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Lessons Learned? Loss to USC amplifies work Freeman still needs to do

Written by: Murray O'Connell

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill



Like most Notre Dame fans, I was first introduced to the university and its football team by a parent. In my particular case it was my mom, Maggie. My mom was a huge fan and even threatened to leave me out of her will if I did not take her to the Notre Dame vs Navy game in Dublin, Ireland in 2012. Four days after her 75th birthday my mom passed away from cancer. One of the last songs she ever heard was the Notre Dame fight song. Even though she was unable to speak, I know that brought her a few moments of peace.


My mom spent her life in education. She started as a Special Education teacher and worked her way up the ranks becoming the principal of her own school. After she passed my family would find out from her old secretary that she often would buy shoes with her own money for her students that didn’t have the financial means to. My mom never told anybody, and wanted no credit, she just didn’t want her students to go without.


In 2004 I became a teacher. Often I would ask my mom for advice. There were two lessons my mom shared that still stand out to me. First, always make friends with the lunch ladies in the cafeteria. This has proven more than beneficial to me as every Wednesday at my school cafeteria I get free lukewarm, and oddly always moist, tater tots.


The next and perhaps more important lesson my mom shared with me was that there would always be that one kid that is loud, obnoxious, and a handful to deal with. He will never admit it, but that’s the student that will need your help the most. He just doesn’t know how to ask for it.


Marcus Freeman, after Saturday’s 38-27 loss to Southern Cal, I believe we have found the kids that need your help the most.


If Notre Dame fans are correct, and Freeman is as smart as they hope, this was a season filled with lessons for the first year head coach to learn. True, some were learned the hard way, but in a season where it was obvious after week 2 this wouldn’t be a playoff team, maybe this was the best year to get some of those growing pains out of the way.


Lesson 1:

With all due respect to Drew Pyne, who seems like a classy kid both on and off the field and a great ambassador for the University, Saturday’s loss should have shown Freeman the need to find an elite quarterback that can single handedly put a team on their back and lead them to victory. Pyne, while statistically effective against the Trojans, is not that guy. Irish fans hope Freeman has found that guy in either Kenny Minchey or CJ Carr. However, it would be enormously challenging to ask a true freshman quarterback to lead Notre Dame to victories over Clemson in Death Valley or over Ohio State next year in South Bend.


Do Irish fans trust Tommy Rees enough to develop Tyler Buchner, who missed his senior season in high school due to Covid, played sparingly as a freshman only attempting 35 passes, and missed all but two games his sophomore season after suffering a season ending shoulder injury? While Rees’ past quarterbacks have statistically been impressive, did Irish fans actually see any growth from them after their first year behind the center? I believe most would say no.


What we learned: Whether internally or with the help of a graduate transfer, Freeman must insist on more competition and elite talent from the quarterback position.


Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill


Lesson 2:

Most of social media has been trying to downplay Southern Cal’s turnaround this season, they won only 4 games in 2021, by referring to the Trojans and head coach Lincoln Riley as “hired guns” after signing 26 players from the transfer portal this year. Most traditional Irish fans see this approach as cheap and maybe even a little unfair, but the realities are college football has changed and Notre Dame, more specifically the higher ups at Notre Dame, need to realize this and start allowing their coaches to make better use of the transfer portal.


Do Irish fans want to see 26 new faces next year? Probably not, Notre Dame is built on tradition, so that would not sit well with most, however Saturday’s loss is a sign that Notre Dame has failed to keep up with where the trend is headed. Yes Notre Dame has taken a grad transfer here and there, but they need to do a better job of using this resource.


In 1986 Notre Dame took a chance on a Proposition 48 student athlete, Tony Rice. Rice did not meet the entrance requirements for Notre Dame and in essence was put on probation for a year, not allowed to even practice with the team, to ensure he could handle the rigors of a Notre Dame education. The stories of Rice’s work ethic in the classroom that year proved admirable and earned him a place on the team, resulting in a national championship in 1988.


Photo courtesy of John Cordes/Icon Sportswire


Is there some worry that Freeman could inadvertently create a toxic environment by taking chances on athletes that wouldn’t be a good fit for Notre Dame? Athletes that want to write, debatably, obscene messages on their fingernails while playing on national TV? Of course, but the transfer portal is too important a tool to dismiss so easily.


What we learned: Freeman and the university's higher ups need to stay ahead of the curve and take a few chances on players, and that means using the transfer portal to their advantage. College football is changing, Notre Dame needs to as well.


Lesson 3:

Most Irish fans were expecting the secondary to be tested by Heisman hopeful Caleb Williams. When news broke at the start of the game that Notre Dame would be missing two cornerbacks due to injury, I expected LAX to have to reroute flights due to the number of dimes that would be dropped on that LA Coliseum field. However, for the most part, the secondary did their job including creating two coverage sacks for the defensive line. The damage to the Notre Dame defense was done, surprisingly, by the Southern Cal running game, including some video game type escapes by Williams. Brace yourself, Patrick Mahomes comparisons for Williams are coming.


Defensively the Irish seemed always just a step behind, specifically at the linebacker position, and the only thing more aggravating than watching all the missed tackles on Saturday night for Irish fans was having to hear Chris Fowler point them out. JD Bertrand and Xavier Watts would lead the team in tackles with nine a piece, and both also seem like classy kids on and off the field, but the Irish need a beast with speed at that position. Too often Williams was able to elude Notre Dame's linebackers. Too often Irish linebackers were allowing themselves to get held up at the line of scrimmage. Too often the Trojans' "hired guns" had their way.


Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill


Irish fans hope the answer to this issue will be solved with incoming freshmen and 5 star recruits Drayk Bowen and Jaylen Sneed. However, do Notre Dame fans want to base yet another season on hope? It seems like they’ve been doing so since 1988 and something of more substance needs to be done.


What we learned: Again, whether internally or through the transfer portal, Freeman must find some beasts with elite speed on arguably the most important position on defense, linebacker.


Final Grade: I’m not sure what grade Freeman deserves on his report card after his first year as coach. An “A” is out of the question after losing to Marshall. A “B” would be tough after the Stanford loss. Considering how doomed the program looked after the first 3 games of the season, the epic victory over Clemson, and his aggressive recruiting, Freeman does deserve a lot of credit. Most Irish fans would probably settle on a “C” which, all things considered for a first year head coach, might be fair.


At the very least though, even after Saturday’s loss, Irish fans can take comfort knowing Brian Kelly’s new team won’t be making it to the playoffs this season either. I'm sure my Mom would've gotten a big kick out of that one.




*For information on how you can help provide new shoes to students in need, please click on the Maggie Sole’s Mission link to learn how you can help out. https://maggiessolemission.org/

6 Comments


Great article! Great points! As a believer in Pyne (beginning with his rescue of Jack Coan during the Wisconsin game last year) “hoping” he would play this year instead of Buchner and ”hoping” he would get much better after each game, I now see that he isn’t our guy... AND I also see that Buchner isn’t our guy. I too agree that Freeman must insist on elite talent at the quarterback position and I definitely do not want to base another season on hope. I’ve done that since 1989. Ever since then, it seems that the Irish have won just enough to give the fans hope, similar to their NFL alter ego… the Dallas Cowboys. I really like your To…

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Murray O'Connell
Murray O'Connell
Nov 29, 2022
Replying to

Haha! I'm not sure I like your comparison to the Dallas Cowboys, but I do see your point. Yeah you know both Pyne and Buchner seem like great ambassadors for the university, but after USC it is pretty obvious to see the gap in talent level at the position. I "hope" Freeman is able to rectify this talent drought. Thanks for your thoughts, and Go Irish!

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Well penned article! A pleasure to read. While I do not disagree with any of your points and the fact that ND needs to stay in step with the ever changing landscape of college football, I do not believe that ND will ever play in the portal with the significance we have seen elsewhere. It will be possible to add some position depth and talent in select places while staying true to academic standards. Not to even mention NIL. A grade of C for Freeman may be too harsh. I would favor a B, to quote a former ND coach "winning is hard" and winning as a first year coach is even harder. Growing pains were to be expected. Wit…

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Murray O'Connell
Murray O'Connell
Nov 29, 2022
Replying to

Very good point! I guess we’ll find out soon enough if he can do both!

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