By the time No. 5 Notre Dame takes the field at No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday (7:30 ET; ABC), Marcus Freeman’s primary job will be done. Even in the locker room beforehand, the Irish head coach will no longer be pressing his team.
A rah-rah speech during the pregame before running onto the brand-new artificial turf will not be what catapults Notre Dame to an upset or a defeat.
“It’s all in the preparation,” the 36-year-old, first-year head coach said. “If you’re not motivated Saturday night at 7:30 to play at the No. 2 team in the country, then we have bigger issues.
“You have to continue to motivate your guys and understand preparation is the most important key. As I’ve told them all the time, I have to find ways to create this type of environment where the practices are hard, where the practices are tough, there’s a lot of pressure, because when you get out there in the game in front of 105,000 fans, that’s pressure.”
The Irish will visit Ohio Stadium, more commonly known as The Horseshoe, on Friday simply so the players do not need to navigate a new locker room for the first time on Saturday. “Getting a feel for it” is another piece of Freeman’s preparation, again not a motivational ploy.
Not even Notre Dame remaining a 17-point underdog — as of Thursday afternoon, +17.0 is the consensus number — will also not be a piece of Freeman’s pregame, though he mentioned it to the Irish on Monday after a reporter brought it up at Freeman’s early week press conference.
“I’m not hugely into gambling, as I told the team. I just said, ‘We’re underdogs, it’s okay,” Freeman said Thursday. “It all comes back to the motivation to prepare. That’s what our job as coaches is to do. Make sure we have the most-prepared team we can.
“I’m not using that for Saturday. If we have to go in and say we’re an underdog on Saturday to get them motivated, we have other issues.”
The most notable set of other issues are Notre Dame’s injury concerns. Fifth-year left guard and preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson is still questionable with a foot sprain. He has practiced some this week but is not taking every snap.
“We’ve still got a good amount of time before Saturday evening,” Freeman said. “We’ll revisit it today after practice and tomorrow after practice and once we get to Saturday, but I would still say today he’s questionable for Saturday night.”
If Patterson does not play, sophomore Rocco Spindler is listed as his backup on the depth chart though senior Andrew Kristofic has more experience and thus may see some action in primetime.
Freeman continues to insist sophomore running back Logan Diggs and fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins will both be good to go on Saturday, despite that being a distinctly-expedited return timetable for both as they come back from a labrum injury in mid-April and a Lisfranc injury in mid-March, respectively. Sophomore receiver Deion Colzie is also cleared after some preseason nicks.
“All three of them will be in a position to play for us and be able to go out there and compete,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to put them on the field if we don’t think they’re ready to help us, ready to play a game. …
“There’s some live reps they missed during camp, but there’s no hesitation in my mind and the position coaches’ minds to be able to play those guys.”
That same lack of hesitation applies to any freshmen the Irish will turn to this weekend. A lengthy list of them may contribute: tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden States, receiver Tobias Merriweather, linebacker Jaylen Sneed, and cornerbacks Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison. If Notre Dame plays any of them in this top-five matchup, it is with the obvious knowledge that it would be hard to throw them into a deeper end of the figurative pool.
“You have to understand they’re still freshmen, this is their first collegiate game,” Freeman said. “A lot of it is who has earned the trust in their coaches and our coaching staff that we can play them.
“We will, but we have to understand this is, for all of them, their first collegiate game. Going into a place like Ohio Stadium, you have to understand the type of challenge it is going to be. We have to be smart in terms of what we’re asking them to do. But if we put them on the field, we have the confidence they can get the job done.”
ALWAYS BE RECRUITING
The Irish coaching staff put in late hours Wednesday night not only preparing for the Buckeyes, but also reaching out to class of 2024 at midnight as the calendar turned to September, the first moment of allowed calls. Some of those players will be on the sidelines at Ohio State.
Freeman knows what will most impress any recruit, more than any late-night phone call or recruiting graphic.
“More important than anything, it’s about making sure this team is ready to go. Hopefully that’s something that is attractive to these recruits. They go out there and see a competitive, tough, disciplined football team. Then they have to figure if this is something they want to be a part of. Then we’ll get to that.
“The strongest message is a good performance.”