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Things We Learned: Avoidable first-year mistakes cost Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman

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Notre Dame's offense took too long to get going, and a few costly miscues and missed opportunities led to a 16-14 road win for Stanford.

Notre Dame will receive no points for Marcus Freeman’s honesty. His transparency on Monday will not soften the Irish loss on Saturday, falling inexplicably to Stanford, 16-14. Any retrospective credit comes only in the shadow of the first-year head coach initially making the mistake he voluntarily confessed to.

“It’s been a long 48 hours of trying to really figure out what the heck happened on Saturday,” Freeman said Monday, summing up both his coaching staff’s tasks and his fanbase’s angst.

One thing that happened on Saturday was Notre Dame twice failed when it should have scored touchdowns. Convert either of those opportunities, beat the Cardinal by a hair, and this game would be filed into the overflowing folder of “Winning is hard” moments that former Irish head coach Brian Kelly excelled at, those three words one of his favorite postgame mantras, one laughed at for years by critics but now envied for its accuracy in hindsight.

The latter of those scoring opportunities will haunt sophomore running back Audric Estimé for some time, fumbling the ball after he had gained a first down on Notre Dame’s penultimate drive. That was not a moment to scratch and claw for every yard; that was a time to put everything short of his life in front of losing that ball. That was the possession to win the game on, not when the Irish got the ball back deep in their own territory with no timeouts and the clock dwindling, as Freeman regretted on Saturday night.

Estimé will learn from that mistake, this his first season of any genuine work, one that has been impressive albeit one now wrought with a pair of fumbles in scoring territory.

But it was the other botched scoring opportunity that Freeman took ownership of, essentially hopping on the live grenade that is his fanbase’s frustration and impatience.

Facing a fourth-and-two from the five-yard line, Notre Dame seemingly ran into Stanford’s defense. If the end-around handoff to sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas late in the first quarter struck anyone as doomed from the start, that’s because it was. When Thomas took the ball, running to the left, the Irish offensive line was pushing to the right, a designed misdirection. While that was the intention, it essentially took the offensive line, a Notre Dame strength, out of the play. Awaiting Thomas on the left side of the field were five Cardinal defenders and just two Irish blockers, both tight ends.

One does not need to be a mathematician or a football coach to see the underlying problem there.

Junior tight end Michael Mayer got beat, and while he brought that defender to the ground, it forced Thomas upfield into those four remaining defenders, eliminating any chance of a remarkable individual scoring effort. When Thomas cut toward the goal line, he needed to cover five yards to gain the first down, and there were two Stanford defenders standing on the three-yard line facing him straight up.

How did such unfavorable math ever become reality? Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees realized the play call did not match the defensive look as the Irish took to the line of scrimmage, and Freeman did not subsequently mortgage all composure to take a timeout.

“We had a plan all week to say, ‘They’ve shown they’ll stack the box, they stacked the box, we’re going to be able to get in on the jet sweep to Jayden Thomas,’” Freeman said Monday. “Then all of a sudden I hear coach Rees over the headset saying, ‘Oh shoot, that’s not the look.’

“I probably, at that moment, should have called a timeout, but I still felt confident.”

When your offensive coordinator openly regrets a play call before the snap, confidence should not be the takeaway.

There may have been only a few seconds to take that timeout, but confidence suggests Freeman never intended to try. For that matter, junior quarterback Drew Pyne did not recognize the quagmire and take the timeout himself.

Freeman taking ownership of that mistake is not something most coaches would do. He is showing leadership by example there, making it clear to his team that he is more critical of himself than of any of them.

“I’m the first one to go up there and say, ‘Here’s areas where I have to improve,’” Freeman said. “Every person in our program has to be transparent about that. The minute you start pointing fingers at the players, you’ll lose them. The minute you just blame the coaches for everything, you lose them.”

While that is the right approach for a leader basing his program on building people up rather than tearing them down, it does not put any points on the scoreboard, especially not two days after whatever “the heck happened on Saturday.”

Unlike the 77,622 in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium — a sellout for the first home night game of the Freeman Era — the first-year head coach is not wavering. If anything, he has gained confidence during this 3-3 season lowlighted by two upsets at home when favored by three scores.

The first of those upsets, the 26-21 loss to Marshall, gave Freeman a three-game losing streak to open his career as a head coach, the first coach in Irish history to begin his career 0-3. In another transparent moment most coaches would risk their firstborn to avoid, Freeman admitted to doubt creeping in last month.

“After Marshall, it was a lack of confidence for me,” he said. “Until you have some evidence that all this work you’re putting in is working, you’re going to have a little lack of confidence and faith in what you’re doing.”

After Stanford snapped Notre Dame’s three-game winning streak, frustration was Freeman’s dominating emotion.

“When we execute and do things we’re supposed to do, we’re a really good football team,” Freeman said. “There was anger after this last game because I know we’re a good football team, and we did not play up to our standards. That’s the frustrating part.

“If we play the way we’re supposed to play and the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat anyone we play against. When you don’t, in college football, the parity is close. You’re going to lose, and you saw that on Saturday when we lost to Stanford.

To make one thing clear, Estimé could protect the ball with his life, Freeman could make the right split-second decision 10 times out of 10, and this version of Notre Dame still would not beat a handful of teams in the country. The Irish outright lack the playmakers, both offensively and defensively, to stick with the national title contenders, not even on Notre Dame’s best day.

But the Irish should still be able to beat Stanford, even on a mistake-riddled day, by players and coaches alike.

“Don’t let this be a lack of confidence in who we are and how good we can be,” Freeman said. “Let’s make this about what are the true issues of what happened on Saturday.”

Those were self-inflicted mistakes, ones an established program should avoid, from the head coach to the offensive coordinator to the bull-headed running back, and with most everyone in between.

Pyne finished 13-of-27 for 151 yards, focusing on Mayer nearly as often as not, and not feeling the pressure of a pass rush that led to a lost fumble. Notre Dame defenders repeatedly tackled like it was a game of nine-year-olds playing flag football and the Cardinal had tied knots in their belts.

The avoidable mistakes permeated the Irish roster, and still it had a chance to win the game before Estimé’s eighth and final carry, finishing with 57 yards, that 22-yarder actually his longest jaunt of the day, although it is a statistical generosity, as he lost the ball after only nine or 10 yards, trying to break a sixth tackle on the play when nothing else mattered but possession.

The inexact nature of football stats illustrates the inexact nature of a game played with an oblong ball, Notre Dame failing to land on any of the five fumbles Saturday.

Maybe that was the lesson the Irish needed to learn again in Freeman’s debut campaign: Winning is hard.

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