Freeman didn’t wait to get the question — he called the Stanford game a rivalry right away.
“Going into this week moving forward, it’s a rivalry game. We’ll have a motivated Stanford team that is really actually if you watch the film and I haven’t watched as much as I need to yet and I will, we returned at 6 am Sunday morning, but I know just watching that Oregon State game, they should have won that game. It’s going to be a talented football team that is going to come in here and present a huge challenge for our football team.”
A little later in the press conference, Freeman expanded on his thoughts about the rivalry a little more.
“It starts with respecting the rivalry. I’m fortunate in I played in one of the greatest rivalries in all sports. That’s the one thing that coach Tressel would always do. We respected the rivalry. When it was that week of that game, you understood what that rivalry meant and the history behind it. I think that’s the same thing for this game. They got to understand what the legends trophy is all about. I had to. I didn’t know much about it last year. I knew Stanford was a good team. I didn’t know about the rivalry. We have to make sure they understand what the rivalry is about, what we’re playing for and then respect the opponent. When you say embracing the rivalry, it’s about respect for your opponent. How do you respect your opponent? It’s by the way you prepare. I’m not looking at a record. I’m not looking at anything other than what you see on film and respect them in terms of the way you prepare for.”
There has been a lot of debate on this site and on the OFD Podcast as to what defines a rivalry and who exactly are Notre Dame’s rivals. We have cultivated a system that has established “BIG R” and “little r” designations — and I think it works pretty well most of the time.
The USC Trojans are Notre Dame’s ONLY BIG R rivalry right now. While this may offend many, and certainly contradicts some past statements from myself — the Michigan Wolverines were a BIG R for a little while. Once that series with the Wolverines ended, we can’t accurately put them in the little r category. For Michigan — it’s BIG R or nothing.
With Stanford, it’s a different thing all around. Notre Dame started to consistently play the Cardinal in 1988. The Irish have played Stanford every year since that magical 12-0 season except for 1995, 1996, and 2020. For more on the high strangeness of Notre Dame’s 1995 and 1996 schedule, you can check out some past work here on OFD. 2020’s absence was due to COVID.
While the Irish have dominated the series as a whole with a 22-13 record, it hasn’t been easy, and the losses have been jarring. Notre Dame dropped home games to Stanford in both the 1990 and 1992 seasons which felt like killers at the time (and were). It’s also the game that Notre Dame finishes the season with every other year out in California — which has been problematic for a variety of reasons.
Over the last 15 matchups, the Irish are just 8-7 against the Cardinal. After a 7 game-winning streak from 2002-2008, the Irish are just 5-7 against Stanford since 2009. Add in more than a handful of recruiting losses to the Cardinal, and a ranked Stanford team most years — it had all the makings of a little r rivalry (plus it has that beautiful Legends Trophy to go with it).
For a few short years, it was one of the better rivalry games in college football. And then... it just became another game on the schedule. Stanford went down and the Irish went up. Because the teams don’t share 40 or 50 plus years of history playing one another, the game loses a lot of its meaning for Irish fans when Stanford is bad — and they’re bad again.
Marcus Freeman did the correct thing in calling it a rivalry game. Players don’t respond to these things like fans and have their own grudges. You look for anything you can as a coach to help motivate a team for the game ahead, and if that means you call the crappy team you have a traveling trophy with a rival — you call the crappy team you have a traveling trophy with a rival.
You can listen to the entire press conference below. Freeman also goes through Notre Dame’s injuries, the decision to go with Tyler Buchner over Drew Pyne to start the season, changes to the defense, the rise of Jayden Thomas, and much more.