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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer


Irish continue roller coaster ride in Freeman’s sophomore season

A 10-3 record signified Notre Dame’s up-and-down trajectory

The 2023-2024 Notre Dame football season was filled with some encouraging performances, tempered by plenty of frustrating lows. Though the Irish notched one more win than last year’s 9-4 season, it felt like a familiar, bumpy roller coaster ride for head coach Marcus Freeman’s sophomore season with a 10-3 record and lack of a playoff run. Despite an easier opening slate of games compared to last year, the team’s schedule soon toughened up. Four straight primetime matchups with five opponents finishing in the top 25 took a toll, leading to inconsistent play. 

Breaking down the 13-game slate 

From the start, offseason changes had the 2023 season begin with questions coupled with high hopes. Former quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne transferred out, but this was tempered by the addition of charismatic graduate quarterback Sam Hartman, who quickly became a popular name throughout Irish Nation. Tommy Rees’ stunning departure to Alabama ushered in new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and went on to produce mixed results. 

The Irish opened their season in Dublin, Ireland, claiming a blowout victory against Navy to begin on a high note. Subsequent decisive wins against Tennessee State, NC State and Central Michigan instilled confidence with a 4-0 start with the offense clicking on all cylinders. The Irish showed off their potential on both sides of the ball and early vibrance, but the most telling opponent of the team’s season would come in the form of Ohio State.

The energy was palpable with College GameDay’s first return to South Bend since 2020 and carried into the night as the team, clad in green, took the field and played competitively against a top team. Yet, what resulted was a gut-wrenching last-second loss to the Buckeyes that stemmed from the team’s lack of preparation and shocking errors. The missing man on defense in the final two goal-line stands was the difference between the brutal loss and a season-changing tally in the win column for the Irish. 

“You know, obviously, as I just told the team, it’s disappointing,” Freeman said after the game. “[We] had a lot of opportunities to win that game, and then we didn’t. Credit to them [Ohio State] for continuing to battle back and be resilient when we went up. And, you know, we’ve got to finish that game. And [it’s a] tough loss.”

Bruised but not battered completely, the Irish saw a “sweet victory” one week later in Durham, North Carolina. Thanks to a rally on the road against Duke, Notre Dame flipped the script and found itself on the winning side of another College GameDay-previewed, last-second thriller. Gutsy plays from Hartman and junior running back Audric Estimé’s 30-yard touchdown run secured the win in the final moments of the game. 

“Our two-minute mentality is we feel we can execute whatever we have to, whatever look comes at us,” junior tight end Mitchell Evans said, having led Notre Dame with six catches for 134 yards that night. “We didn’t panic. We didn’t flinch. We weren’t scared. We didn’t back down. Sam [Hartman] ran it [on] what was it, fourth-and-16? Pretty sick. [We did] what we had to do to get the frickin’ first down.”

Estimé’s stock skyrocketed in his final season, completing his transition from a backup player to a Notre Dame great who could be counted on to deliver in crucial moments. The newly drafted Denver Bronco led the team in rushing yards for the second straight season, recording 1,341 yards — good for fifth-most in program history. He also finished with six 100-yard rushing games, tying for seventh-most in a season in program history, and scored 18 rushing touchdowns to set a new program record.

“What a tough, physical, special football player,” Freeman said of Estimé. “He’s given Notre Dame everything he has the last few seasons.”

Riding high off of the comeback win at Duke, the Irish still had plenty to play for. The hiccup of Ohio State was still recoverable. However, then came the third straight primetime game at Louisville, where offensive woes were exposed even more. The team appeared to struggle for its identity, unable to get the ground game established as the offense as a whole failed to gain traction. Louisville found these holes and capitalized on them, resulting in an embarrassing defeat for the Irish. 

“You can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to win a game against a good opponent,” Freeman said. “Most importantly, what we can’t do is make excuses for why the outcome was what it was, and we can’t let others make excuses for us.” 

Despite the negative outcome in Louisville, an Irish star emerged from the lacrosse field in wide receiver Jordan Faison. The freshman made his debut with a 36-yard, game-tying touchdown. He would go on to contribute to substantial plays in each remaining matchup of the season, even finishing as the Most Outstanding Player in the Sun Bowl. Faison posted his first career 100-yard receiving day at the bowl game, finishing with five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. 

“Jordan’s a real good player,” senior safety Xavier Watts said. “He’s going to do some good things for us. He’s a lacrosse guy, but he’s good at football. We’ve known he was good since fall camp. He’s fast, he’s shifty, he’s quick and he makes plays.”

Fighting the Louisville hangover the following week for yet another primetime showing, the Irish managed to find a spark. This led to a decisive win against historic rival USC, clipping number one draft pick Caleb Williams with Al Golden’s top-ranked defense.

Watts was the difference-maker in this Irish victory, recording a career-high two interceptions for a combined 61 return yards, setting the Irish up deep in USC territory. On top of that, he returned a fumble 16 yards for a touchdown and finished with seven total tackles — six solo. Marked the best defensive player in the country by winning the 2023 Bronko Nagurski Award, Watts led the nation with seven interceptions, averaging an interception every other game. 

“Just don’t take the opportunity for granted,” Watts said of the USC game. “[We] just wanted to come out and dominate and play as best [we] can. Just ended up going good, I guess.”

After a week's reprieve, the Irish saw another home win against Pitt, where they beat up on the Panthers. The defense shined again, having forced 10 turnovers in the last two games. However, a season-ending injury to Hartman’s favorite target, Evans, proved to open up more challenges for an Irish receiving crew already dwindled by injuries.

The following weekend was the third of Notre Dame’s losses, this time down in Death Valley against Clemson. The Tigers defense preyed on the offense led by Hartman, who failed to find his groove throughout the game. 

“If you guys want to blame anyone, put it on me,” Hartman said. “I played very poor today. [I] didn’t play well enough to be a winning quarterback, [for us] to be a winning football team.”

With all other dreams clipped, the Irish had only their pride to play for. Late November wins against Hartman’s former team Wake Forest and annual rival Stanford ended the regular season on a high note — in theory. 

Culminating the entire season at the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, the Irish faced off against Oregon State, upending the Beavers 40-8. Despite many players opting out, a blowout victory gave Freeman his 10th win of the season. Sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli took the lead in the quarterback room with a 79% completion rate, establishing himself as a legit challenge as starter.

“Ten looks better than nine,” Freeman said after the game. “To me, it’s a reflection of the direction of this program. Nine wins last year, 10 wins this year — we just want to continue to improve … That’s the challenge of college football. How do you progress? How do you continue to take this group of football players and coaches to a place where we can win those close ones [and] win the ones we’re supposed to? I’m extremely pleased with our program, where it’s at now and our direction in the future.”

Golden’s defense shines throughout season

Season outcome aside, the defense was the most consistent key for the Irish. By the numbers, it continually improved and had a historic year. Notre Dame’s defense allowed an average of 15.9 points per game, marking the program’s lowest point total allowed since 2012 (12.8). Prior to that, the last time a defense held opponents to fewer points in a season was 1992 (14.8).

Notre Dame gave up just 276.3 yards per game, which was the program's most favorable since 1996 (270.0), and prior to that, the only season that was better was the 1980 defense (234.5). Notre Dame gave up 4.44 yards per play — its best mark since 2002 (4.38).

Perhaps most impressively, Golden’s crew turned around its red-zone performance within the year. In 2022, Notre Dame ranked second-to-last in red-zone defense and last in red-zone touchdown defense. In 2023, the Irish jumped up to second and third in those categories, respectively. Notre Dame also held opponents to just eight passing touchdowns in the fall of 2023, which was the best single-season mark since the Irish defense gave up just seven passing touchdowns in 1997.

“We have a great staff,” Golden said. “We try and build it. We work together on it. We’re comfortable with each other and try to put our players in the best position.”

The Irish are set up well for success in 2024 with the arrival of former Duke quarterback Riley Leonard, a rebuilt wide receiver room and a showing performance from newcomers at the Blue-Gold Game. Major changes in the coaching staff like the addition of touted offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from LSU should take the Irish offense to another level.

As Freeman enters his “show me” third year with an easier schedule there is a hope — but mostly a need — for the Irish to have a more stable 2024-2025 season. An expanded College Football Playoff system also bodes well for a potential postseason run, but for now, it all begins with what the team and staff can build upon in practice this summer.