession of the half, Oklahoma State would drive 75 yards in just four plays to gash the Irish defense for a nine yard score, courtesy of Tay Martin. The Irish would enter the locker room with a 14 point lead after deciding to take a knee with a little over thirty seconds in the half and timeouts in hand, a decision that may have proved costly. Oklahoma State came flying onto the field in the third quarter, scoring 17 straight points and shutting down the polarizing Irish passing game. Spencer Sanders would run wild on the Irish, for a total of 125 yards rushing and 371 yards passing. The pressure that the Irish had brought in the first half was used against them, and it appeared as though neither side of the ball were willing to make any adjustments to stifle the Cowboy momentum. Much of the same would occur in the final frame of the game, as the Cowboys moved the ball at will, and the Irish were content with 3-and-out drives and abysmal field position. A few late chances to tie the game were erased by a horrific Jack Coan interception, as well as a failed fourth down convert. The Cowboys scored 30 unanswered points in the second half, and the Irish had once again faltered on the main stage, losing the game 37-35. Notre Dame now sits at 0-9 in New Year’s Six bowl games since 1993. Although this loss is arguably the most embarrassing of all the New Year’s Six losses in recent memory, there are areas of thought that can be expanded upon in regards to where the program will trend from here. It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s secondary play needs to be improved. Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart are solid defenders, but besides a few big plays here and there, a true difference maker is needed at the cornerback position. Notre Dame opens up the 2022 season against the most potent pass attack in college football; Ohio State. C.J. Stroud and Jackson Smith-Njigba have made a living picking apart sub-par secondaries (just ask Mel Tucker). It’s very hard to have an optimistic outlook for the future given that a very average quarterback like Spencer Sanders can set a Fiesta Bowl record for total yardage in virtually 30 minutes against this secondary. Corner development is needed - and quickly - if the Irish want to have any chance of keeping the Buckeyes from steam rolling them in Columbus. With the departure of Jack Coan, it is all but certain that the Irish will be starting a young and inexperienced quarterback next season. Most likely, Tyler Buchner will get the nod to lead the offense. Buchner showed flashes of brilliance this season, and brought a much needed second dimension to the quarterback position. His decision making and mechanics, however, leave something to be desired. When given the option to pass the ball, Buchner often looked a little flustered and tended to either rush things or

take too long and make a costly mistake. His pick six against Virginia Tech in the early stages of the season left a lot of onlookers scratching their heads. It is important to note that Buchner missed his final season of high-school ball due to the pandemic, so look for a massive progression in both decision making and confidence under offensive coordinator and quarterback guru Tommy Rees. The departure of Del Alexander as wide receivers coach was long overdue, as Notre Dame receivers have struggled to break out in recent years. Notre Dame has not really had a true number one option since Chase Claypool, and their passing game has struggled as a result. Additionally, the recruiting margin at the position has been razor thin. With players like Jordan Johnson, Lawrence Keys III and Jay Brunelle leaving the program, the depth has also suffered severely. A decommitment from top 100 receiver C.J. Williams seemed to be the cherry on top of the terrible receiver situation. Although Notre Dame returns seniors Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy, injuries have derailed their progress in previous years and contributed to the difficulty of moving the ball through the air. Barring a big time transfer, this easily could turn out to be the team’s greatest weakness. Although these are serious areas of concern looking forward, there is still plenty to be excited about. The development of the Irish offensive line played a massive role in turning their season around, and the majority of the starters will return. Freshman phenom Joe Alt looks to be in prime position to be an All-American candidate, and a healthy Blake Fisher will sure up the other tackle position. Senior center Jarrett Patterson will return for a final year, and it is assumed that Andrew Kristofic and Josh Lugg will fill out the interior. It appears that “O-Line U” will continue its dominance heading into next season, with plenty of talented depth should any injuries arise. The trenches on the defensive side of the football will also return a high degree of talent, specifically the heat-seeking missile that is Isaiah Foskey. Many had believed that Foskey would tip his cap and head for the combine, but in a surprising twist, he has decided to return for his senior season (possibly due to the amazing draft class which features fierce edge rushers such as Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Michigan’s Aiden Hutchinson). Nevertheless, much needed talent has been retained in the front seven, including both Jayson and Justin Ademilola. This Notre Dame front looks scarier than ever, and hungry to avenge the harsh defeat. With the departure of Mike Elston as the defensive line coach, it will be interesting to see where a new face can lead these extremely talented young men. Last but certainly not least, Marcus Freeman has injected pure adrenaline into Notre Dame recruiting. Currently, Notre Dame ranks number seven and number two for their 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes respectively. Freeman has been relentless on the recruiting trail, and it has paid major dividends for the Irish. Almost all recruits have publicly stated how much Freeman is willing to go the extra mile in terms of communication and effort, which is definitely a sign of great things to come. Look for Freeman to continue his dominance in recruiting, which will no doubt translate to better performance.

Although another big time loss will most likely fester in the hearts of the Irish faithful over a very long offseason, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the future. A very small sample size of one game cannot be indicative of doomsday for the Irish, and fans and alumni should be proud of the resiliency shown by it’s football team in a very uncertain situation. Plenty of new faces and a much needed infusion of youth into the program should allow an approach of cautious optimism to the coming season. After all, Notre Dame is still Notre Dame.

Photo by Akron Beacon Journal -

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