“Resilient” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe Notre Dame’s seniors and fifth-year veterans, a group of players that have won 28 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents, have gone 29-3 at home and have never won fewer than 10 games in a season. They have enjoyed extensive success, including Saturday’s 44-0 trouncing of Boston College, not frequent tribulations.
Yet that was the adjective Irish head coach Marcus Freeman used to describe his 8-3 team, having now won eight of nine games including its last five, averaging 40 points per game in those five.
“We have a resilient group of leaders,” Freeman said. “… This University attracts resilient people. If you’re not a resilient person, you’re not going to make it here. That’s something I’ve learned in my short time here. This place weeds non-resilient people out.
“This University, it even happens in the football program. If you’re not a resilient, a tough-minded person, this probably won’t, at some point, be the place for you. You’ll say, hey, I’m going to go somewhere else. That’s what this place attracts, resilient people.”
Freeman was almost certainly not undercutting any past Notre Dame players in particular so much as praising a team that embraced the cold and inches of snow to bulldoze the Eagles (3-8) off the field in definitive fashion, 44-0. Players who missed this Senior Day delight because they entered the transfer portal earlier this season or in years past properly made use of changing eligibility rules, refreshing their careers or putting themselves in better positions moving forward. Nonetheless, they were not part of the festivities, 25 players recognized before kickoff.
With the exception of punter Jay Bramblett at LSU, none of those outgoing transfers are enjoying a better season than the Irish and certainly not a better stretch. Their seasons may not have featured such a valley as losing to Marshall and Stanford at home, but those downsteps only served to make this surge more rewarding.
“The ability to handle the ups and downs is to me what makes a person, what makes a team, what makes a life,” Freeman said. “… It’s how you respond to them that really dictates the future. That’s the challenge I always have for these guys. It’s never as you foresee it on the front end.”
The front end of Notre Dame’s season may have foreseen something similar to this final result, a 10-2 or 9-3 season, just not via this “bumpy road,” to use Freeman’s phrasing derived from a past sermon.
At least, from the outside this may have been foreseen. Inside the program, more was expected. Senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey repeatedly said “national championship” when he first discussed returning for this season. Clearly, there will not be one, but Foskey did set the Irish career sacks record on Saturday, his last home game before a certain jump to the NFL.
“He didn’t win a national championship here, but what he did for this program, and what those seniors did for this program, will be the reason we win a national championship here in the upcoming future,” Freeman said.
“I told those guys last night, in our last meeting, their senior meeting, thank you, because they built the foundation. They really have built the foundation of what is to come.”
That foundation this season became one of a ground-based offense, a solid defense and opportunistic special teams. Whether the Irish upset USC on Saturday (7:30 ET; ABC) or not — Notre Dame is a 5.5-point underdog as of early Monday morning, the line opening Sunday afternoon at +6.0 — that foundation will not change.
While Freeman’s “bumpy road” included something of a reset while transitioning from Brian Kelly’s 12-year tenure, this foundation is quite reminiscent of Kelly’s best teams in the latter half of his Irish career. In 2017 and 2018, Notre Dame leaned into its ground game to such an extent that it produced a brief Heisman campaign and two top-10 draft picks in the 2018 NFL draft. Do-everything linebackers led the way defensively, their underrated effectiveness quietly parallel to the under-the-radar Irish passing game reliant on receivers looking more like tight ends than deep threats.
Some bumps will come again in 2023, particularly with veterans like Foskey, fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer, sixth-year receiver Avery Davis and fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson finishing their Notre Dame careers. That was the order of appearance of those four captains before kickoff on Saturday, Patterson the last senior to embrace Freeman before concluding the home slate.
“It goes back to the leadership,” Freeman said. “Those seniors, those guys that are captains, they could easily have started blaming and complaining and pointing fingers. Those guys looked at themselves and said, we’re going to work. They dragged everybody with them.”
But the foundation laid in 2022, cemented in the snowy rout of Boston College, should still be strong in 2023.
Rendering the Eagles a historical footnote on Saturday stood out given how poorly the Irish have played as a heavy favorite at home this season. Reversing that trend may have been the last notch needed for Freeman’s debut campaign to be 180 degrees removed from those Marshall and Stanford losses.
“Great teams are able to play to a standard,” Freeman said. “Great individuals are able to perform to a standard, not to an opponent. Competitors really face — they rise to the level of their opponent, but to me, great teams, championship teams, they set a standard and say, this is the way we’re going to work.”
Regardless of the result in Los Angeles, barring a score similar to this past Saturday’s, Notre Dame proved that standard with its fifth straight win and validated Freeman’s season-long calm at the same time, his tenure now standing on a stronger foundation.