SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman didn’t know.
Because if Notre Dame’s head coach knew his defense had just tried to defend Ohio State with 10 players on the field, a snap that ended with Kyle McCord’s incompletion to Marvin Harrison Jr. with three seconds remaining, Freeman could have fixed it. Notre Dame didn’t have a timeout to rectify its inability to count to 11. It didn’t need one the moment Ohio State substituted running backs, swapping out TreVeyon Henderson for Chip Trayanum before the game’s final play.
In the moment, Ryan Day gave Freeman an out. Because Ohio State didn’t know Notre Dame was playing down a man, either. By rule, if the offense substitutes, the defense gets to match. The officiating crew would have stood over the ball as Notre Dame ran on another defensive end or another defensive tackle. Ohio State went with its heavy personnel at the 1-yard line. Notre Dame decided to stick to nickel with just 10 players.
“We were trying to get a fourth D-line man on the field, and I told him just stay off because we can’t afford a penalty,” Freeman said. “I didn’t have any timeouts, right? So we couldn’t afford a penalty there.
“Yeah, it’s on us. We got to be better.”
Freeman went on to defend the idea Notre Dame was better off playing defense down a man than giving up a half-yard with an offsides penalty (again, the rules of substitution would have allowed Notre Dame to fix its own mess). Then he said he would have to watch the tape to figure out where the play hit.
It hit right where Notre Dame’s missing defensive lineman would have been.
Right where Reggie Bush shoved Matt Leinart into the end zone 18 years ago.
Ohio State 17, Notre Dame 14.
“But to me it was, like, ‘Hey, don’t give them another opportunity to get settled and to try to make a different call, right?’” Freeman said. “Hey, guys, ‘Like, stay off the field. Let’s not give them a freebie from the half-yard line, and let’s try to stop them.’”
It was an inexplicable explanation for an indefensible decision by Freeman and his staff, which rose to the moment much of Saturday night only to collapse at the end. These kinds of mistakes go on permanent records. They drag on coaches for seasons, not for weeks. Remembering the scene of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” the Irish fan base turning out in green, Notre Dame looking like the better team for long stretches, that all gets flushed with the catastrophic conclusion that Freeman watched unfold in front of him.
Going into Saturday night, Notre Dame felt ready for a moment like this, and the Irish played that way for overwhelming stretches. Of the 129 snaps, the Irish played winning football for roughly 120 of them. But the other nine were self-immolation, Notre Dame lighting fire to a season that still has much promise, just considerably less of it now.
For the first time in decades, Notre Dame went into a game of epic magnitude with the better quarterback and the home-field advantage. It created a sentiment of “If not now, when?” with Ohio State’s work-in-progress setting up the Irish for success. Lou Holtz was right to call the Buckeyes soft, which Day confirmed himself postgame by ranting about the sports radio takes of an 86-year-old retired coach most of his players couldn’t identify. When Ohio State needed tough yardage, it ran laterally with a receiver. When it faced fourth-and-goal, it threw incomplete. For the Buckeyes to get tough on the game’s final snap, all they had to do is count and then figure out where Notre Dame was not.
Ohio State was there for the taking. Notre Dame declined the offer.
Notre Dame had 10 guys on the field for the Ohio State TD, missing a lineman. Right where OSU ran the ball. pic.twitter.com/nz7YsFYhsu
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) September 24, 2023
The Buckeyes are who they are, an uber-talented collection of skilled talent that can light up any secondary at any moment on any snap. They played that way, finessing their way in a game that demanded that they get tough. The Irish are who they are, too, a run-first operation that stresses fundamentals and details. But they didn’t play that way, not nearly enough on a stage like this.
Needing 1 yard on fourth down at the Ohio State 18-yard line in the first quarter, Notre Dame dispatched six offensive linemen, a fullback, two tight ends and Audric Estime. Then the Irish attempted a play-action pass with no chance of success as Ohio State doubled Mitchell Evans and Holden Staes, leaving the only receiving option former walk-on Davis Sherwood. Sam Hartman’s scramble was stopped short.
Turnover on downs.
Day: It’s Ohio St. ‘against the world’ after beating Notre Dame
Needing 1 yard on fourth down at the Ohio State 39-yard line in the third quarter, Notre Dame used a condensed formation with Estime in the backfield. Instead of playing to their strengths, the Irish tried to out-cute the Buckeyes with a quick quarterback sneak, which Tommy Eichenberg sniffed out. Again, Estime didn’t get a touch.
Turnover on downs.
Last week, offensive coordinator Gerad Parker talked about overthinking in big moments, trying to get so creative that an offense forgets its own character, and loses its own blueprints.
“Sometimes we try to coach too much, and those are the worst feelings I think throughout your career when you come off the field,” Parker said. “The times when it’s went where you remember, where you walk off, and you’re like ‘If we’d of just ran our base whatever this is, it would have went better.’ And those are bad feelings.”
This is one of those feelings. Coaches talk about “players not plays” meaning that it’s on the coaching staff to put its roster in position to deliver, then get out of the way. Instead, Notre Dame’s staff got in its own way against Ohio State, failing to remember why the Irish were such a threat to the Buckeyes in the first place.
Notre Dame didn’t put Ohio State’s back against the wall because of a whip-smart play call or next-level scouting. Notre Dame earned to right to believe it would beat Ohio State because of the culture Freeman has built up front, leaning into the ethos where owning the line of scrimmage was non-negotiable.
Then it tried to run its quarterback twice on fourth down, getting stopped twice.
Wasserman: Ohio State had been here before. This time, the ‘soft’ Buckeyes won
Then it dropped eight into coverage on third-and-19, letting an inexperienced McCord set his feet and rip a throw to the best receiver in college football.
What came next will stay with Freeman for the rest of his Notre Dame tenure. This was a 10-year victory staring Freeman in the face, the kind of moment that keeps this season’s dream alive, wins over the prospects in-house and turns heads of talent at home who would have gotten an introduction to a different Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Instead, it all felt so crushingly similar to the moments that have gone before. Notre Dame can take a gut punch, Denard Robinson, Devin Gardner, Leinart, the offensive pass interference penalty at Florida State. There was the defensive collapse at Stanford and the inability to run a two-point conversion at Clemson back in 2015. There’s no utility in ranking heartbreak. They all hurt.
But Saturday cut deeper because it was a vulnerable Ohio State team and because this marked the end of Freeman’s mutual love affair with the Notre Dame fan base. Through the second-half collapse in his bowl debut, then the home losses to Marshall and Stanford, Notre Dame was willing to let Freeman learn on the job. It was the bargain the program made with itself in promoting a first-time head coach. Freeman needed time. Last fall afforded it.
But the patience of letting Freeman grow into this job may be at its end. Now begins a new phase of the Freeman Era at Notre Dame. The fan base turned out to see a program that forgot how to make a closing argument. That’s on the head coach.
And Freeman has to know that.
(Top photo of Marcus Freeman: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)