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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Irish ride rollercoaster in Freeman's first season

Ryan Vigilante
Head coach Marcus Freeman sways alongside Irish players in the singing of the alma mater post BYU victory in Las Vegas, NV.

The 2022-2023 Notre Dame football season began with a mixture of excited expectations tempered with quiet concern. Many questions swirled as Marcus Freeman began his debut season as the 30th head coach in Notre Dame history, taking over after the shocking exit of Brian Kelly to LSU. Freeman had previously served as one of the country’s top defensive coordinators and recruiters

Ultimately, the season would turn out to be a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. The Irish were thrown right into the fire with an opening showdown on the road against National Championship contender No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes owned a high-powered offense featuring Heisman candidate quarterback CJ Stroud. Defensive coordinator Al Golden’s strategy held the explosive Buckeyes in check for nearly three quarters until a mistimed safety blitz opened the floodgates. The Ohio State defense tightened and shut down sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner and the Notre Dame offense in the fourth to give the home team a 21-10 win. The game was a learning experience for the Irish. 

“I think we learned that we have a good football team, but we have to learn how to finish,” Freeman said. 

Things took a turn for the worse the next week as Sun Belt conference member Marshall came to South Bend and broke Notre Dame's streak of 42 straight wins against unranked opponents. Late in the game, quarterback Buchner suffered a shoulder injury that put him out for the season, making the situation even worse. 

“You really can’t just sulk in these losses,” junior tight end Michael Mayer said after the Marshall game. “I mean, we’re 0-2, yes, and it’s horrible, but we’re just going to prepare for the next team.”

That next team would be Cal as junior quarterback Drew Pyne took over the reins of the offense.  After a sluggish first half which included some vulgar, nationally televised, encouragement by offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to remind Pyne to do his job, the Irish held on for a 24-17 win, giving Freeman his first victory as Notre Dame head coach. Though the game still had Freeman on the edge of his seat.

“There was a conversation between me and God,” Freeman said. “There was some, ‘Lord, what is going on?’”

The Irish then seemed to get back on track easily defeating UNC on the road and BYU in Las Vegas in the annual Shamrock Series game. Things fell back to Earth, however, the next week as the Irish suffered an embarrassing prime-time loss to lowly Stanford 16-14. Things were certainly anything but all sunshine and rainbows in South Bend.

“We know it was a tough week for all of us,” Freeman said. “Anybody that’s a part of this Notre Dame family or Notre Dame nation and this football team, it was a tough week.”

Despite the loss, the roller coaster surged upwards as the Irish reeled off five straight, including a win on the road against ranked Syracuse. The Irish’s highwater mark of the season was their dismantling of No. 4 Clemson, which resulted in a field-rushing at the game's end by the Notre Dame student body. With this win, the Irish snapped Clemson’s 14-game winning streak – which at that point was the longest in the nation.

This was a complete team win as the Irish scored on offense, defense and special teams. Aggressively running the ball was the game plan, which the Irish executed seamlessly. Running backs junior Logan Diggs and sophomore Audric Estime each rushed for over 100 yards. Freshman cornerback Ben Morrison returned an interception for a touchdown. Sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie scored on a blocked punt. The Irish ended up leading the nation in that category with an incredible seven blocked punts on the season.

It’s special,” Freeman said of the Clemson game. “You could hear the fans, the students. I really didn’t want to leave the field. This is a game that I’ll never forget.”

The Irish closed out the regular season with a high-profile matchup against arch-rival No. 5 USC with a potential New Year’s Six Bowl bid on the line. Pyne had his most complete game of the season, passing for 318 yards and completing 23 of 26 passes for three touchdowns, with two going to Mayer. However, the magic of Heisman-winning USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who himself accounted for four touchdowns, proved too much for the Irish. They fell 38-27 in the Coliseum.

“That was one of the biggest things, his ability to keep the play alive when it should have been a dead play,” Irish linebacker JD Bertrand said of Williams. “He's freaky athletic, and it shows.”

The Irish closed out the 2022 season with a 45-38 victory over the University of South Carolina in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. This matchup featured the return of Buchner. He accounted for five touchdowns to end the season on a high note.

The 2022 Fighting Irish season was truly one of extreme highs and lows. Freeman was able to steady the ship, ending up with nine wins and ranking No. 18 in the final AP Poll. Individual standouts included Mayer, who set new records for catches and touchdowns for tight ends. Foskey also broke the Notre Dame all-time sack record and contributed greatly. With both stars off to the NFL, there are big shoes to fill on the Irish roster. The transfers of Buchner, Pyne, Logan Diggs and Lorenzo Styles will also usher in change within the program as Freeman puts his players in place.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of new talent to fill the void. There is a top-ten recruiting class coming in. Not to mention the additions of graduate transfers quarterback Sam Hartman from Wake Forest and defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste from Ohio State. Another year of experience for the staff and the development of the wide receiver and linebacker rooms could have the Irish in place for a possible College Football Playoff return this season.