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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

Sánchez Córdova: Freeman’s honeymoon is over

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman encourages his players during the game between Notre Dame and Marshall at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

When Notre Dame hired Marcus Freeman as head football coach in December 2021, it seemed like a slam-dunk appointment. As an Irish fan, it was hard to watch that video of the players going crazy at the announcement of his promotion from defensive coordinator and feel anything but excitement.

In many ways, the momentum of that hire kept Notre Dame football going for a while. Fans love Freeman, and he’s the kind of coach that is easy to root for. At the time, he felt like the right man to lead Notre Dame back to the top echelon of college football.

Freeman came with a great background, learning under Luke Fickell at Cincinnati and building a top-tier defense for the Bearcats. In 2020, He was a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the best assistant coach in college football. In his first year in South Bend, the Irish defense ranked 15th in the country in points allowed per game. Brian Kelly did a lot of good for Notre Dame, but Freeman made Irish fans excited for the future.

In Freeman’s first game in charge, Notre Dame lost the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State. It was a big blown lead, but who could blame him? He’d only been in charge for a few weeks at that point. The Freeman hype train rolled into the offseason unhalted.

The following 2022 season started with sky-high expectations. Notre Dame played a top-five matchup against Ohio State to open the season. At the time, a lot of the focus was on Freeman’s first season and a game against his alma mater. Despite the loss in that game, Notre Dame looked decent, leading the Buckeyes at the half and giving Irish fans a lot of reason to believe.

The 2022 season didn’t end up panning out as well as many had hoped after Ohio State. Tyler Buchner’s injury and the loss to Marshall the next week derailed the season, but the dismantling of Clemson kept people on board with Freeman. After all, he was still only a first-year coach and he had lost his starting quarterback.

This year there are no such excuses. This team was built to win this year. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman coming in for his final season of eligibility was supposed to be the missing piece the Irish needed. Instead, by the first weekend of October, Notre Dame has already fallen short of expectations again.

In some ways, there has been progress from year one under Freeman. The Irish have comfortably beat all the unranked teams on their schedule. A year ago, you couldn’t really say that. They were the better team for the majority of the Ohio State game. They faced an elite program and after 60 minutes, it felt like the Irish had wasted a major opportunity rather than having simply been beaten by a better team.

Freeman (middle) departs the Notre Dame Stadium field after a 17-14 loss to Ohio State on Sep. 23.

Then they played terribly against Duke and somehow managed to sneak out of Durham with a win. Last week’s loss against Louisville was the kind of performance that makes fans question everything. It puts all the pressure on Marcus Freeman and his staff to prove that they belong at the helm of a program with national championship aspirations.

This is especially true after a season where coaching has been a point of discussion for Notre Dame. The staff only had 10 men on the field for the final play of the Ohio State game. The team committed 12 penalties against Duke. Offensive play calling came into question as Notre Dame converted only three of 15 third and fourth downs against Louisville, including converting zero of three third downs with less than four yards to go. You have no idea what to expect from the team right now.

After Louisville, the honeymoon is truly over. Luckily for Freeman, a visit from No. 10 USC is the perfect chance to start to regain trust. A loss to USC, and it could start to feel like the program is spiraling. But beat the rival Trojans this weekend in South Bend, and people might start to believe again.

The 2023 title dream is over, but there’s still a lot to play for if you’re Notre Dame. There’s especially a lot to play for if you’re Marcus Freeman. The rest of 2023 is the time for him to prove that he belongs at Notre Dame and that he is the right man for the job.

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