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The Art of Passive Victory

Written by Liam Gaudet, Senior Editor



In a season chock full of emotional turmoil, it was incredibly refreshing for fans to see Notre Dame play their best football this past Saturday against a top 25 Syracuse program on the road - but allow me to play devil's advocate. Although Notre Dame won this game by an impressive margin at first glance, I couldn't help but notice an overarching theme that has been commonplace throughout the entirety of the season. And before jumping to conclusions, no, it has nothing to do with the play calling or the quarterback play as a whole. This theme is all encompassing, and perhaps causes more frustration for the average fan than most of the obvious flaws we have observed. What I'm referring to in this instance is pacifism - or more bluntly, the lack of a killer instinct. And even after what feels like an impressive win, Notre Dame still found a way to make it more stressful than it needed to be.


Notre Dame had a stranglehold on the Orange early in the third quarter, up 24-7 with a little more than half the quarter to play. Then in the blink of an eye, Syracuse stormed back into the game scoring 10 points to cut the lead to just seven. Notre Dame's defense, which had been stingy all day, was suddenly being gashed in every facet, whether it be through the air or on the ground courtesy of true freshman quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. Credit to the Orange for making the necessary adjustments to mount what felt like an Oklahoma State level comeback, but for Notre Dame, what was happening? In every game so far this year, Notre Dame has had opportunities to put the game away on their own terms, and haven't managed to pull through. Thankfully, they were able to grab some momentum back after a Marist Liufau interception and ran with it the rest of the game to close off what could have been an ugly finish for the Irish. I would have been able to look past this short spurt of misfortune for the Irish if this were the first time it had happened this season, but it isn't, and it needs to be a focus going forward.


In Las Vegas, the Irish were off to the races and held a three possession lead in the third quarter. They proceeded to let BYU score two touchdowns in a 5 minute span to cut the lead down to just five. The offense stagnated, and the defense couldn't stop anything. After a horrendous start in Stanford, all of the momentum the Irish had after a Tobias Merriweather touchdown was erased and they essentially conceded the game. In last week's game against UNLV, at least three or four touchdowns were left on the board, and the defense gave up multiple big plays leading to scores. I could go on, but the idea is all of these stretches of bad play, whether the Irish were victorious or not, are connected.


So what is the problem? Marcus Freeman often cites execution as the cornerstone of all Notre Dame woes, but it might actually be deeper than that. The majority of Irish fans may agree that this passive approach to the game has existed in this program long before Freeman’s tenure. Coasting by on mediocre play, and barely doing enough to win games where the Irish were heavy favorites was not uncommon during Notre Dame’s impressive stretch of five consecutive ten win seasons dating back to 2017. In fact, this was often pointed out in discussions on why the Irish shouldn’t be considered for the college football playoff, as they lacked any ability to consistently dominate against lesser opponents. Scraping by against teams like Vanderbilt and Ball State in the 2018 playoff campaign had a lot of analysts conflicted when it came to determining whether the Irish were legitimate contenders, and rightfully so. It did eventually come to fruition that the upper echelon of college football was more than a stone's throw aways for the Irish, after being completely dismantled by Clemson in the playoff later that season. Still, the Irish were winning, but doing almost everything possible to get in their own way until the final whistle. That brings us to today, where we have seen this scenario play out time and time again. Big leads diminished, and either a tight victory or crushing defeat.


After weighing my thoughts, I believe that there might be a need for a small culture shift at the university. I think hiring Coach Freeman was a terrific start, as he’s proven to be more aggressive, both in his first year as defensive coordinator and as a head coach. Maybe in time, we will see the Irish develop the ability to smell blood in the water and finish a game, or at the very least, not stoop to the level of competition of an inferior opponent. I would like to see Coach Freeman and his staff take a less conservative approach when leading in games, and not fall asleep at the wheel when leading by a few scores. We saw the results of that against Oklahoma State, and it has almost played out twice this season against BYU and Syracuse. It is absolutely imperative for the success of this program long term to win a game before it’s over. It might not be an easy fix, as I see this issue extending from the staff downward to the players, but I have faith that in time we might see something different.


I hate to nitpick after a tremendous win, but to be fair, there is always something worth improving. Whether the issue is big or small, it is possible for progress to be made on a week to week basis. I would absolutely love to see Notre Dame maintain the momentum in a football game from start to finish, and that starts next week against a top five team at home.


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