LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Notre Dame didn’t need a reminder of how its season had unraveled on Saturday night, but Louisville fans hanging around the fringes of L&N Stadium were there to offer one. As players and coaches solemnly climbed the stairs to Notre Dame’s team buses, Cardinals fans taunted the Irish players, calling out Sam Hartman by name nearly a dozen times.
This stadium had seen this version of Notre Dame’s quarterback before, just when he was playing for Wake Forest. Last year, Hartman threw three interceptions and lost three fumbles here. On Saturday, Hartman threw three more picks and lost two more fumbles in a humbling 33-20 loss.
“Two years in a row, where you at Sam?” a Cardinals fan screamed down from above. “Sam Hartman can’t beat us!”
The 24-year-old quarterback came to Notre Dame to get away from this, to leave behind an offense that asked him to do everything and then hoped he delivered. The pitstop at Notre Dame was supposed to develop him for the next level under Tommy Rees before the change to Gerad Parker. It was supposed to let Hartman become something more than a system quarterback who runs the slow mesh.
And now it must feel achingly familiar for Hartman, no longer stuck in a funky scheme that NFL scouts couldn’t translate but instead having to bail out an offense repeatedly as it takes on water under Parker.
“Everybody’s going to point the finger at someone,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “You better point the finger (at) us, at me. We’ve got to protect (Hartman). We’ve got to do a better job of protecting our quarterback and putting him in situations to have a higher percentage of success.”
It would be difficult for Notre Dame to do worse against Louisville, as the talent gap between Freeman and Louisville coach Jeff Brohm became a canyon seen on national television. Notre Dame’s plan to beat Louisville was more wishful thinking than strategy. Hope that the offensive line could get right by playing four different lineups. Hope that going for it on fourth-and-11 early in the fourth quarter made analytical sense. Hope that the staff could slash the volume of practice periods on Tuesday and still be ready on Saturday. Hope that Notre Dame could stop committing catastrophic penalties.
At every turn, the fallacy in approach was laid bare.
In the city of Muhammad Ali, Notre Dame got punched in the mouth. It didn’t have a plan when it happened. But it didn’t have a plan before that haymaker landed, either.
“We’ve got to take ownership as a coaching staff first, right? And as the head coach first,” Freeman said. “Our guys weren’t prepared, for whatever reason. We’ve got to take a deep dive and figure out what it was.”
There is no time for another deep dive, however, not with USC headed to South Bend next weekend. Notre Dame’s season is over if the only goal was making it into the College Football Playoff. Assuming you see more to the sport than its final four teams left standing, this season doesn’t need to be over, but it can’t keep going like this.
Notre Dame has scored just six touchdowns in its past three games, the same number USC scored Saturday in a triple-overtime win over Arizona.
To peel the onion of Freeman’s approach, it’s almost a surprise the Irish have been that productive. Against Louisville, the scholarship Irish receivers were targeted 19 times and made nine catches for 87 yards. The scholarship group didn’t convert a single third or fourth down. That’s enough to see Freeman’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-11 with almost 10 minutes remaining in a different light. Freeman was right, if Notre Dame held Louisville to a field goal at that moment, it would constitute a win. But that plan hinged on the Irish wideouts delivering in a spot where they have not.
Jeff Brohm delivering on hope as Louisville defeats Notre Dame
And that’s all a shame for Hartman, whose vibes had united the football program and its fanbase in mutual admiration. Instead, the past three weeks have been overwhelmingly frustrating for a program used to calling its ACC shots during its 30-game regular-season winning streak against the league.
“You don’t have much time to feel sorry for yourself. And that comes from me as head coach and our leaders,” Freeman said. “I’m going to really count on our leaders to make sure these guys understand that we’ve got to learn from this game, and then we’ve got to move forward to get ready for USC.
“We cannot sit here and mope and feel bad for ourselves. We have to move forward. And so, this will be a true test of our leadership, starting with me and our captains.”
In Freeman’s logic — Notre Dame already had to move forward, from the 10-men embarrassment against Ohio State to the emotion-draining final drive against Duke. It’s just not clear the staff has a counter punch at the ready, and it’s all a hard riddle to solve for Notre Dame. For Freeman, for Parker, for Hartman. The grand experiment of adding a player like Hartman to the roster won’t pay the dividends Notre Dame’s program or fans expected.
How Freeman pivots from here may go a long way to determining how his time at Notre Dame is remembered no matter how long it lasts. Because the biggest blown opportunity didn’t come from the players; it came from the program at large. Freeman’s now 14-7 with the book on Parker out more by the week.
Now it’s time for Notre Dame, Freeman and Parker to add another chapter, with the Irish desperate for some author to emerge. As Louisville fans reminded Notre Dame’s players as they walked up the stadium stairs to head home defeated and dejected, Freeman’s program doesn’t know what hit it on Saturday night.
But these scars are sure to remain. They’ll shape this season, one way or another.
(Top photo of Marcus Freeman: Joseph Weiser / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)