After unexplainable loss, can Irish rally again?

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Few memories are shorter collectively than football fans. Every mistake is magnified in the prism of “now,” with the devastation of a difficult to understand loss like last weekend’s to Northwestern consistently taking dead aim at the foundation of a football program, regardless of its stability.

In the span of four, mistake-filled hours, (for some) opinions on the future of Brian Kelly turned drastically. That’s to be expected in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of major sports. And when you’re cashing seven-figure pay checks, people don’t tend to care if you’re playing freshman and sophomores, if your best players are suspended, or if injuries have gutted the heart of your roster.

Losing isn’t good. Especially in the spectacularly painful manner the Irish managed to last weekend, where a toxic blend of mistakes both on the field and on the sidelines merged gasoline with blowtorch, the flames killing any momentum this season could’ve salvaged with a defeat at the hands of one of the Big Ten’s most unimpressive teams.

So you can understand the bellowing for pink slips and the demands for house-cleaning. And that junk-draw dig for that list of usual suspects, if only to feel better by kicking the tires on the Grudens and the Shanahans, or hoping that this won’t ever happen again if Stoops or Meyer leave their pressure cooker for another.

But at this point, it’s worth looking past the disaster. Because now Brian Kelly’s job isn’t to explain why Northwestern managed to beat Notre Dame. It’s to not let the Wildcats beat them twice. So while most Irish fans already have the turkey cooked a week before Thanksgiving, Notre Dame’s still a 3.5-point favorite, so at least the town that’s built on picking a winner hasn’t completely given up on the Domers yet.

On Tuesday, Kelly acknowledged the stench that’s still coming off of this loss. But he rightfully put into context where this loss falls in his five-year run in South Bend, pushing away from the comparisons to the soul-stomping loss to Tulsa in 2010.

“Understand that these are some tough times,” Kelly said. “But relatively speaking I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4 and 5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparisons. You’re now in a winning environment. And you’ve won a lot of football games.

“Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 18‑2 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective.”

Perspective doesn’t get passed around these circles too often, especially not after bungled two-point conversions and goal line fumbles. But after watching mistakes compound last Saturday by the unusual suspects – the school’s record-setting kicker, its team captain running back, and a head coach that’s usually one of the better strategists in the game — Kelly quickly ended any talk about the self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom that too often haunted these parts in years past.

“We’re not going to get into that. I think you get in the game and [the mistakes] definitely affect you,” Kelly acknowledged, when asked about having worries that these mistakes might spread. “Look, it affected me. I went for two when I should have kicked the extra point, right?

“It affects everybody. I can’t fall into that. I’m not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that. But you fall into that, right? And so I can’t let our players fall into that.”

So it’s back to the basics. And even if Kelly himself wasn’t going to bring up the darkest days of his tenure in South Bend, a look at those moments should give you a good feel about how his team has responded to adversity.

For clues as to how the Irish will respond to crisis, let’s go back to those big moments:

 

Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27
October 30, 2010
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview: A week after being humiliated by Navy 35-17, the Irish took the field just three days after the tragic death of Declan Sullivan.

The Irish lost Dayne Crist early in the game with another major, season-ending knee injury. The Irish gave up two points on a blocked extra point. (Sound familiar?) And after taking a 27-18 lead over the Golden Hurricane in the third quarter, the Irish gave up 10 unanswered points before driving inside the Tulsa 20 yard line with under a minute left.

But after taking a timeout on 2nd-and-8 to discuss things, Tommy Rees underthrew Michael Floyd in the end zone and was intercepted, leaving kicker David Ruffer on the sideline without ever getting to attempt a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

The Aftermath: Kelly’s opening postgame comments were his first about the Sullivan tragedy. After answering those difficult questions, they shifted to his decision to throw the football with a true freshman quarterback with a makeable field goal in range. Here was Kelly’s response.

“We knew we had a one-on-one matchup with Mike Floyd. We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there,” Kelly said. “But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one-on-one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again. We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today. But in time we’ll make that play.”

The loss pushed the Irish into a very real scenario where a postseason bowl berth looked doubtful. Notre Dame’s two toughest opponents — a ranked Utah team and USC — still remained. As did another option offense, with an already bowl-eligible Army team awaiting for the Irish in Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame needed to win two of three just to get to .500.

The Response: Entering as nearly touchdown home underdogs, the Irish hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2006, an 11-game run. But facing an offense that had averaged 41 points a game, the Irish won the turnover battle 2-0, got a huge blocked punt by Robert Blanton for a touchdown and Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the second half’s opening kickoff.

Tommy Rees completed 13 of 20 passes for just 129 yards. But three of those went for touchdowns with Floyd catching one and Duval Kamara catching two as students stormed the field after a cathartic 28-3 victory.

“Today for our football team was a moment that you really can’t explain unless you’re with us all the time, and that moment is shared between players and coaches. We were able to do that in the locker room after the game,” Kelly said after the victory. “Our seniors were playing in their last game. Through the last three weeks we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group. In those times to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

 

Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
September 10, 2011
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview:: Few losses hurt more than this one. Notre Dame’s defense gave up 28 second-half points and the Irish offense’s 513 yards were all but negated by five turnovers as a broken coverage late in the game allowed Denard Robinson and company to walk out of an electric evening in Michigan Stadium with a win for the ages, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

After losing in painful ways the previous two seasons, the Irish looked like they had pulled out a clutch victory when Tommy Rees hit Theo Riddick on a 29-yard touchdown with 30 seconds to go. But Jeremy Gallon was left wide open in the secondary, setting up the game-winning touchdown.

The Aftermath: A week after self-destructing against USF, the Irish did so on an ever larger stage, an unlikely 0-2 football team that left the equivalent of 55 points on the board because of turnovers in just two weeks.

With a visit from Michigan State just days away (who had beat the Irish on their famed Little Giants fake field goal attempt a year prior), Kelly sounded resolute that he and his team could get things turned around.

“I really believe that you haven’t won a game yet, but you haven’t been beaten,” Kelly told his team. “We’ve really had a hand in beating ourselves. If we do not beat ourselves, we’ve got a chance to be the kind of football team that we believe we can be.”

The laundry list of improvements seemed quite daunting. In addition to an offense that was self-destructing, the secondary did the same. The Irish short-yardage units were abysmal. And the Irish had now lost seven of eight games that were within four points.

The Response: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13.

Few remember that the Irish offense only gained 275 yards. Or that the Spartans won the turnover battle 3-2. Notre Dame’s defense came to play, picking off Kirk Cousins in the shadow of their end zone and stopping a Mark Dantonio fake field goal attempt for good measure as well.

On special teams, George Atkinson provided the big play, an 89-yard kickoff return pushing the Irish up 14-3. On defense, freshman Aaron Lynch was relentless as a pass rusher.

The Irish essentially iced victory when Michael Floyd scored on a 22-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter. While Cierre Wood’s 14 carries led the team, Jonas Gray made his early mark on the team, gaining 5.4 yards a carry on his 12 touches.

“We just had to find a way to win. And that was the theme this week. By any means, just find a way to win the football game,” Kelly said afterwards.

 

Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21
November 9, 2013
Gut-Punch Level: Painful

Overview: Things seemed to go wrong from the drop, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt ejected in the first quarter for targeting, gutting an already injury-depleted Irish team. But the Irish pulled ahead late in the third quarter when Rees and TJ Jones connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass.

But the lead wouldn’t hold, as Devin Street matched Jones’ big play with a 63-yard score to tie the game and James Connor pushed Pitt ahead early in the fourth quarter as two late interceptions by Rees allowed the score to hold up.

“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said.

Critics wondered about playcalling, with the Irish running for 5.8 a carry, but giving freshman Tarean Folston just four carries among the team’s 24 attempts. And Jones’ individual effort, 149 yards on six catches, wasn’t enough to overcome three turnovers, including one by the Irish receiver in scoring position.

The Aftermath: The loss killed the Irish’s BCS dreams and was also a rare November nightmare for a team that had played historically well down the stretch. With the defensive front gutted, the Irish were forced to play unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, and it showed as the Pitt offense wore down the Irish defense. But Kelly didn’t use that as an excuse.

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

After living on the edge with a close victory over USC and then two weeks later Navy, the Irish regression was a disappointing development for a team that had hopefully left turnover problems behind in their loss to Oklahoma.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

The Response: On Senior Day, a bludgeoned Irish defense was carried by a surprising offensive attack, with Notre Dame’s ground game leading the way to victory. Played in intermittent snow, Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for a big 61-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first series, but won it on the ground, with the Irish running for 235 yards against a BYU defense that was statistically among the best in the country.

With the wind howling and the weather nasty, the Irish seized the opportunity to win the game with their offensive line, limiting mistakes (and the opportunity to make them) in a 23-13 victory that saw Notre Dame control the time of possession.

“Well, as I told our team, first and foremost, getting a win at home is always extremely satisfying in that we always want to defend our home stadium,” Kelly said, noting the Irish run of winning 12 of 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, before turning the attention to his graduating seniors. “Certainly getting a win for them is important. We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again. But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”

And In That Corner … No. 16 BYU offers physical test for Notre Dame in Las Vegas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wyoming at BYU
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For perhaps the first time, Notre Dame’s season-long hopes are lower than its opponents in a Shamrock Series matchup. No. 16 BYU (4-1) can still reach just about every goal in front of it at the start of the season, though perhaps getting into the Playoff may be a bit much. At the very least, the Cougars can finish their final season as an independent in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But they’d most likely have to upset the Irish (3-2). To get an idea of BYU’s mindset heading into Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC), let’s chat with Jared Lloyd of The Daily Herald in central Utah.

DF: BYU remains intriguing from a national perspective, despite perhaps playing with its food a bit against Wyoming and Utah State. Neither game was genuinely in doubt in the second half, so a possible lack of focus certainly did not cost the Cougars. Have you caught a sense of such? Or were those games simply that much more competitive than expected?

AL: ​Both Utah State and Wyoming came in well-prepared and with really nothing to lose, pushing BYU harder than Cougar fans expected. BYU wasn’t exactly quick to make adjustments, but when it did it was able to pull away in the second half of both games. The reality is that this Cougar team hasn’t played at the level I expected to see for the last three weeks, blundering into a number of unforced and undisciplined errors. The BYU coaching staff is working to eliminate those but I think it is too much to expect them to be all gone for this week’s matchup.

My hope for this game in the preseason was that Notre Dame and BYU would enter with no more than two combined losses. The Irish fell short; the Cougars delivered on that front. But let’s focus on that loss, a 41-20 fall at Oregon. The Ducks got out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and a 38-7 cushion by the end of the third quarter. It was a shellacking. Oregon has a strong rushing attack, averaging 6.3 yards per carry outside of that game, but still gaining 212 yards on 44 carries may be a template for Notre Dame to follow. And this was not specific to the Ducks; Utah State gained 204 yards on 49 carries, a 4.16 yards per rush average, distinctly better than its average of 3.56 in its other four games.

Walk me through this dynamic, as I was very much expecting BYU to have a strong defensive front this season, a team excelling in the trenches during its recent years of success. Has that fallen short? Are offenses selling out for the run?

Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State all made adjustments to attack the Cougar run defense instead of relying on things they had done in previous games, with various levels of success. I have noticed that BYU seems to struggle to get off blocks early in games, then starts over-pursuing and missing assignments. That has opened up gaps and the last three opponents have taken advantage of those. I fully expect Notre Dame to follow the same formula, so it will be on the Cougar defensive players and coaches to prove they have come up with solutions. BYU’s secondary has generally played fairly well, so it appears that the main effort needs to be on getting the job done up front.

The Cougars’ offensive line is certainly delivering, ballasting a balanced offense to the tune of 34.4 points per game. The Irish defensive line was gaining momentum in the five quarters before the idle week. Where is BYU weakest up front, if anywhere?

​BYU has enjoyed significant success in past years with an outside zone run scheme, but that hasn’t been the case for much of 2022. Opposing defensive linemen and linebackers have been able to successfully read the plays and slant through, beating the Cougar linemen to the point of attack and hitting BYU running backs behind the line of scrimmage. While the Cougar linemen are big and agile for their size, they simply aren’t quicker than many of the defenders when they are trying to push to the outside. The scheme does set up a lot of other plays that BYU has used, so I don’t expect to see the Cougars abandon it completely. I believe the Notre Dame defenders will be as prepared as other teams have been to stop the basic run and that will be an advantage for the Irish.

Let’s zoom far out from the details of the lines and instead project forward on the Cougars season. They are not eligible for the designated Group of Five slot in the New Year’s Six bowls, but BYU could find itself in the mix for the top 12 and thus still make such an appearance. These next two weeks, vs. Notre Dame and hosting Arkansas, will obviously determine such. Is there any acknowledgment of these bigger-picture possibilities around Provo?

There is no doubt that BYU fans across the country and both local and national reporters acknowledge that a big-time bowl could still be on the table, but I think it is minimized inside the Cougar program. Sure, BYU players and coaches are aware that could be a big prize, but they also know how quickly such dreams will be shattered if they lose. Given the fact that the Cougars have played far below the level they believe they are capable of playing at, I’m certain BYU is focused right now on elevating its own performance far more than thinking about bowl opportunities.

For that matter, how much excitement is there at BYU for finally working its way into the Big 12? This had been a long-wanted goal, at least it seemed so from afar.

It’s an interesting mix of excitement and vindication for many in the Cougar community. On the one hand, many BYU supporters feel that politics — not football tradition or ability — resulted in the Cougars being overlooked in the round of expansion in 2010 that saw Utah and TCU move to Power 5 conferences and BYU go independent. While there are similarities to Notre Dame in the fact that the Cougars are a religious-based institution with a national following, BYU certainly doesn’t have the same cachet as the Irish. Thus, the Cougars certainly needed both the opportunities and resources that joining the Big 12 conference will make possible to continue to be considered an elite college football program (as well as elevate other BYU sports). There is certainly plenty of energy surrounding the scheduled move next year.

I’ve hit some of the game-specific items, some of the 30,000-foot pieces. What have I missed? Including, but not limited to, a current update on the health of a couple Cougars receivers?

​BYU has been banged up but the latest update from the coaching staff is that no one is completely ruled out for Saturday’s game. The Cougars did get to see one of its top returning receivers on the field in the last game, although Gunner Romney certainly wasn’t at 100 percent. Puka Nacua, who has earned the distinction of being the BYU receiver with the most game-breaking potential, appears to also have a good chance of playing. 

Another aspect of the game that I would keep a close eye on is special teams. Although BYU has traditionally done well in that area, missed field goals and poor kick/punt coverage at times have really hurt the Cougars. More BYU miscues in that area could give Notre Dame a momentum boost in Saturday’s contest.

With Notre Dame favored by 3.5 as of Tuesday afternoon, what do you expect to see Saturday evening at Allegiant Stadium? And what part of Las Vegas are you most looking forward to?

​I think I’m one of many who are still trying to figure out exactly what the 2022 Irish are. Notre Dame looked pretty good in the loss at Ohio State and the win over North Carolina, but not that good in the loss to Marshall and the win over Cal. This is also the first long-distance trip for the Irish (almost three times as far as the trip to North Carolina), and that can be a challenge each team has to figure out. That said, this is a Notre Dame team that is coming off a good showing and an idle week, so I expect it to have figured some things out. It’s going to have some success on the ground and give BYU problems with its defense, but the Cougars won’t back down. I expect a close, exciting game that will be decided in the fourth quarter.

What I’m most looking forward to in Las Vegas is seeing the representation of both BYU and Notre Dame fans. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the city, so I’m familiar with the lights and the atmosphere. I’m much more intrigued by the meeting of these two well-known schools and seeing the turnout. My experiences with most of the fans from both institutions have been overwhelmingly positive, so I anticipate a cordial yet competitive environment for the Shamrock Series battle.

Las Vegas trip will offer Notre Dame fewer distractions than most; secondary injury updates

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Las Vegas may distract Notre Dame fans plenty, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman expects no such problem from his roster. For one thing, Notre Dame will arrive in Las Vegas late enough on Friday to cut into any distractions before facing No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC).

The Irish will then take a quick site visit to Allegiant Stadium before calling it a night, and Freeman himself will make sure everyone on the team has called it a night, as he does each Friday before a game.

“They got the head coach that’ll be doing bed coach at 8:30 Pacific Time on Friday night,” Freeman said Monday. “So I’m not real concerned.”

Freeman has often argued games away from home actually elicit fewer distractions than ones at home, something heard often around college coaches. Generally speaking, more family is in attendance at each home game, not to mention friends with typical college parties. On the road, the players arrive in town, perhaps check out the stadium, and then they head to the hotel for the night.

The loss of the comfort of sleeping in your bed is universal; Notre Dame has stayed in a hotel the night before home games for decades.

“The Shamrock Series is what makes Notre Dame unique,” Freeman said. “It’s one of our distinctions. The chance to go play a home game in Las Vegas is an extremely exciting opportunity.”

The Irish will be without senior linebacker JD Bertrand for the first half after a targeting penalty led to his ejection in the second half at North Carolina. Notre Dame appealed Bertrand’s one-half suspension but did not win the appeal.

The Irish should have both junior safety Ramon Henderson and fifth-year safety DJ Brown back in the lineup, after an ankle and a hamstring limited each nine days ago.

“Our head athletic trainer texted me this morning that both of them looked really good today, expect them both to go and practice …,” Freeman said. “I would expect both of those guys to be ready to go.”

Whether they are or not, junior Xavier Watts will be a part of the safety rotation and only the safety rotation. After Avery Davis tore his ACL in the preseason, leaving Notre Dame with just six healthy receivers, including fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno, Watts handled double-duty. The former receiver played both sides of the ball during at least one preseason scrimmage.

But Freeman said Watts is working at only safety these days, despite moving to the position less than a year ago.

“He’s getting better, he has a lot of natural ability we have to continue to coach and mold,” Freeman said. “… He’s all safety now. We just felt his role had more value to our team on defense than to go on offense and really compete to try to get playing time. Defensively, we knew there was already a plan for him to play.”

BUCHNER IN THE BOOTH
Most injured players roam the sidelines on Saturday, but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has been in the coaches’ booth since injuring his shoulder against Marshall on Sept. 10. More than learning the system from above and helping coaches chart plays, Freeman said that was a safety precaution initially.

“We didn’t want him in harm’s way,” Freeman said. “He was fresh, two or three days, out of surgery. We wanted to get him away from anywhere he could be in harm’s way.”

Freeman would not rule out Buchner moving to the sideline yet this season, where he and junior starting quarterback Drew Pyne could talk things through more actively, but for now, Buchner likely will remain up top.

ON THE QUICKENING NATURE OF COACHING CHANGES
After Wisconsin shockingly fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday, a surprise such that it will now be the poster child for early-season firings, Freeman was asked for his thoughts on those pressures and how it could impact his assistants. None of them figure to be in the mix for any of the current job openings (six, in total), but the concept holds enough merit to be discussed.

“We have a job to do, every single week,” Freeman said. “Anything that is going to distract us from getting our job done, we don’t want it, but I’m always going to be in a position where I want to make sure I’m helping every single person I’m surrounded by reach their goals.”

So Freeman would not stand in the way of an assistant coaching talking about an opening sooner than usual. Consider it unlikely right now and too abstract to ponder in the future. Of the six job openings, UAB’s interim coach is being given a valid chance at keeping the job, and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would know better than to pick up the phone if Georgia Tech called, not that this year’s offense has Rees atop many coaching lists.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden presumably needs to succeed at the collegiate level for a few years before landing another head coaching gig, and while running backs coach Deland McCullough has explicitly said that is his goal, he is not established enough to be viewed as a contender for any Power Five job, which five of the six now open are.

That hypothetical aside, Freeman knows well the reality of a coaching firing and the frustrations that come with it. Just about anyone in the coaching industry does, and thus they feel great empathy when discussing such moments.

Freeman felt it in 2016, as the defensive coordinator at Purdue when head coach Darrell Hazell was fired after six games. Current Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker was the Boilermakers’ interim coach for the final six games of the year, going 0-6.

“It’s tough. You feel for the guys in your occupation,” Freeman said. “I’m sure it’s not a lack of effort, but we’re in a results-driven business. That’s a part of the profession we chose. We chose this profession. But you never want to see that.

“People with families — it not only affects the head coach, but it affects all those assistants with them.”

Leftovers & Links: Idle-week thoughts on Notre Dame and its difficulties in the transfer portal

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It has become a common complaint among Notre Dame fans, that the Irish coaching staff failed to capitalize on the transfer portal this offseason. Particularly after Marshall’s influx of Power Five Transfers spurred the Herd to a 26-21 upset at Notre Dame Stadium and junior Drew Pyne was thrown into starting duty after Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the dearth of transfers on Notre Dame’s roster created angst, particularly at quarterback.

Aside from Northwestern import Brandon Joseph at safety, Harvard graduates Chris Smith and Jon Sot at defensive tackle and punter, respectively, and Arkansas State graduate Blake Grupe at kicker, the Irish do not have any contributing transfers this season.

It is not a coincidence three of those players are graduates, and it is not a coincidence three of them came from schools that could be considered academic peers to Notre Dame.

Coincincidences will not explain this dynamic to the masses, though, at least not enough.

“Can you point me to where and how I could read your complete take on [why Notre Dame can’t or won’t participate fully in the transfer portal opportunities]? Maybe this is a topic worthy of a full column given the current problems that the Irish are experiencing at receiver and perhaps other positions due to recruiting failures?”bostonjan two weeks ago.

Knowing Marcus Freeman’s thoughts on this will not satiate the masses, realizing a non-football-related example will not make clear the difficulties, and overlooking the reality that Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth goes well beyond the transfer portal and into losing two veterans for either the season thus far (Joe Wilkins, mid-March Lisfranc injury) or the season entirely (Avery Davis, preseason ACL tear) after most portal thoughts were spoken for … let’s answer that question.

The NCAA requires players remain on track for graduation. “On track” can be an ambiguous phrase, but there are bare minimums attached to it. Thus, any player Notre Dame welcomes as an undergraduate transfer must arrive and remain on track for graduation by those definitions as they apply at Notre Dame.

The University is notoriously challenging in that regard for imports. To break a personal rule and use a first-person pronoun here, one friend of mine — and details will be vague here because they are not necessary for the point and his academic process is not the debate here — who transferred into Notre Dame halfway through his junior year from a rather prestigious Northeast institution. Yet, Notre Dame denied so many of his credits, when he arrived in South Bend, he was now entering the second semester of his sophomore year. As sure as the sun rises in the east, this was coming from a place with a lofty enough academic standing, you would all expect every single one of his credits to transfer. Instead, he was no longer “on track” to graduate by athletics standards, though let it be known, this friend could not less resemble a Division I athlete, no offense intended.

Coming from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph faced a similar issue. If the senior safety were to jump to the NFL after this season, it would almost assuredly be easier for him to return to Evanston to procure his degree than to Notre Dame.

Freeman recognizes this reality, and he also recognizes this is part of the University’s fabric. Holding its own courses in higher esteem than the vast majority of other schools’ will not change, for better or worse.

“Our people here at Notre Dame want us to be in a position to be successful,” Freeman said a couple weeks ago. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we protect the integrity of this education here at our University. Nobody is just going to ‘win’ this. ‘Athletics wins.’ ‘Academics wins.’ No, we have to work together to do what’s best for both parties.”

Having enough credits accepted as a transfer to remain on track for graduation is only the second hurdle. The first hurdle, the one Freeman does intend to change, is the timing of that process.

The Irish chased a few receiver transfers this offseason. Now who knows where those players would have gone if Notre Dame’s transfer admission process was lightning quick, perhaps still not South Bend, but it would have become more plausible. Right now, the transfer transcripts have to be procured, whatever academic school at Notre Dame the player wants to enter has to review those credits and eventually a decision on eligibility is reached.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, that delay may be more costly than the strict admissions standards. Joseph was in the portal for hours before he was considering the Irish and just days before that decision was made. Most transfers do not even visit the campus of the new school they commit to. Freeman has identified that sluggish process as something to improve since he was hired in December.

“It’s a process that we’re in constant communication with,” he said this month. “Our admissions, our faculty here at Notre Dame and with multiple head coaches of athletic programs — it’s not just football. It’s just, right now, a period in college sports where transfers and transfer portals are a big part of roster enhancements.”

Freeman was hired the first week of December. You may remember that was a chaotic stretch around the Irish program. His first priority was keeping together the recruiting class set to sign two weeks later. His second was readying Notre Dame for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

That timeline was never going to allow Freeman a chance to accelerate the transfer admissions process at the University before most transfers were off the market by February. The inability to chase most transfers this past offseason was not a reflection of Freeman and his coaching staff; it was a reality of a large institution’s momentum and of time’s relentlessness. Freight trains take miles to stop and then much time to reverse course, and in many regards, Notre Dame operates like a freight train.

But Freeman is still trying to turn that freight train around.

“It’s a process that we continue to have discussions about and look to continue to enhance it.”

By no means does that assure things will move quicker this coming winter, but if anything is certain, it is that they will not be slower.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack
Things We Learned: ND’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

OUTSIDE READING
Who are college football’s most surprising impact transfers? Marshall RB Khalan Laborn, former Notre Dame OL Quinn Carroll lead list
Don’t call USC overrated after its best — and ugliest — win of the season
Does college football have an attendance problem? Lane Kiffin’s fan gripes bring up fair point
Here’s the funniest opponent each P5 school has never beaten
Isaac Rochell riding unconventional wave of opportunity with Browns this season
Northwestern unveils plan for Ryan Field rebuild

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

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While Notre Dame takes the weekend off, some will take the chance to spend time with their families. Others will go to other games across the country, maybe dabble in an FCS matchup. Most, however, will keep watching the full Saturday slate, and this weekend there are a few notable chances to watch coming Irish foes.

It would be too objective of an exercise to list the below games by order of intrigue, but the first game on that list would not be up for debate: No. 5 Clemson hosts No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC) in a game that could confirm the Tigers’ Playoff aspirations.

No. 19 BYU (3-1): The Cougars had no trouble with up-and-down Wyoming, winning 38-24, led by quarterback Jaren Hall’s 337 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-32 passing. Receiver Puka Nacua caught only three of those passes for just 26 yards, but his return from a battered ankle gives BYU one of its two best receivers back, and the other may play this weekend, Gunner Romney coming back from a lacerated kidney suffered early in preseason practices.

That offense does not need to be at full strength to ease by Utah State (8 ET on Thursday; ESPN), but it may be needed to cover a 24.5-point spread, per PointsBet on Wednesday night. More notably, this will give Hall and Romney a chance to find their rhythm before facing Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Stanford (1-2): Losing to Washington, 40-22, was not too alarming. The Huskies may be back to the form that landed them in an early Playoff. And Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee continued the vague NFL buzz around him with 286 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing. But it was still a bad week for Stanford. Head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that running back E.J. Smith will be out for the rest of the season. In the first two games of the year, Smith took 30 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns, adding 63 more yards and a score through the air. McKee will keep the offense functional, but Smith made it a bona fide two-dimensional offense.

Without him, it is hard to envision the Cardinal upsetting No. 13 Oregon (11 ET; FS1) late Saturday night as 17-point underdogs.

UNLV (3-1): The Rebels are not the scrubs many expected entering the season, including this space. A 34-24 win at even-more-woeful Utah State last weeked confirmed that, but let’s make no mistake: UNLV is still not necessarily good. SP+ ranks the Rebels as the No. 91 team in the country, two notches better than Boston College, but UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame faces this season. With Navy even further down those considerations, the Rebels will not even be the second-worst team playing the Irish this year.

How drastically have things changed for UNLV? Favored by 14.5 against New Mexico (11 ET on Friday; CBSSN) this weekend makes it three straight weeks that the Rebels have been favored. Before that, they were last favored against an FBS team in the second week of 2019, nearly three full seasons ago. They had not been a favorite in consecutive FBS games since late 2017, when they went 0-1-1 against the spread against Hawaii and BYU, losing to the Cougars.

The last time UNLV was favored in three straight games against FBS opponents? It was before 2006.

Syracuse (4-0): The Orange tried to gift Virginia a win on Friday, but it held on 22-20 despite four turnovers. All four of those were within Syracuse’s own 36-yard line, yet they resulted in only seven Cavaliers points.

Syracuse could probably get away with such shenanigans again this week, against FCS-level Wagner (5 ET; ESPN+).

No. 5 Clemson (4-0): The Tigers held off Wake Forest’s upset bid in double overtime. It may have been DJ Uiagalelei’s best career game, even better than his double-overtime showing at Notre Dame in 2020, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns. But those numbers do not do his play justice.

More of that is going to be needed against No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC). Clemson is favored by 6.5 points, and assuming that mark holds up to kickoff, this marks four of the Tigers’ last five games against ACC competition in which they have been favored by just single digits, going 3-1 against the spread in those games, winning all four. The game before those five, Clemson was an underdog to Pittsburgh, so call that five of six games in which the Tigers were favored by no more than nine points against conference opponents. In the previous 34 ACC games, only once was Clemson favored by fewer than 10 points, its trip to Notre Dame in 2020 in Uiagalelei’s first career start.

Navy (1-2): The Midshipmen found a win, and they needed only double overtime to do it, beating East Carolina 23-20. By no means did this reflect significant progress for Navy, still gaining only 2.9 yards per rush.

The Midshipmen will need to find a vintage offensive showing to upset Air Force (12 ET; CBS), entering that Commander-in-Chief game as 14-point underdogs.

Boston College (1-3): The Eagles fell behind 37-0 early in the third quarter at Florida State, and that does not begin to describe how bad things are for Boston College right now. The 44-14 final result was far closer than it should have been. Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec went 15-of-23 for 105 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions after opening the game 5-of-10 for 20 yards and those two picks.

Boston College now hosts Louisville (12 ET; ACCN), and it is foolish to think there is the talent on this roster to lose by as few as the 15.5 points suggested by the spread.

No. 6 USC (4-0): The Trojans found a way to win, and that may be the greatest testament to the change in mindset around that program. When its offense could manage only 17 points, that was still enough at Oregon State, prevailing 17-14.

The reality is, USC’s defense is playing with fire, relying on a steady stream of turnovers that cannot continue, almost literally.

The Trojans should not need such resolve against Arizona State (10:30 ET; ESPN), favored by a meager 25 points against a team lacking a head coach. (Insert reference to 2008 Syracuse here.)

No. 3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin, 52-21, in another instance of the final score not representing how lopsided the game was. Ohio State led 45-7 entering the fourth quarter, completely dominating a team in the top half of the Big Ten.

Not much more time need be spent on the Buckeyes this week, given they now host Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) in a game that will make last week’s look tight.

Marshall (2-2): The Herd fell 16-7 at Troy, a loss that may doom any Marshall hopes of winning the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. Star Herd running back Khalan Laborn still managed 118 yards on 30 rushes, but quarterback Henry Colombi attempted just 13 passes, completing eight of them for 49 yards. Put Laborn’s output into this context: Marshall ended the game with 96 rushing yards (sacks included) and 174 total yards.

Similar problems should not be a worry this week against FCS-level Gardner-Webb (3:30 ET; ESPN+).

Cal (3-1): The Bears ran through Arizona, 49-31, to a literal extent. Freshman running back Jadyn Ott is already putting his name into the record books. (Context: Ott rushed for 33 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame.

More may yet come against Washington State’s average rush defense (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network), ranking No. 64 in the country in EPA allowed per rush, per cfb-graphs.com.

North Carolina (3-1): The Tar Heels will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Virginia Tech (3:30 ET; ACCN), favored by 9 points, a mark that perhaps puts too much faith into the Hokies’ defense replicating Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday, even if they can now benefit from seeing North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye hemmed in on film.

Thursday at 8 ET: Utah State at No. 19 BYU (ESPN)
Friday at 11 ET: New Mexico at UNLV (CBSSN)
Saturday at 12 ET: Navy at Air Force (CBS); Louisville at Boston College (ACCN)
3:30 — Rutgers at No. 3 Ohio State (BTN); Gardner-Webb at Marshall (ESPN+); Virginia Tech at North Carolina (ACCN)
5:00 — Wagner at Syracuse (ESPN+)
5:30 — Cal at Washington State (P12N)
7:30 — No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
10:30 — Arizona State at No. 6 USC (ESPN)
11:00 — Stanford at No. 13 Oregon (FS1)

Favorites: BYU (-24.5) vs. Utah State; UNLV (-14.5) vs. New Mexico; Clemson (-6.5) vs. North Carolina State; USC (-25) vs. Arizona State; Ohio State (-40.5) vs. Rutgers; North Carolina (-9) vs. Virginia Tech
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Oregon; Navy (+14) at Air Force; Boston College (+15.5) vs. Louisville