EL PASO, Texas — Marcus Freeman struggled, just for a moment, to lift the Sun Bowl trophy above his head. Standing on stage after Notre Dame’s 40-8 victory over Oregon State, the most lopsided bowl victory in school history, Freeman needed a few more beats to push him skyward. But Freeman collected the trophy there and was able to savor the scene thanks to the month leading up to it.
Even though Notre Dame looked like the program that wanted to be here Friday, this postseason rebuilding job wasn’t ideal. Notre Dame has had 19 opt-outs split between NFL Draft departures and transfer portal entries, including the awkward exit of quarterback Sam Hartman. The Irish lost their offensive coordinator and replaced him in just 72 hours. Notre Dame fired another assistant but didn’t hesitate to find a new one. He signed a transfer quarterback, then asked the sophomore who stayed to compete for a job he will have a hard time winning.
None of this was ideal preparation for Freeman, who was trying to score double-digit wins and prove that Notre Dame football was heading in the right direction.
It was all heavy work.
“I’m confident in the direction of this football program, with the guys that we’re bringing in, the guys that we have, the coaches that we have on this team,” Freeman said. “I’m really excited as we move forward.”
About a week after being sent to the Sun Bowl, Freeman drew a line in the sand with the roster. Inside or outside. Take a decision. He didn’t get all the answers he wanted, although Freeman saw where some decisions were heading before he heard them. Even though opt-outs are a new norm in college football, they go after a head coach with old-school DNA. All Freeman could do was swallow hard, then sell the remaining roster by committing to the month-long process that ended with Frosted Flakes dousing the head coach.
The fact that Michael Vinson and DJ Brown, two of Notre Dame’s alternate captains, delivered the edible confetti was no coincidence.
Freeman made this sale impeccable. Notre Dame rolled with backup quarterback Steve Angeli and two new starting offensive tackles and without star running back Audric Estime. He did this without all the depth of quality that the portal needed. He did it with former receiver Jordan Faison catching five passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. And he did it with a defense that allowed Oregon State to make five plays in Notre Dame territory throughout the game.
“They owned it,” Freeman said. “They bought in. They prepared as they should prepare.”
The byproduct gives Freeman a chance to stand on his own two feet in the offseason, enough for him to joke with a reporter about how Notre Dame’s final Sun Bowl appearance set the stage for a run at the game. BCS National Championship. The journalist and perhaps Freeman himself did not understand that it took two years to achieve this. No one has corrected the file. Forget it, Freeman was rolling.
“It looks good to me,” Freeman said. “I don’t just want to hear about an appearance, we want to earn it.”
This endgame can feel like a bridge too far. But making the 12-team College Football Playoff next season and hosting a game at Notre Dame Stadium now seems more likely than possible. Freeman will enter next season with real expectations, different from the curiosity of his first two years. This is now his football program at Notre Dame, not the one he inherited from Brian Kelly. No one describes anyone as a “third year head coach.” You’re just a head coach so far in your contract.
And Freeman has never looked more prepared than he did today.
It’s not just about beating Oregon State. The Beavers are a mess of a program, losing their head coach and their conference, not to mention their top two quarterbacks, leading tackler, leading running back, half of their secondary and most of their offensive line . Oregon State was more of the Group of 5 program it would become than the Power 5 team it was.
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It was more about getting Notre Dame to deliver a peak performance in suboptimal conditions, bolstering Angeli when the arrival of Riley Leonard and the withdrawal of Hartman were the quarterback stories of December. And Angeli responded by completing 15 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. He personified the thing that Freeman demanded the list be taken down, to focus on today and let go of what comes next.
“For next season, I’ll worry about it when it happens, but I’m just proud to get 10 wins and win the Sun Bowl,” Angeli said. “Just to have the opportunity for Coach Freeman to give me this chance to be able to do this, it means everything to me. I really appreciate that.”
College football doesn’t always do the present well. It’s hyper-focused on the CFP, name, image and likeness, and the recruiting ranking of your choice. And that’s where Notre Dame impressed the most against Oregon State, whether it was Javontae Jean-Baptiste savoring his final quarters of college football or Faison wondering how he went from football/lacrosse prospect to Notre Dame’s best receiver.
Notre Dame was able to take advantage of blowing out Oregon State because it focused on blowing out Oregon State over the last month, every single day. Even when Freeman took his foot off the pedal this week, he did so by demanding that the roster remain locked in rather than letting collective minds wander.
“We talked about fighting this battle between choosing easy (or) choosing hard,” Freeman said. “You have to choose hard on every play, stay in the moment. To me, that’s the inwardness you need if you want the result we had today.
Freeman turned that screw in the game, jumping on his team after Notre Dame dominated early but not perfectly. The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead and allowed the Beavers to make a play in their own territory in the first half, which Benjamin Morrison made. But that wasn’t enough for Freeman, the kind of prospect that allowed him to add the transfer portal, push recruiting and chafe at the thought of opting out.
Notre Dame blew away Oregon State in the second half with 13-yard touchdown runs from Faison and Jeremiah Love, as well as a 6-yard safety and passing touchdown to Chase Ketterer in the final minutes to close out the season .
“I challenged them and I challenged our coaches,” Freeman said. “I didn’t like the way we started. We ended up scoring that first drive, but it was sloppy. We need to clean this thing up. I wanted our mindset to be relentless. It’s the coaches And players. It’s one thing to talk to an 18-22 year old who plays the game relentlessly. But we coaches have to be relentless and focused on getting the result we want.
In the end, the Irish got what they wanted. Freeman too.
Oregon State had no answer to Notre Dame’s question coming into the Sun Bowl, even as some of the non-participants watched from the sidelines. This version of Notre Dame will not be the same next season or even next week. Incoming transfers, incoming coaches, incoming freshmen. More expenses almost guaranteed. This version of Notre Dame had a chance to make the most of this moment. Because it won’t come back again.
That was the message Freeman wanted to convey to his team over the last month. And as Notre Dame’s head coach held the Sun Bowl trophy above his head, it was clear who was listening.
(Top photo of Marcus Freeman and Javontae Jean-Baptiste: Sam Wasson / Getty Images)
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