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Column: Notre Dame’s Edge, Execution, and Expectations Need a Major Overhaul

Everyone has a plan until they lose to Marshall at home as 20.5-point favorites

NCAA Football: Marshall at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t need to be said that “the honeymoon phase is over” for Marcus Freeman and Notre Dame fans. That’s painfully obvious after a 26-21 home loss to Marshall. Where the Irish go from here? That’s not as certain.

I’m as guilty as any Notre Dame fan of looking at the start of the Marcus Freeman era through rose-colored lenses. Freeman was the breath of fresh air after Brian Kelly’s suffocating reign. No more would the Irish faithful have to put up with internal comments about players not being good enough or Notre Dame shopping down a different aisle in recruiting.

In comes Marcus Freeman, a man who takes accountability for his failings and says all the right things. I was on the record as saying that I thought Freeman would be pissed off about starting his head coaching tenure 0-2 and that the feeling would rub off on his team heading into the home opener. Now he has the dubious distinction of being the first Notre Dame head coach to start his Irish tenure 0-3.

I thought that that Notre Dame would come out in a malaise against Marshall if Kelly was still the coach coming off the week 1 loss to Ohio State. Maybe that would have been the case, but I’m pretty confident that they would have pulled out a win regardless. What I know for certain is Freeman’s team came out flat; no one stepped up and brought an edge that was desperately needed.

I guess, in a way, we all got what we wanted, because the final remnant of Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame — not counting his former players and staff — is gone. An FBS-leading streak of consecutive wins over unranked opponents came to an end Saturday, dead at 42 games. May it rest in peace.

Growing pains are natural for a first-time head coach, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that Freeman was handed a program in far better position than the one his predecessor inherited and he’s only taken steps back in terms of on-field product.

Marshall v Notre Dame
Every face tells the same story
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Irish are now decidedly out of the College Football Playoff picture just two weeks into the season. And the issue really boils down to a lackluster offensive effort from top to bottom. If you want evidence, look no further than the fact that Notre Dame’s first passing touchdown of the season came with 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter of their SECOND game.

The issue with Notre Dame’s offense isn’t that it’s archaic; that’s an Iowa problem. It’s that Notre Dame’s offense has no identity. Iowa can get away with an anemic offense playing against FCS teams, but Notre Dame can’t get past a Sun Belt team with a wishy-washy plan of attack. (We’ll see how the Irish measure up against an FCS opponent when Tennessee State comes to town next season).

To a football layperson such as myself, Tommy Rees’ playcalling style seems to be pulling plays out of a hat. Regardless of your opinions about Rees, you have to agree that he’s a creative offensive coordinator. And creativity is warranted when you’re at a talent deficit like the Irish were against the Buckeyes. But when you have a talent advantage and you’re experimenting with your identity for the better part of three quarters in a slugfest? That’s bordering on hubris.

Creativity for creativity’s sake is a gimmick. Notre Dame doesn’t need gimmicky. They need effective. If effective also means simplicity, so be it. Because the best Irish offense of the day came as a result of a very simple formula:

  1. Run Tyler Buchner to the outside
  2. Throw to Michael Mayer

Case in point No. 1, look at how EASY this is for Buchner:

Case in point No. 2, behold the things Michael Mayer is CAPABLE of:

If that has to be the majority of your offense to beat Marshall at home, well, that’s certainly an issue in its own right. But it’s better than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, pussyfooting around and losing to them at home.

To be fair, the Irish defense shouldn’t be let off the hook, even though they only allowed 19 points in the game. Marshall was pinned inside their own 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, and then Notre Dame played the ensuing 94-yard touchdown drive as if they had already put the game away and could afford a garbage time score.

That’s a dangerous trend to be setting after the Irish gave up a 95-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes that iced that game. But it doesn’t change the fact that Notre Dame’s offense had only built a 15-12 advantage over Marshall in the fourth quarter, in large part because Rees spent most of the game throwing plays at a wall and seeing what would stick for second-time starter Buchner.

Put simply, this coaching staff doesn’t seem to know its roster. There’s a chasmic disconnect between the former’s expectations and the latter’s capabilities.

Freeman reportedly expected the Irish kick return game to be a reliable weapon against Ohio State. It was far from it.

Tommy Rees game-planned for Ohio State (and presumably Marshall) expecting his offensive line to allow him to run the ball with consistency. So much for that assumption.

The Notre Dame coaching staff spent eight months preparing a ball control-style blueprint to curtail Ohio State’s offense, then thought they could become an “aggressive” offense on a week’s turnaround against Marshall. We all saw how that went.

All the sweet nothings Freeman has whispered in Irish ears can’t distract from the untenable product in front of Irish eyes. And those Irish eyes certainly aren’t smiling right now.

There’s still plenty of time to right the ship, and the future is bright with what Freeman is accomplishing in recruiting. But it won’t take much more of this for all that positive momentum to spiral and have a negative impact off the field.

The Irish are dangerously close to damage control territory, and that’s before playing two contests that they hyped up with a green jersey announcement and a “Hangover” parody. So buckle up for the next 10 games, and here’s a song that feels appropriate:

“Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Someone told me long ago
There’s a calm before the storm
I know, it’s been coming for some time
When it’s over, so they say
It’ll rain a sunny day
I know, shining down like water

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
Coming down on a sunny day

Yesterday, and days before
Sun is cold and rain is hard
I know, been that way for all my time
‘Til forever, on it goes
Through the circle, fast and slow
I know, it can’t stop, I wonder

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
Coming down on a sunny day


I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?
Coming down on a sunny day