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Leftovers & Links: Special teams focus not the only echo of 2020’s Notre Dame upset of Clemson

Marcus Freeman remembers Notre Dame’s double-overtime win against then-No. 1 Clemson in 2020 better than you might expect from a coach who had his own top-10 team face a conference foe that afternoon. The then-Cincinnati defensive coordinator had finished beating Houston, 38-10, minutes before the Irish kicked off against the Tigers two years ago, and he was tuned in by halftime in South Bend.

Of course, Freeman had reason to watch Notre Dame, and not in the slightest because he was considering a move to South Bend. That would not become a possibility for more than another month. But his close friend Mike Mickens was coaching the Irish cornerbacks, part of Notre Dame’s recruiting pitch when Freeman eventually did make that jump.

“I know there were parts of the game, I was in my head saying, ‘Oof, coach Mickens might be getting an earful right now from somebody,’” Freeman said Monday. “It was one of those games. … Even though it was the COVID year, you saw some students run out on the field. It was really cool. That’s a heavyweight battle.”

Freeman went back through a few of the highlights, notable for a coach who had his own family, his own team and his own worries back then. While he assuredly studied all the Irish games from 2020 when he took over as defensive coordinator that offseason, film study leaves very different impressions than watching a game live. Not to mention, Freeman would not have been studying film of Notre Dame’s offense.

“I remember Ian Book throwing that long pass, I think to Avery Davis,” Freeman said. “There’s a couple plays that stick out in my mind, I know at the end of the game they got after the quarterback a little bit, didn’t give him a chance to really throw the ball in that second overtime.”

And Freeman probably never devoted film study to Irish field-goal attempts.

“I think, did [kicker Jonathan] Doerer have a big hit? I think I remember him knocking somebody,” Freeman said before being corrected. “Bramblett, not Doerer. [Punter/holder Jay] Bramblett, yeah, he rocked somebody.

“‘Man, they got a punter He’s physical, man.”

That play in particular is not as well-remembered as it should be. Bramblett taking down Clemson star Travis Etienne just before halftime saved a Tigers touchdown and likely, in retrospect, the game.

Assuredly, Freeman tuned in for reasons beyond Mickens. It was a top-five matchup in primetime despite election news adding chaos to the day. Football coaches are monomaniacal often to a fault, and they excuse watching football as part of that focus, claiming they can pick up new wrinkles by watching other teams, a la Notre Dame’s current tight end-behind-center package starring Mitchell Evans coming from Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees watching the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football. Freeman wanted to watch a top-five matchup, and whether he came away from it with useful lessons or not is beside the point.

“This isn’t a David vs. Goliath,” he said, now referencing this Saturday’s tilt. “This is Notre Dame vs. Clemson, two powerhouses, two blue-blood programs that are going to battle Saturday night here at Notre Dame Stadium.”

That much appears to have carried over from Freeman’s viewing experience two years ago, despite the Irish being 5-3 this time around.

Much like that unexpected special teams moment from Bramblett, the third phase of football likely will be responsible for a pivotal moment this weekend. Notre Dame has blocked five kicks or punts this season, including three in the last two weeks. That mark of five is a program record, one set with a third of the season remaining, but it may work against the Irish now. Opponents know to gear up on punt protection.

Five kicks/punts blocked leads the nation, tied with South Carolina and Central Michigan. Just behind them, Clemson with four.

“You just want to make sure your protection is solid,” Freeman said Thursday. “Each week, we’re always a protect-first team, no matter if it’s punt or kicking a field goal. You have to protect first. Then obviously cover if it’s a punt. If it’s a long field goal, you have to be ready to cover, too.”

If Tigers sophomore running back Will Shipley fields a field goal just before halftime and heads toward the sideline this Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC), assume there has been a glitch in the matrix.

“It’s about being sound, playing sound football and protecting your kicker and making sure your protection is right,” Freeman said. “It comes down to scheme and fundamentals and execution. That’s really it.”

Notre Dame will have dozens of recruits on campus this weekend. Throwing a number in front of “dozens” there would risk being outdated within an hour or two. Four dozen? Five dozen? Six dozen? Many.

“It’s going to be a great environment,” Freeman said. “This what I tell them, this is why you come to Notre Dame, to be a part of games like this. This best thing we can do is put on a good performance, but for them to understand this is what it’s about — you have a chance to be a part of this and this future and this football program.”

Freeman lamented how many recruits now take their official visits in the summer, a relatively recent allowance by the NCAA but a good one for players who want to focus on their own seasons or do not want to cram a visit into a weekend when the collegiate coaching staff has so many other obligations, but also an allowance that works against any school looking to capitalize on its Saturday atmosphere.

With so many recruits in town this weekend, the Irish will have a chance to counter that worry, though the main thing remains the main thing.

“The other part of that is to put on a good performance for them and we execute on the field.”

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