Sep. 26—SOUTH BEND — Agony, frustration, disappointment.
It was seen all across Notre Dame Stadium this past weekend when the Irish picked up their first loss of the season. The 17-14 defeat to Ohio State also justly brought up another word: confusion.
Confusion about how an offense who had a four-point lead with four minutes remaining failed to close out the game. Confusion about how holding a top-tier Buckeye wide receiver room without a touchdown didn't lead to a win.
Confusion about how the Irish tried to stop the No. 6 team in the country in crunch time with just 10 men on the field — twice.
"So the second to last play, we had 10 guys on the field and we did not know," Freeman clarified during Monday's weekly press conference. "By the time we noticed in the last play, it was too late to do anything about it."
Despite all the justifiable pain throughout the stands and on the home sideline, the Week 4 loss isn't the end of No. 11 Notre Dame's season, rather, it's the beginning of a new one. This "new season" can't afford the Irish to falter, and even though the immediate road ahead remains rocky, Notre Dame will have to navigate it perfectly having a smaller margin of error.
The new season begins with Duke, the on-the-rise program ranked 17th in the country.
WAIT, IT'S NOT MARCH
It may seem weird to be talking about nationally-ranked Duke off the hardwood, but the No. 17 Blue Devils have arrived on the college football scene.
While wins over Lafayette, Northwestern and UConn don't immediately jump off the page, Duke's season-opening win over Clemson should.
Duke head coach Mike Elko should sound familiar in South Bend. Notably, Elko served under Brian Kelly as the defensive coordinator during the 2017 season. Afterwards, Elko moved to Texas A&M, taking the same position under Jimbo Fisher's staff. Three years under Fisher helped Elko grow enough to accept the head coach spot in Durham before last season.
Leading the Blue Devil offense is possibly the best and most experienced quarterback Notre Dame has seen yet.
Riley Leonard, a junior two-way star, could give the Irish fits. Only throwing for two touchdowns this season, he hasn't thrown an interception either. That gets easier when he's rushed for four touchdowns and reached over 90 yards rushing in two of Duke's wins.
Notre Dame knows the strength that a deep running back room can have, and the Blue Devils have a taste of one too. Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore are the guys to know here.
Waters and Moore can set the tone for the physical Duke bunch. The run-first offense is the center to Duke's offense, and with Waters, Moore and Leonard combining for just under 700 yards this season, they can push the needle in the Blue Devils favor.
The defense too is a large part of the success of Elko's team. Mimicking their coaches style, Duke has averaged under nine points a game, giving up a season-high 14 points to Northwestern two weeks ago. The rest of the Blue Devils opponents have only managed to score seven.
With speed in the back, and physical playmakers towards the front, Duke doesn't shy away from contact. Sam Hartman, Audric Estime and several other Irish playmakers will have to work extensively to move the ball on offense.
"Great teams find a way to execute when it matters the most," Freeman said during his opening statement Monday. "That's what great teams do, and you know, we didn't."
"If you would have told me going into that game, we would have zero three-and-outs, zero sacks, zero turnovers, zero drops, zero penalties, run for 176 yards and not win, I would have said no way," Freeman said. "When you have three series on their side of the field and we get zero points out of it, that's the reality of it. We have to finish those drives with points."
"This game didn't just come down to one game," Freeman said about what allowed Ohio State to grab the win Saturday. "You think of the 4th-and-1 situations; we have to convert because we're going to continue to go for those."
"We came up with a signal to be able to tell 'hey, you have to touch someone on offense so you can stop the play'," Freeman said about what the staff did to address the 10-man situation following the game.
"He is a talented individual," Freeman said of Duke quarterback Riley Leonard. "The things he presents in the run game; he's a big physical, tough runner and he's accurate in the pass game. It's a huge challenge to our team; biggest one yet."
"We'll get home from Duke around 3:30 in the morning, so the following week, for Louisville, we have to take that into consideration," Freeman said with an expression of exhaustion after learning his team will play in four straight night games.
"He's always done a good job," Freeman said about Mike Elko. "His defenses have always been well coached. The thing that you respect is how hard they play. They're aggressive, they play extremely hard. They're not exotic, they don't do crazy things on defense, but they play fast and they play hard, and they tackle well."
ALL EYES ON ND (AGAIN)
Freeman's sulking head when learning the Irish will play four straight night games, including three against ranked opponents and two on the road tells us a couple things.
The first, is that Notre Dame's schedule still bears its load of challenges. Freeman knew before Ohio State that this four-game stretch would likely determine the Irish's season. With OSU, Duke, Louisville and USC all undefeated still, everybody wants their chance to knock off Notre Dame on the big stage.
That means Freeman and the Irish will have several eyes on them, and while that puts pressure on the head coach to perform, it should be welcomed by the Irish who can use the opportunities to regain belief in Notre Dame's title hopes.
The second, is that Freeman knows the opportunity ahead. He acknowledged that the systems he created malfunctioned late Saturday against the Buckeyes, leading to the loss. Owning up to the coaching failure was step one in recovering from a devastating loss. Step two is taking care of the Blue Devils.
With Duke's physical style of play, this has the makings of another grind-it-out type of game. If the Irish don't respect the Blue Devils as legitimate threats, a second-loss could be well on its way.
With ESPN's "College GameDay" following the Irish to Durham, the Cameron Crazies, also known as the "Wade Wackos" during football season, will be out in full force giving Notre Dame a taste of its medicine.
Likewise, the Irish have the opportunity to rise above and do what the Buckeyes did to them: steal a game on the road in a rowdy, hostile environment inside college football's weekly epicenter.
No. 11 Notre Dame pays a visit to No. 17 Duke for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff time.