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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Capece: “The honeymoon stage is over”

Marcus Freeman is who I said he was. But maybe he’s not who I thought he could be just yet.

I said Freeman would bring the kind of energy and mentality that would have Notre Dame ready to play in these big bowl games that have been their nemesis since 1993. The Fiesta Bowl was dubbed by pretty much everyone, including myself, to be the Freeman game.

A defensive coordinator who ascended to the top job under unbelievable circumstances to become the youngest Notre Dame head coach in 67 years competing in his first game was bound to draw national attention. That storyline has generated the most excitement around this program since a 2013 BCS National Championship Game appearance. For a couple of weeks, this program had an identity, an undeniable swagger that had been lacking under Brian Kelly. Instead of reiterating the narrative this team would again embarrass itself on the big stage, I claimed the new coach would instill the confidence to compete at the highest level.

The Irish looked far from a deer in headlights Saturday. They came out and punched Oklahoma State in the mouth with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession that made one of the best defenses in the country look outmatched. The Notre Dame defense followed with a drive where interim defensive coordinator Mike Elston brought the house on every play. Senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey punctuated it with a sack on third down. In the first half, on both sides of the ball, the Irish showed the kind of fire they were missing in New Year’s Six games under Kelly. We didn’t see Ian Book running for his life against a head-hunting Clemson pass rush. Nor did we see Nick McCloud getting hurdled and stiff-armed at the same time by Najee Harris.

Instead, we saw aggressive play-calling from an unfettered Tommy Rees, allowing Jack Coan to let it rip like he was Patrick Mahomes. Notre Dame averaged 295 passing yards a game during the regular season. In Glendale, the graduate student from Sayville, New York aired it out for 342 yards in the first half alone. Elston continued to release the hounds on Cowboy quarterback Spencer Sanders, putting pressure in his face to prevent him from finding his rhythm. For the first time I can remember in January, that first half felt like Notre Dame was playing Navy on a fall Saturday. Freeman’s promotion was more than just a changing of the guard. He brought a killer mentality that Notre Dame did not have before.

The expectations for a head coach in his first contest were understandably and justifiably otherworldly. Irish nation is chomping at the bit to end a nearly 30-year New Year’s Six bowl drought. I sure thought this would finally be the time to break through. Freeman himself said of the fan base after the game that “They deserve a team that every week goes out there and wins. It’s our job to make sure we prepare and do everything necessary to give this team, the fan base, the University, and everybody else that deserves it a really, really good product out on that field.” More so than Kelly did, Freeman connects with the fans on a personal level. He understands we want our team to win as much as the coaching staff and the players do.

But it was recklessly overzealous of me to put the cart before the horse. I failed to really grasp the fact that Freeman was coaching in his first game. That Tommy Rees was calling plays unfettered for the first time in his young career. That Elston is not a defensive coordinator. That the rest of this Fiesta Bowl coaching staff was built at light speed. And, that it was all done while attempting to keep a 2022 recruiting class intact (which Freeman for the most part did, a testament to his poise and ability as a recruiter). And these players have yet to be in a position to win one of these big games on the field.

At the end of the day, the vibes Freeman’s promotion created and then maintained through his four weeks on the job could only carry the Irish so far. Understandably and justifiably, the Irish were outcoached and outplayed in the second half.

The sign of a truly great coaching staff is if it can anticipate the adjustments an opponent will make at halftime and make the proper counter-adjustments. It takes time to learn how to slow the game down and focus on the small details that ultimately win football games. In my estimation, Kelly did not make a single halftime adjustment in his 12 years at Notre Dame. While Notre Dame failed at this on both sides of the ball Saturday, there’s still hope for this current staff.

I’d bet the cost of my degree on the fact that Mike Gundy went into the locker room at halftime and told his quarterback to throw the ball to his best offensive weapon, Tay Martin. I’d bet it especially after he snagged a quick-strike touchdown to end the first half. Gundy probably looked at the box score and saw that the two catches his superstar made, including the touchdown, came against sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis. If you watched the game, you saw Martin torch Lewis in the second half. He grabbed eight catches, for 92 yards and two more touchdowns.

If you throw in a pass interference penalty the wide receiver drew when he cooked past the defensive back that put the Cowboys in field goal range, the Martin-Lewis matchup accounted for 24 of Oklahoma State’s 37 points. I’m not blaming Lewis. He just wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Instead, the coaching staff should have moved senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy onto Martin after he caught back-to-back touchdowns on Lewis. Bracy forced Martin into two drops when he covered him in the first half, but seldom shadowed him in the second half. Freeman stood by Lewis after the game as he should, but he let his reputation as a players’ coach get the best of him. He failed to adjust defensively to Gundy’s offensive adjustment, and it cost the Irish the victory.

I’d bet the cost of my younger brother’s degree (who will be a freshman in the class of 2026) that Gundy also went into halftime and told his defense to stop bringing pressure and drop everyone into coverage. After Coan lit them up and was masterful against the blitz, they really don’t have a choice.

So, that’s exactly what the Cowboys did. Coan’s fourth-quarter interception came at the hands of All-American linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who dropped back to double Kevin Austin instead of rushing the quarterback. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the gunslinger mentality Tommy Rees brought to this game. But, he completely abandoned the run in the second half, handing the ball off just seven times. Against a defense that is expecting the pass, making them stop the run is the only way you can pass. With a two-touchdown lead, Rees failed to recognize that he could chew some clock with linebackers and safeties leaving running lanes open.

With everyone covered, Coan forced tight throws on first and second down instead of hitting his check downs. This put the Notre Dame offense into unfavorable third and longs. Without any semblance of a run game, the Irish were off the field in a hurry. This put even more strain on a defense tired from containing Oklahoma State’s up-tempo attack. Rees failed to adjust to Gundy’s adjustment and the offense stalled, costing the Irish a victory.

With Oklahoma State rallying in the second half, the Notre Dame players looked uncertain. They played like they didn’t quite expect to have a two-touchdown lead. Dropped passes on early downs could have changed the outcome of drives. Missed tackles led to huge chunk plays for Sanders and Cowboy’s running back Jaylen Warren. Bad throws on third down sent the Notre Dame offense jogging to the sideline and put more gas in the tank for the Oklahoma State faithfuls who made the trip to Glendale. And, a missed field goal forced the Irish to attempt an onside kick. All of these small mistakes compounded in the second half, costing the Irish the victory.

What’s the overarching theme we can take away from the Fiesta Bowl? Notre Dame now knows how to compete on the big stage, but they don’t yet know how to win on it. You can expect this same kind of mentality when the Irish open the 2022 season at the Horseshoe against Ohio State. With Freeman around, this team won’t be intimidated by a road game against one of the nation’s best teams.

The true test of Freeman as a head coach will be whether or not he can do the little things right to bring Notre Dame back to the promised land. Can these players and this coaching staff be laser-focused when it matters most? When you’re a team looking to break the nearly impenetrable wall built by the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State, you can’t afford to make the kind of mistakes the Irish made on Saturday.

Let’s not forget that Freeman has coached one game in what will likely be a very long career. He still has some growing to do. Let’s also not forget that this team has almost all of the pieces in place to return to the College Football Playoff. The Irish need reinforcements in the secondary which they should find in top recruiting classes, ’22 and ’23. And, they need a quarterback to make plays with both his legs and his arm. For that, they should be able to turn to Tyler Buchner. This young head coach has been handed the keys to a national championship-caliber program. Now he and his team must prove they can win when it matters most.

As Freeman said after the game, “The honeymoon stage is over.” Damn right it is. The Oklahoma State Cowboys certainly made sure of that. Will the Irish respond in the right way?

It’s your move coach.