Things We Learned This Season: Notre Dame’s culture created progress, though inexperience begat losses
If the transfer portal window has genuinely changed anything about college football, it is when one season feels like it has ended and the next has begun. That transition used to wait until mid-January, but now the transfer portal window opening on the Monday after conference championship weekend kickstarts the offseason ramp-up to spring-practice impressions from new arrivals, which obviously creates the summer’s anticipation and then preseason hype. Thus, before the portal leads to a new quarterback at Notre Dame and a couple of receivers that create nine months of hopeful hypotheticals, let’s ponder what was learned in 2022 ...
A talented football team, one largely “driven” by its offensive and defensive lines, one led by a first-time head coach not yet well-versed in game-management challenges, and one lacking the types of perimeter playmakers that raise ceilings in college football this decade.
By the end of the 2022 season, Notre Dame was what it was expected to be, even though its 8-4 record was a bit disappointing way of reaching this expected end. The No. 21 Irish should never have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, not when replacing the experience that comes with 22 career starts from a quarterback and three decades of head-coaching mishaps, the former again a need after Drew Pyne’s entry into the transfer portal but one that may be solved with a modern-day shortcut.
But at the core, Notre Dame was exactly what first-time head coach Marcus Freeman wanted it to be, not a team reliant on a single star but an “O-line and D-line driven program,” a phrasing he first trotted out early in preseason practices and one that held on well into November, though this space never quite found the right way to format it. That being the Irish focus made last Saturday’s 38-27 loss at USC all the more frustrating for Freeman, because Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams’ repeated evasions of Notre Dame’s defensive line eventually rendered the offensive line’s greatest strength, run blocking, less an asset.
“As I just told the team, I’m sure everybody is disappointed, from me on down,” Freeman said that night. “You want to see how you compare against a team like that when you’re playing at your best. We didn’t play at our best. …
“They are a dang good football team, really good. We have a really good football team, and that’s just a disappointment. You want to see when two really good football teams both play really well, you want to see what the outcome is.”
The loss may have made Freeman a bit more self-critical than was deserved, as the Irish forced Williams’ to grow into a headline-dominant star a bit quicker than he had in the season to date, a standalone star for only a week before a hamstring limited the Heisman Trophy finalist on Friday night in the Pac 12 title game against Utah. But Freeman’s point was valid, Notre Dame was not at its best at USC.
For that matter, college football fans were deprived of any such moment all season when it came to the Irish. “Two really good football teams both playing really well” never quite came to be. Either Notre Dame’s gameplan was too conservative to allow for excellence (the 21-10 loss at Ohio State), the opponent was utterly outmatched along both sides of the line (the 35-14 win vs Clemson) or one star forced the Irish out of their ideal game (Williams). While Notre Dame fans relished beating the constant-nemesis Tigers on Nov. 5, the lack of any heavyweight bout in Freeman’s debut campaign may be regretted in years to come, if for no other reason than the memory to look back upon but more likely because testing Freeman’s resolve in the biggest of moments would have been a welcomed Irish luxury in this down-and-up season.
That is in years to come, though.
This year, Freeman’s naivete caught up with him in one regard or another first against Marshall and then against Stanford, the kinds of games Brian Kelly excelled at winning in his final five seasons in South Bend. It is not a welcomed excuse, but such missteps are common from first-year head coaches, especially ones coming from the defensive side of the ball. The instincts needed to press the right buttons on a Saturday afternoon come with time and frustration.
The surprise of the Irish season may have been that those two frustrations in Notre Dame Stadium did not ruin the entire year.
Fifth-year left guard, four-year starter and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson expressed that frustration immediately after the Irish fell to Marshall, Patterson playing on an injured foot that undoubtedly added to his dismay. As Notre Dame lined up to sing the Alma Mater after the game, Patterson instead headed up the tunnel, jersey and pads already removed.
In his defense, the Irish had lost at home only once in Patterson’s entire career, what to do following a loss was not ingrained in his muscle memory. Also, Notre Dame had just been beaten along both lines; his frustration was well-founded.
Yet, the Irish rallied, inexplicable Stanford shocker aside. They beat up Clemson as badly, if not worse, as Marshall had beaten up Patterson & Co. two months earlier. USC needed Williams’ escapes because Notre Dame’s defensive line had the Trojans’ offensive line beaten. Freeman’s engines arrived for the Irish this season, even if a couple weeks later than ideal.
“I’m proud of the way our team continued to progress, continued to fight, continued to get better,” Freeman said. “... We didn’t win today, they played their hearts out, and that’s what I told them in the locker room.
“I’m proud of the way you played, because you never quit, you continue to get better.”
Plenty of teams lose that program-wide drive toward progress after their season goes awry. Immediate examples were seen this year in College Station, Chestnut Hill and East Lansing.
“Shoot, after week two, you could have went an opposite direction,” Freeman said. “After week six, when we lost to Stanford, it could have gone in a bad direction. But these leaders and these guys continue to fight.”
Disappointment has become the norm at Stanford, Wisconsin and Florida. Only time will tell if new coaches will change that. Freeman did not have that mandate, courtesy of Kelly’s resurgence following the 2016 debacle, and Notre Dame’s response to losing to Stanford suggests there need not be panic or continued frustration following the loss in Los Angeles. The Gator Bowl matchup with No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC) can serve to prove that to some regard, but not definitively given the increasing exhibition nature of bowl games.
“They’ll fight after this one,” he said. “It hurts, because you gave it your all, but our leaders will keep us together.”
The season-opening loss at Ohio State made it clear the Irish lack the playmakers to hang with college football’s best in 2022, hence some transfer portal focuses, and the botched two-minute drill against Stanford further exposed the inexperience at Notre Dame’s two most-critical positions, but the Irish did not falter after either occasion.
When Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick promoted Marcus Freeman, he cited a want to further the culture in the Irish locker room. Its response to those losses may have confirmed that culture more than winning ever could. Patterson’s public frustrations embodied it, but the wins that came after proved it.
Holding onto that culture and even furthering it this offseason will be Freeman’s next challenge, beginning with the thought of importing a starter at the position most focused on come any given Saturday. Not just in the Gator Bowl, but for 2023.