Opinion: Excellent end to whirlwind month not to be for Notre Dame, head coach Marcus Freeman

·7 min read

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Day One of a new year — and a new era — dawned chilly and breezy and even downright cold for a lot of the locals out here where the heat is a constant hammer.

It felt like fall. It felt like football.

It didn’t look like Notre Dame in Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State at State Farm Stadium. The program’s first win in a major bowl game since 1994 would have been a nice way to cap a whirlwind month for first-year coach Marcus Freeman, But the Irish didn’t have nearly enough over the final two terrible quarters in a 37-35 loss.

"It might disappoint some people but I understand where we're going in the future," Freeman said. "Sometimes, you've got to look at it as a blessing, man."

A blessing maybe, but ...

"It's a pit in your stomach," Freeman said.

Notre Dame was good early, not so good late as another big bowl opportunity slid sideways for the squad from South Bend. Ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff poll coming in, Notre Dame closes season No.115 at 11-2.

There were several storylines in this one — the scoring outage of the offense, the lack of doing on defense, the throwing and throwing and record setting of Irish quarterback Jack Coan. Mainly, though, it was Freeman, making his coaching debut not at home against an overmatched opponent after months of planning and prep but on a massive stage less than a month into the job.

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman leads the team out during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl.
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman leads the team out during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl.

No previous Irish head coach had to deliver in a similar situation in his debut.

Freeman said early in December shortly after his hiring that he felt like someone without a home — not sure where to go or what to do in practice — though looked right where he should be on the far sideline Saturday. He preached all last month that even though his personal and professional worlds had been tossed upside down, it would be business as usual. In the bowl preparation. In the days leading up to the game. Then with the game itself, where Freeman was dressed like every other Irish assistant coach — white shoes, blue slacks and a white shirt.

Just one of the guys, though, in reality, not really.

He’s different. That’s one reason he got the job despite no previous head coaching experience.

Freeman made his bones as a defensive coordinator, but watched Tommy Rees turn it loose offensively with no evidence of a consistent run game. The Irish then tallied touchdowns three of the first six times they had the ball. There were long stretches of drives where it was easy pitch and catch with Coan and a host of receivers — Chris Tyree on this drive, then Braden Lenzy.

Tight end Michael Mayer wasn’t heard from for the better part of those six drives, then delivered a catch and run and score on a crossing route. Then another score before half.

Notre Dame’s offense needed all of five plays to go 75 yards in an opening-drive score, capped by a 25-yard catch and run from wide receiver Lorenzo Styles. Notre Dame’s defense needed all of four plays to get off the field, capped by a turned-loose Isaiah Foskey sack.

Freeman made this coaching gig look easy — at least, early.

It isn’t, as evidence of Notre Dame going three and out on its second drive, or allowing Oklahoma State to march 87 yards in 12 plays for a score to start the second half. Then the Irish went three and out and it felt like a ball game again.

That’s football. Notre Dame looked really good to start, and Oklahoma State looked really sluggish. By the end of one quarter, that had flipped.

"It's a tale of two halves," Freeman said.

Sluggish second half leaves Irish empty

Mayer’s second scoring catch gave the Irish a 28-7 lead. Everything was working, then it all stopped. Oklahoma State got rolling, while Notre Dame flatlined, In every phase. Oklahoma State’s tempo offense had the Notre Dame defense teetering. The Irish didn’t have to deal with what they had to deal with Saturday on the back half of a spongy-soft schedule.

By the end of the third quarter, the Irish defense was huffing and puffing and on fumes. Oxygen, anyone? Missed tackles. No pressures. Pass interference. Who were those guys in blue? It was as if all that energy and emotion that had been stockpiled since Freeman’s hiring suddenly disappeared. There was nothing in reserve.

"I don't think many times we were out-schemed," said linebacker Drew White. "It came down to executing and making tackles."

Ramon Henderson then jumped on a fumble in the end zone to give the Irish some way needed juice. Three plays later, though, another Irish punt.

It’s been a series of firsts since Freeman was hired, and his first game was no exception. In previous games, Freeman would be on the sideline huddled with the defense when the Irish offense was on the field. On Saturday, he was at midfield, hands on knees, hunched over staring out at an Irish offense that rolled up 163 yards the opening 15 minutes.

Big-time bowl? This was one in name only. Played in an NFL venue (capacity 63,400), the crowd and the atmosphere felt more like a third game in preseason for the Arizona Cardinals with seas/sections of empty seats (announced crowd of 49,550). But play a football game with a 11 a.m. local time kick, and it takes a lot to get everyone going.

Freeman wanted his guys ready to go from the jump. Were they ever. The trouble the Irish had as the game unfolded was maintaining that energy. It was getting away to the tune of 30 unanswered points. By the end of the third quarter, even the Irish lead was gone.

About an hour before kick, Freeman looked like someone still trying to figure out where he best fit. He tossed the football with cornerbacks coach and close friend Mike Mickens. He talked with game officials. He wandered over with his arms folded and watched the Irish wide receivers go through their early work. He paced. He stood. He waited for the clock to tick down and get this whole day started.

What must have been going through the guy’s mind? Likely a checklist of what he wanted to get done, but maybe also, a quick flash of his entire football life.

Freeman was hired as defensive coordinator 12 months ago this month. He was officially hired as head coach four weeks ago Monday. At age 35.

Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders (3) passes as Notre Dame’s Howard Cross III (56) rushes him during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders (3) passes as Notre Dame’s Howard Cross III (56) rushes him during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Whatever happened out here wouldn’t matter much moving forward. The new guy’s head probably still hasn’t spinning since the program was tossed upside down and around in late November. He recruited. He crafted practice plans. He game planned. He probably didn’t sleep much, and even when he did, still couldn’t completely unplug. Welcome to the job.

Give him time to decompress, time to plan a spring practice, time to put his stamp on this program. It all will look different. He’ll be different. The expectations? They’ll stay the same, as they should.

Decompression, though, may not be an option.

"I'm more motivated to go, go, go," Freeman said. "Whatever this organization needs to improve."

The end goal — a win — wasn't met Saturday. That will sit with Freeman for the next 245 days when he’ll get another chance — at Ohio State, his alma mater — on Sept. 3.

"The honeymoon stage is over," Freeman said. "It's about having a great product. It's about having a great team."

Next step for Freeman and Notre Dame, be great.

"I'm excited for next year," said White, who won't be here for that. "This is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of everyone for months. Take it as everything happens for a reason. It's hard. It's bitter. it's going to continue to move forward for the next season."

Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since winning one 20 miles from here in Tempe, and the Fiesta Bowl’s former home, Sun Devil Stadium, the first day of 1989. It wasn’t winning one Saturday. It might not win one next year or the next few.

But in Freeman, it has someone that still might give them that something — a chance.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

This article originally appeared on ND Insider: Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame falters in loss to Oklahoma State