Friends, this post is a couple days late because I was on a short vacation over the weekend and was absolutely *not* going to spend that time thinking about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their trash fire of a game against the Clemson Tigers. I did, regrettably, manage to watch most of the game. My buddy Gabe sent me the following graphic which I think sums up the emotional rollercoaster of it pretty well:
With the Irish now the owners of three losses and out of contention for even a New Year’s Six bowl we are left to drown our sorrows and wax poetic about how great we could have been, which brings us to our song of the week:
Alright, let’s cover three furious complaints about this game and get out of here.
Fire Gerard Parker
If this game did one good thing for the Notre Dame football program, it is this: it gave Gerad Parker absolutely nowhere to hide come the offseason. The Irish defense set the offense up with four different opportunities to tie this game and Parker’s tactics barely netted the team a first down. Taking inspiration from the post-Duke Irish Access video that showed real-time interactions between the Irish coaches, One Foot Down is pleased to bring you the following never-before-seen footage of Marcus Freeman pleading with Parker to put the ball in the end zone:
Audric Estime was running all over the Tigers for the first half of this game, and not only were the Irish not able to develop any offensive complements that could leverage that production into touchdowns, they largely abandoned the run in the second half even when the team was only down one possession with more than enough time for lengthy drives. In the passing game, Parker was completely unable to find holes in a Clemson secondary hit hard by injuries, and nearly every call that wasn’t “feed Audric” was the wrong call. When the plays were called right there were consistent failures in execution, as Hayden notes.
After watching this game and LSU-Alabama, Notre Dame fans are now in for a humbling realization: for all the criticisms we had of Tommy Rees, this team is almost certainly one or two wins better with him in the booth, and who’s to say what they could do with an experienced coordinator and staff of analysts? There are plenty of coordinators in college football who could do far more with the pieces they have than Parker has; if Notre Dame is serious about taking this program to another level, they’d best start looking for one of them.
Who is Sam Hartman, really?
I will preface this observation by saying that I love Sam Hartman as a dude, and am glad he was brought in - Notre Dame is a better team for it. As disappointing as the losses this season have been, there is likely at least one more on the Irish ledger without him. Even in an extremely flawed performance against Clemson he showed remarkable heart and determination, including in a pair of outstanding and unusually physical runs, one which was a scramble touchdown that got the Irish within one possession. I will also allow that a lot of his struggles since the Ohio State game are a result of him being let down by Parker’s scheme, an underachieving offensive line and receiving corps, etc.
At the same, let’s be real about the player Hartman is. Saturday night, I was waiting for a drink at a hotel bar where Washington-USC was on and saw Michael Penix, Jr. avoid a sack, roll all the way to the sideline and fling a pinpoint accurate touchdown pass over the outstretched arms of multiple defenders and thought to myself - that is transcendence. That is a guy who is going to make plays no matter what situation he is in.
If we are being honest with ourselves, a look at Sam Hartman’s body of work with two games to go shows that he is not that guy. He had numerous opportunities on Saturday to be that guy, and he could not. With Parker calling the shots and with the problems Notre Dame has in a couple different position groups, there have been games where he hasn’t looked much different from Drew Pyne. Not that Hartman isn’t a better player than Pyne - he is miles better. But he was frequently talked about in the offseason as a transformational playmaker, the best quarterback Notre Dame has had in over a decade. Realistically, he’s the best quarterback they’ve had since Ian Book - no small thing, but also not what we had hoped he might be.
Marcus Freeman Still Hasn’t Figured Out How to Coach Consistency
One thing Notre Dame fans took for granted near the end of Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend was the program’s consistency. Kelly’s teams were never able to take the next step to being championship worthy, but winning noon kickoffs against unranked ACC opponents was a borderline metaphysical certainty. That kind of consistency is not just a byproduct of playing teams who you are better than - it’s a product of coaching to produce discipline and orientation around details. An unfortunate fact of the Marcus Freeman era so far is that Irish fans are learning just how difficult it is to coach to and cement that degree of consistency, and that coach Freeman is still developing that skillset.
The examples from Saturday’s game that illustrate this are numerous. Missed tackles that enabled Phil Mafah to run wild in the first half. Brutal penalties like the one that negated a big run by Audric Estime in the fourth quarter. Dropped passes and poor reads by veterans under center and at receiver. Chris Tyree’s muffed punt, which proved to be a massive turning point in the first half. Time after time, even veteran players for the Irish seemed to just be not there mentally in a game that meant everything to their hopes for the remainder of the season.
This is not me saying I want Kelly back or don’t think Freeman can replicate that aspect of his coaching. Kelly himself took years to get there. But the best teams in the country look like it, week in and week out; Freeman has given us teams that look that way about half the time. If he wants to improve on his predecessor’s work - as I still believe he can - he must in this case take a page from his book.