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Things To Learn: Unfamiliar territory forces Notre Dame to rely on pride to find desired Saturday outcome vs Cal

This is unfamiliar territory for Notre Dame. Junior tight end Michael Mayer said after the Irish lost to Marshall last week that he has played enough sports in his life that he has experienced plenty of losing before, and on some level he is correct. Inevitably, everyone on Notre Dame’s roster has suffered losses before.

But for most of these players, this is the peak of their careers, and at the collegiate level, none of them have experienced such adversity with the exception of a couple transfers. The Irish did not suffer their second loss in 2021 until 2022, in 2020 until 2021. Any Playoff hopes in 2019 were dashed with a slip in the rain at Michigan in late October, but of the contributing players that day, only eight remain, and just Jarrett Patterson had a notable role, in his first season starting at center.

Other than that, being out of Playoff contention is a foreign concept to this team.

“I have not been in a situation like this,” senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said on the ND on NBC Podcast this week. “Starting off 0-2 … I feel like a lot of people, a lot of the leaders haven’t, either, especially at Notre Dame.”

If there is any genuine drawback to the Irish program remaining independent of any conference, it rears its head now. Notre Dame (0-2) has no tangible goal remaining to strive toward, no conference championship to chase. All that is left is pride. In the third week of the year with Cal (2-0) on its way today (2:30 ET; NBC), that is a vague force to rely upon.

This is such a foreign concept to the Irish, they do not even know the details of the 2016 debacle. Physical ability aside, that may be the most distinct difference between players and fans. Foskey’s tone changed to questioning when he simply said that year, unsure if he had it correct. He was pondering what former teammates he could talk to that could relate to this frustration and perhaps share some advice.

“I could probably talk to a couple guys that were on the 2016 team,” he said with that questioning tone. “They started off pretty bad. I’m not sure what team that was. I’m not sure — Julian (Love), Khalid (Kareem), if one of those guys were on that team when they weren’t doing so well when they had a 5-and-something record.”

Indeed, both Love and Kareem were on the 2016 team that went 4-8, Love playing in all 12 games and making 45 tackles with his hand in on multiple turnovers.

Those clarifications are not offered to irk any readers. They are included to underscore just how unfamiliar this ground is for Foskey and Co. Most of them were not watching Notre Dame football in 2016 — Foskey was a sophomore in high school in northern California.

So if wondering how much pride these players will display on Saturday, it is an understandable pondering simply because it is unknown. They have not needed to play for pride alone.

That is not to say they cannot. Athletes of this caliber rarely reach these heights without such innate aggravation in their disposition.

“To me, the true culture of your program shows itself when things are hard,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “That is where I’ve challenged those guys. I challenged them in the locker room. We talk about our culture. We talk about what type of program we have, and we will really see it right now.

“When things are hard and everybody outside that locker room is beating different things into you, and I said, ‘That’s where we have to be strong.’”

For every wonder of if Notre Dame’s offensive line can push Cal defensive tackle Ricky Correia off the ball — weighing in at 335 pounds, Freeman described Correia as a “house” — and if junior quarterback Drew Pyne can make enough plays to spur a to-this-point stagnant offense, it should first be proven that the Irish will play with more pride than frustration.

That may be where a first-year head coach has as little experience to draw from as Foskey does. Freeman has gone through losing seasons before; most notably, he was the co-defensive coordinator at Purdue in 2016 when the Boilermakers went 3-9 and head coach Darrell Hazell was fired halfway through the season, leading to the interim promotion of Gerad Parker, now the Irish tight ends coach.

But Freeman has not led a team in those struggles. Neither had Brian Kelly since his first year at Central Michigan in 2004 before he suffered the second losing season of his head-coaching career in 2016, and Kelly would later lament his role in dividing that locker room between two quarterback camps, a piece of the puzzle that cost Notre Dame so drastically that season.

Freeman has no similarly delicate situation, at least not an apparent one, to handle, but finding a way toward positive momentum may be challenge enough.

“We’ll find a way to make it work by consolidating things or by teaching them in a better way,” he said. “But at some point, we got to get the result that we’re looking for on the field.”

That point should be Saturday afternoon. The Irish are favored by 11 points for a reason. For one thing, no team is as bad as its last game, an axiom to remember at all times in sports but in particular when a team is being as thoroughly dissected as Notre Dame has been this week. For another, the Irish defense has played well through two weeks. If the offense had produced at a merely concerning rate, rather than an outright disappointing one, Notre Dame could very well be 2-0.

That would have been the inverse of last season, when Freeman’s first Irish defense gave up 67 points in the first two weeks but the offense was dynamic enough to win each game by three points. Freeman knew then his defense needed to improve, and it did, holding four November opponents to a total of 23 points. To some extent, he knows the final score on a given Saturday does not tell the whole story, even if it is the only result that matters.

“The formula is very similar,” Freeman said. “We have to, again, not focus on the outcome, but really take a critical look at everything we’re doing. Look at the mistakes and figure out why.”

An honest self-assessment of mistakes can necessitate a degree of humility, but within that humility, enough confidence to remain proud. This weekend, more than ever, Notre Dame will need to find that pride.

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