SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Marcus Freeman was named the head coach at Notre Dame last December and he has learned from early mistakes he made a year ago.
He immediately hit the road to recruit while simultaneously preparing his team to face Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl four weeks later. The whirlwind challenge was perhaps too much; the Fighting Irish blew a 21-point, first-half lead and Freeman lost his first game as a head coach, 37-35.
No. 19 Notre Dame will try to start fast and finish strong against No. 20 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Friday in an intriguing matchup of two 8-4 teams.
Notre Dame has adjusted its bowl preparations from 2021, giving battle-worn veterans more rest in December than before while also providing younger players with opportunities to prove themselves in practice.
“You have a whole year of data to look and say, ‘How do we want to prepare?’” Freeman said. “If we don’t enhance what we’re doing, you’re going to get passed by, and that’s something I believe in.”
Freeman has a whole season of ups and downs to learn from. Notre Dame started 0-2 in 2022 but finished 8-2, including a win over then-No. 5 Clemson.
Even with the turnaround, Freeman's first full season failed to live up to expectations.
“The standard of Notre Dame football and the expectations of Notre Dame football have been set way before I got here and before our players got here,” Freeman said. “It goes back years. The expectation for Notre Dame football is to play at such a high level that you win every game you play. We understand that and we respect that.”
The Irish streak of at least 10 wins in a season is over. A 38-27 setback to USC was the program’s first loss in November since 2017.
Still, a hot start doesn't necessarily equate to long-term success in South Bend.
Former Irish coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis both overachieved early by winning nine and 10 games in their first regular seasons, only to experience losing campaigns shortly after. Ultimately, both were fired.
Lou Holtz won a combined 13 games in his first two seasons only to see his team win a national championship in his third season in 1988 behind a 12-0 record.
Past Notre Dame coaches never had to navigate some of the challenges all coaches face now.
Three of Freeman’s most productive players left the team before the Gator Bowl. First-team All-American Michael Mayer, who leads the team in receiving and touchdown catches, will skip the game to prepare for the NFL draft. The same goes for second-team All-American edge rusher Isaiah Foskey, who’s tied for sixth in the nation with 11 sacks.
Quarterback Drew Pyne started the team’s final 10 contests, completing 64.6% of his passes for 2,021 yards, 22 touchdowns along with six interceptions. But he decided to enter the portal on Dec. 2 after learning the Irish would pursue a transfer signal-caller in the offseason. He’s already committed to Arizona State for the 2023 season.
Tyler Buchner, who led the team to its 0-2 start before having shoulder surgery, will start at QB.
It will take time for Freeman to build the program he desires. The Irish currently hold the No. 8 overall recruiting class, per the 247Sports composite rankings. Win or lose, he will also challenge what he's done in the past as he heads into year two.
“We talked about it being a bumpy road, and it wasn’t how we foresaw it as the season started,” Freeman said. “But the ability to improve week after week after wins and losses was the challenge that I had as the head coach for this team.”
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