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Was a scare from Cal enough to destroy Notre Dame’s hubris?

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” –Proverbs 16:18

California v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

You’re probably familiar with what it means to have “a chip on one’s shoulder.” Merriam-Webster defines it as having “an angry or unpleasant attitude or way of behaving caused by a belief that one has been treated unfairly in the past.” In other words, cockiness. What you may not be familiar with is the origin of that expression.

Apparently, in the 19th century, people would want to fight so badly that they would carry a physical chip of wood around on their shoulder daring others to knock it off. To me, that just about sums up the Marcus Freeman era to date. Chris Tyree articulated it better than anyone else after Notre Dame narrowly beat California at home 24-17 on Saturday:

“A lot of times we took those W’s for granted last year.”

That makes all too much sense. Watching this Notre Dame team through three games, I can’t help but get the sense that there is a hubris permeating the roster — and coaching staff — that is unwarranted.

These players, these position groups, these coaches, this entire program; whatever grouping you prefer to target, they came into this season thinking they were better than they actually are. And that belief was apparently based on nothing more than a win streak against unranked teams that Brian Kelly orchestrated, a 21-point blown lead in the Fiesta Bowl and an offseason of optimism as the new coaching staff essentially got a pass for that Fiesta Bowl loss.

A No. 5 pre-season ranking? An off-season inadequately structured to reveal the flaws of the roster? A camp so physical it fooled everyone into thinking they were the meanest MF-ers around? Too much trash talk about being a 17-point underdog to Ohio State? Whatever the reason, it allowed an unearned cockiness to fester within this program.

Of the SEVERAL reasons that Notre Dame lost to Marshall — who just lost to Bowling Green on Saturday, by the way — chief among them was offensive coordinator Tommy Rees wasting three quarters trying to play a style of offense his roster simply couldn’t. In close second among the reasons the Irish lost to the Thundering Herd was Notre Dame’s defense giving up a go-ahead touchdown drive rife with boneheaded execution, much of it by second- and third-string players, with only a 15-12 lead in the fourth quarter.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Notre Dame
That’s the face of a man who fleeced Notre Dame for $1.25 million and a win a week before losing to Bowling Green in overtime.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It has taken far too long for this coaching staff and roster to accept reality when it comes to their capabilities. But to be quite frank, I’m not sure it’s completely sunken in yet.

Notre Dame had the nerve to treat Marshall like a guinea pig upon which they could experiment. They had the gall to plug in reserves on the most important drive of the game in a dogfight. It cost the Irish $1.25 million and a win. And while some of those mistakes were cleaned up this weekend, many persisted.

After new starting quarterback Drew Pyne struggled mightily to run an already tamped-down offense, Rees got even simpler with it. He took all of Logan Diggs’ touches and gave them to Chris Tyree and Audric Estime, whose play moved Notre Dame into the realm of semi-competent offensive football. On the flip side, Notre Dame’s defense showed a lot of the same as the two games prior:

  • After the Irish took a 14-10 edge, Cal marched down in 10 plays and took a 17-14 lead. That’s the Irish defense’s patented complacency, thinking they have the game won as soon as they’re up on the scoreboard.
  • Adjusted for sacks, Cal quarterback Jack Plummer had six rushes for 81 yards, many in crucial third- and fourth-down situations. That’s Notre Dame’s coaching staff placing undeserved faith in this pass rush to contain a quarterback — even an immobile one — without someone to clean up.
  • Cal had a legitimate chance to tie or win the game because senior safety Brandon Joseph tried to intercept that last-second Hail Mary instead of batting it down to the ground. There’s no place for that kind of selfishness and cockiness on a team a hair’s width away from starting the year 0-3.

“A lot of times we took those W’s for granted last year.”

They can’t anymore. If not for the defensive line finally showing why they were so heralded coming into the year, Notre Dame loses that game to Cal. And I think Irish fans would be warranted in worrying that everyone within this program still has not gotten it through their skulls that they cannot continue to get away with playing and calling games like this, even against inferior opponents.

I’m not saying it would have been better for Notre Dame to lose that game. Far from it. God only knows what an 0-3 start would lead to within the Irish fan base and locker room. And as sour of a taste as it may leave in Freeman’s mouth, they have to swallow their pride and take wins no matter how cheap they may be. And this one was C-H-E-A-P cheap!

You never know how changing one moment in a football game can affect the ultimate outcome. That said, from a purely mathematical perspective, Notre Dame winds up with at least 11 fewer points in that game if 1) the referees don’t call a phantom offsides call on a missed field goal and 2) that Cal linebacker is smart enough to not bail out Drew Pyne by getting a targeting penalty after an incomplete pass on third down.

This won’t be Notre Dame’s last close call this year. This is the hand their dealt, and everyone from the coaches down to the players has to accept it. And acceptance may be the last of the five stages of grief, but it feels like the Irish will be in for plenty more of that before this season ends.