SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman emerged from the locker room to delirium, the stadium’s north tunnel mobbed with students exiting the scene of Notre Dame’s 48-20 demolition of rival USC. Before Freeman lapped up that adulation, he embraced his middle son, Gino, another soulful moment in a night full of them.
Then Freeman went straight for the vein, leaning over the tunnel railing, reaching out to touch fans so eager to embrace their coach. There was much rejoicing, guttural, visceral.
Finally, Freeman pulled back and made his way around the mouth of the tunnel and toward his postgame news conference. Except he wasn’t done, leaning over the railing one more time for another dose of college football’s ultimate drug. Freeman couldn’t get enough. The fans couldn’t either, a whiplash of sentiment from last week when Notre Dame’s season felt on the brink of unraveling.
Instead, Freeman stitched it back together, handing Lincoln Riley the second-worst loss of his head coaching career. It was all compelling evidence of why we watch because we never know what’s coming.
After Freeman tried to explain the unexplainable, how a team could no-show at Louisville one week and play USC straight out of the stadium the next, he exited back toward the locker room as quarterback Sam Hartman took the microphone. Students chanted “We love Marcus! We love Marcus!” loudly enough that the Irish quarterback paused mid-answer to collect his thoughts after the biggest win of his career.
If last weekend exposed Freeman for what he is not, Saturday night served as a reminder of why Notre Dame bet big on this first-time head coach in the first place. Freeman may have experiential gaps that this sport will expose, sometimes in cruel and unusual ways. But there’s also an undeniable connection between Freeman, the roster and the school that can be a force multiplier. When Freeman hits the right notes, this stadium will sing in concert behind him.
Against USC, that meant a pitch-perfect game plan to muzzle Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, the latest quarterback to succumb to an Al Golden masterstroke. Williams played the worst game of his college career, at least since he relocated to Los Angeles. Notre Dame posted six sacks on Saturday night after putting up 11 all season beforehand. Williams threw three interceptions, an abrupt break in a season when he has been college football’s most efficient passer.
Hartman joked that he now owes Golden another Ferrari to go with the one he offered after the Duke game.
“They ain’t paying me enough to do that,” Hartman said. “I hugged Coach Freeman after, and I was like, ‘I finally did it.’ Really our defense did it. I mean, I threw the ball a couple times.”
Until Hartman’s 46-yard touchdown to Chris Tyree late in the third quarter, which let the entire crowd exhale after a mini-USC rally, the quarterback was right. He did throw the ball just a couple of times. He finished 13-of-20 for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Remove the Tyree explosive play, and Hartman passed for just 80 yards. Notre Dame’s offense looked like it picked up where it left off against Ohio State, Duke and Louisville, which is hardly a compliment.
But the bomb to Tyree changed that narrative as Notre Dame’s quarterback made a play to win the game, which is different than being an innocent bystander in the football world swirling around him. For stretches of Saturday night, Hartman didn’t look all that different than Drew Pyne. The Wake Forest transfer was imported to be so much more, a level he hit regularly during the season’s first month only to fall off against Ohio State and continue his descent from there, all the way down to his own five-turnover performance at Louisville.
“It’s been a bumpy season,” Hartman said. “You start hot, and you lose a close one to Ohio State, and so it’s one of those things where being in those situations before prepares you for the ridicule, the feeling, the pit in your stomach.
“Really just the mentality, the work, preparation, all kind of just aligned perfectly. It’s a credit to our head coach.”
Freeman took the blame during the week after the inexplicable misfire at Louisville when Notre Dame barely looked ready to compete. He challenged the players on Monday to be an “anti-fragile program,” different words to hit the same themes of being more about the process than the results, focusing more on the means than the end. What happened at Louisville shook Notre Dame because there was no obvious causation behind it.
Had the eight games in eight weeks caught up to the program? Would mid-terms sink the season by mid-October? Had Hartman been found out as a quarterback more capable of leading a mid-level ACC program than one trying to make the College Football Playoff? Was offensive coordinator Gerad Parker out of his depth? These were not questions of hyperbole because the gut punch at Louisville had stolen Notre Dame’s wind.
Caleb Williams, USC shellacked by Notre Dame
“That was my message all week, is that competitors don’t pick and choose when they compete for a game,” Freeman said. “I challenged those guys and said, ‘Are we going to let a defeat that happened in the past dictate how we prepare for this?’ This wasn’t about the outcome. It was about preparing the way we needed to prepare to give us a chance to have this kind of performance.”
A chance. Not a guarantee.
All Freeman could do during the week was attempt to figure out what went wrong at Louisville, trust what he saw and apply it to USC. He talked about simplifying, cutting down on what he asked from the players in the hope they would do less but do it more cleanly. The result was an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack against one of the country’s top pass rushes. The special teams scored on a 99-yard Jadarian Price kickoff return and won much of the night before that. The offense was part of the solution, even if Hartman was part of the victory more than the reason it happened.
Notre Dame finished with just 251 yards of offense. USC had 10 more first downs. And yet, Notre Dame’s offense was enough.
“So when you have a loss like that, you either win or learn,” Audric Estime said. “Last week was a learning experience. What anti-fragile means is you get stronger from adversity. We did that. We had a great week of practice and came out today, and that was the result, being stronger from last week.”
Notre Dame can’t afford another Louisville performance, with only Pittsburgh, Clemson, Wake Forest and Stanford remaining. Sweep those games, and the Irish likely are headed to a New Year’s Six Bowl, with multiple representatives on hand Saturday night. Drop one more, and it’s off to a minor bowl game that will require self-assurance of its significance.
No matter. What comes next will come.
Saturday night was more than that, bigger than the big picture. This performance imbued Notre Dame’s season with soul, giving Freeman a new foothold to keep climbing. The week after having his readiness for the job called into question, Freeman pushed back with Notre Dame’s performance. The Irish weren’t perfect, but they felt that way for long stretches on Saturday night. And especially afterward.
“Weeks that you lose are really long, especially around here,” Freeman said. “The expectation is that you win every game you play. I know the hours are the same, but the weeks that you win seem to go by really fast and the next opportunity is here.
“But it is what it is, you know what I mean? You have to pick your head up and go back to work. Adversity is a part of life.”
That fact won’t change.
But after Saturday night, Notre Dame appears uniquely positioned to handle it.
(Top photo of Marcus Freeman: Michael Miller / ISI Photos / Getty Images).