At Notre Dame, a stunning loss, and more soul searching
Just when it looked like Marcus Freeman’s 1st season as Notre Dame’s football coach was going to be defined by a tremendous push after a surprising 0-2 start, the Fighting Irish’s luck ran out Saturday against Stanford.
For the 2nd time within just more than a month, Notre Dame lost a home game it was heavily favored to win. For the 2nd time within just more than a month, Notre Dame became the first Football Bowl Subdivision-level win for an opponent. Marshall, it should be noted, hasn’t defeated another FBS team since winning Sept. 10 in South Bend, Ind., and Stanford now is 2-4, with the 16-14 win Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium opening its FBS win account this season.
Now, for the 2nd time in just more than a month, there are serious questions surrounding just what kind of hire Freeman will turn out to be.
National writers and Notre Dame fans spent much of the summer discussing whether Notre Dame could, under Freeman, take the final step in the program’s ascension back to the national elite. After a national championship game appearances and 2 College Football Playoff appearances under Brian Kelly, only the most difficult step remained for the program: winning a Playoff game and perhaps, the program’s first national title since 1988. Could Freeman help the Fighting Irish accomplish this? That was the question on most minds and lips as Notre Dame opened summer camp, with recruiting booming and the charismatic Freeman and his infectious sense of humor a startling, refreshing contrast to the dour, direct Kelly.
The thing is, for all of Kelly’s personal impeccadillos, the man won. He won a lot, in fact, including 54 during his final 5 seasons on the job, when Notre Dame made their 2 CFP appearances. Kelly might have lost big games, falling to the likes of Clemson or Alabama with championships or championship-game berths on the line. What he didn’t do, however, was lose home games to bad football teams. After Saturday’s loss to Stanford, Notre Dame has done that twice under Freeman within less than 2 months.
What now, then, for the Fighting Irish, whose hopes of a New Year’s Six bowl berth have all but evaporated and who, if would appear, can’t take any opponent lightly, including Nevada-Las Vegas, which despite being outscored 82-14 in its past 2 games, surely will arrive at Notre Dame Stadium thinking it can spoil another splendid autumn Saturday in South Bend.
First and foremost, Notre Dame needs to get back to what made it successful during its 3-game winning streak.
The Fighting Irish need to run the football effectively, even if that means utilizing the passing game less. Notre Dame ran for 150 yards against Stanford, not a terrible number, but given the problems Drew Pyne was facing in the passing game, it’s a wonder they only attempted 30 called runs. Pyne, under too much pressure all night as well, had to scramble on a few of Notre Dame’s tallied run plays. At his postgame press conference, Freeman couldn’t explain why offensive coordinator Tommy Rees didn’t just stick with the run game. Instead, he blamed poor execution in the passing game and in pass protection. Why Notre Dame couldn’t execute against a Stanford defense that had allowed 40 points or more 3 times entering Saturday is another question, and it should not be lost on anyone that Notre Dame president, Rev. John Jenkins, and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, both were in attendance at the postgame press conference Saturday searching for answers, not lip service. Freeman offered no real answers, however.
“I can’t come up with a magic answer … it’s the lack of execution,” Freeman said. “And the only way to fix a lack of execution is to go back and study it and say, ‘OK, what aren’t we doing right?’ And then you watch the film.”
The film shows a Notre Dame team that couldn’t protect the quarterback and couldn’t convert on 3rd down. Stanford registered a season-high 12 pressures, collected 2 sacks, and forced Pyne into his worst performance from a completion standpoint as Notre Dame’s quarterback (13-of-27). The Fighting Irish were 3-for-12 on 3rd-down conversions, and all of those conversions came during the 2nd half, with Notre Dame chasing the game. And for all the good in the run game, Notre Dame was stuffed on 3rd-and-short multiple times, meaning this offensive line, so improved over the prior 3 games, couldn’t get a push when it really needed it Saturday.
Notre Dame’s offense shouldn’t struggle that much at home against a bad defense, and that’s just what Stanford has, having given up at least 6.5 yards per play against every other FBS team they had played prior to Saturday. Southern California, a team that like Notre Dame is trying to claw its way back into the national elite, torched Stanford for 505 yards at an 8-yards-per-play clip. The Fighting Irish? They didn’t hit 5 yards per snap, and barely eclipsed 300 total yards. This type of paltry production won’t cut it, and unfortunately, it’s a trend now for Rees and his offense. No matter who is under center for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish aren’t aggressive enough and don’t adjust enough to avoid looking slow and stolid on offense, a predictable mess that isn’t hard to prepare to play.
Better defenses lurk right around the corner. Syracuse ranked among the top 25 nationally in defense last season, has 8 starters back from that unit, and at worst, will host Notre Dame having lost just once this season. Clemson, with all of its blue-chip talent, looms the following Saturday. Barring fast answers, what looked like a clear path to 6-2 for Notre Dame ahead of Clemson week looks more like it will be fortunate to be 5-3. Lose to the Tigers, as expected, and Notre Dame could be 4-5 with a Top 25 contest at a Southern Cal team still to play. A 6-6 opening season for Freeman? That won’t inspire confidence, no matter how well he’s recruiting. Instead, it will raise existential questions. Is Rees the right man to lead Notre Dame’s offense? Is this recruiting class balanced enough to provide instant help to an offense that seems, in bigger games, to lack playmakers? And of course, the biggest, boldest one: is Marcus Freeman ready for a job of this size and scale?
Perhaps, after Saturday’s defeat, those questions already are being asked.
Let’s hope Freeman finds a way to get his team to execute. Otherwise, he’ll need better answers.