SOUTH BEND, Ind. — At 5:54 p.m. on a Saturday that was supposed to serve as a celebration, everything we thought we knew about this No. 8 Notre Dame football team, about this coaching staff, about the rookie head coach, effectively evaporated into the Northern Indiana evening.
Poof. All the feel-good vibes are over. Gone. Like that, it’s all become difficult to dissect.
This was supposed to be a day remembered for when Marcus Freeman registered his first win on the Notre Dame sideline. Against an opponent that came to town nearly a three-touchdown underdog. After a hard game the first time out against No.2 Ohio State, Notre Dame would find its collective footing, boat-race Marshall and when it was over, have the game ball handed to the first-year head coach.
Instead, the Irish had their lunch handed to them. In the trenches. On the outside. Across the field. How's it taste?
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Nobody saw this season going sideways this soon. Sideways it has gone after a 26-21 loss to a team from the Sun Belt Conference. Ugh.
"We have to look at ourselves as individuals," Freeman said. "We all have to look ourselves, the head coach on down, and say, ‘What do I have to do, what do we have to do to fix these issues that we’re having?’"
How do said issues get fixed? How much time do you have? Not enough hours in the day to dissect that. Freeman might not even know. He better figure it out. Fast.
Once this one went final, after the visitors danced on the field and Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner exited with an injured shoulder, the Irish stepped silently from their locker room and through the north gate of Notre Dame Stadium. There, it seemed only close friends and relatives awaited. Across the way, Marshall running back Khalan Laborn danced out through the visitor’s gate and toward loved ones. He jumped up and down. He hollered. He was still in full freaking uniform more than an hour after this one ended.
You can do that after going for 16 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown while being the best back on the field. For those guys, this was a moment and a night that they hoped/wished/dreamed would never end. They won at Notre Dame. For these Irish, the nightmare couldn’t end soon enough. Get it behind them, then get back to work and figure out how a season that held so much promise as recently as two weeks ago could be left in shreds.
"We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves," Freeman said.
A team that heard the home folks boo them in the first half of the home opener isn't going to like what they see.
Where is the team we thought we knew?
They fooled us. They fooled all of us. Frauds? Convince us that they’re not. Tell us that they’re better than the first Irish outfit to open 0-2 since 2011. That was Brian Kelly’s second year. You know Kelly, the winningest coach in program history. Have a good laugh at how his LSU regime started, sure, but he always won games like Saturday late in his time here. We took these games — and these wins — for granted.
Shame on these Irish, who we listened to and watched through August. What great offseason workouts they had in June and July, we were told. What a great preseason camp they had those three weeks in August. What a great coaching staff. What a great vibe. Greatness surely awaited.
What a bunch of baloney.
We bought it. We bought all of it. New guy in charge, new heights to hit. Freeman could do little wrong — really, nothing — since he was named head coach in December. Everything he touched during the winter and the spring and the summer seemingly turned to gold. He had it. All of it. The poise, the passion, the presence, the program.
Oklahoma State loss? Pfft. Wait until Freeman could put his stamp on this program. Ohio State? Who wins in that atmosphere? . Those losses were explainable. Saturday was not. Marshall was better in a game where Notre Dame needs to be.
Now the hard stuff really starts. The spotlight really intensifies. The whispers and the questions grow louder. The uncertainty, too. Freeman’s the first coach in school history to start 0-3. In a snap, he’s been grouped more with Bob Davie and Charlie Weis and Gerry Faust than those guys whose statues stand sentry outside the stadium gates. There’s a long time for Freeman to settle in, but with every effort like Saturday, a shorter time for him to get there.
"It," Freeman said, "starts with me."
Fine. But when Freeman looks in the mirror, what will he see? What can he do?
"I’ve got to be a leader," he said. "I can’t sit here and point the fingers at any one person. We’ve got to be very strategic and honest with ourselves."
Honestly, this team’s not very good. In any phase. In every phase.
Lose like the Irish lost Saturday, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. That position group. That assistant coach. That mindset. Where’s that touted high-powered offense led by the quarterback that everyone who thinks they know something (really, nothing) about recruiting believed it had to have in Buchner? Where’s Tommy Rees, the offensive coordinator who thought hard about jumping to the NFL, only to triumphantly return to his alma mater? Rees has looked like he’s picking plays out of a hat with one hand while scrolling Twitter with the other.
Where are all those difference-makers on defense? The guys that are supposed to stare down those drives late in the fourth quarter and deliver? Instead, a week after Notre Dame allowed Ohio State to go 95 yards in 14 plays, it let Marshall go 94 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead (game-winning touchdown).
A strength and conditioning program that was supposed to get the Irish to own the fourth quarter has done the opposite. They've looked spent. They've paid for it, too.
This one cuts deep because this is a program that was supposed to be beyond what happened Saturday. No matter the head coach, no matter the opponent, no matter the odds (great or small), Notre Dame, as the song goes, would win over all.
Instead, Marshall joins a What the $#%&* just happened?? list of losses that includes Connecticut and Navy and Tulsa.
Everything that this Notre Dame program has done for the previous five years — all those double-digit win seasons, the trips to the national semifinal, the erasure of all the talk that it was sliding toward irrelevance — unraveled over Saturday’s 60 minutes. That seems a lifetime ago.
National championship-caliber program? Please. How many more losses are coming? Two? Three? Four? In two games over two weeks, Notre Dame has gone from national championship potential to national punching bag. Worse, the Irish just have to own it. All of it. All of the jokes and the memes and GIFs floating across social media. The shots are coming from every direction.
They’re all warranted.
When’s Freeman’s first win going to come? After that, then what? What does the rest of the regular season hold? How does a team that has had no answers the first two weeks find some? We'd settle for one. Find it. There’s no other choice.
"Nobody wants to lose, ever," said tight end Michael Mayer, doing a slow burn at the post-game podium as his final season seemingly slips away. "We’ve got a long season ahead."
Long because at least 10 more games remain. Longer still because what happened Saturday might happen again. And again. After this one, anything’s possible with this program. These players. This head coach. None of it good.
Uncertainty abounds for a program drowning in it.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Notre Dame football is suddenly reeling; Irish wonder what's next