(Photo: Joseph Weiser)
Marcus Freeman’s 21 game head coaching career has been marked by streaks of solid, and sometimes spectacular play by his team, and some head scratching, ugly losses. It’s “boom or bust”, to be sure. The Irish under Freeman have not been able to build off of their successes and instead have gone “bust” against lesser opposition. They also have shown a knack for playing well against good teams, “boom!”
Freeman opened his first regular season at #2 Ohio State with a bit of a boom. The Irish played well that day and held a 10-7 halftime lead. A little too much C.J. Stroud in the second half ultimately pushed the Buckeyes over the finish line with a 21-10 win, but the Irish competed that day and had played well. Boom!
Then, the week after came an inexplicable Irish bust. Marshall had been the planned sacrificial victim. ND was a 20.5 favorite. In spite of a huge talent advantage, the Irish failed to compete, and fell 26-21. Marcus Freeman’s team looked all but lost in the process. The ND team that had gone toe to toe with Ohio State the week prior, had nothing in common with the team that fell to Marshall.
The Ohio State hangover of 2022 had lingering effects that went on for several weeks. The bust cycle continued. The Irish barely eked out a win over lightly regarded Cal the week after Marshall, 24-17 The Irish had been favored in that game by 13.5.
Then in 2022, Notre Dame finally regained their mojo after Marshall/Cal with a solid win against a tough North Carolina team. The Wolfpack that day had been a 2.5 point favorite. The Irish cruised to victory, 45-32, boom! The next week that roll continued in Las Vegas with a solid 28-20 win over 16th ranked BYU, and things in Marcus Freeman world were looking up. The post Ohio State hangover “bust” seemed to be over after excellent performances against two really good teams.
Not so fast my friend, because the Irish couldn’t build off the success. The next week, on October 15, 2022, the Irish were 16.5 point favorites at home, against a Stanford program that was on hard times. Things went horribly awry that day. ND fell 16-14 to the Cardinal in a putrid performance.
Back to square one with a big “bust”.
The week after Stanford in a very uneven performance the bust continued with a 44-21 victory over a weak and overmatched UNLV team. ND’s next two opponents, #16 Syracuse on the road and #5 Clemson at ND, must have been licking their chops after those two performances by the Irish.
But don’t forget the cycle because, Boom! Down went Syracuse in a solid 41-24 performance. The Irish then came home against 3.5 point favorite, #5 Clemson and played arguably their best game of the Freeman era. Clemson was defeated in practically all facets of the game, 35-14. Boom,boom!
The next week in Baltimore against Navy, the boom/bust cycle appeared once again, all in one game! Freeman’s team looked terrific in the first half, the Irish scored on five of six possession and ran to a 35-13 halftime lead, and the post Stanford boom looked like it was continuing. Then they played the second half. Bust! ND looked nothing like the the team that had played Clemson, and Syracuse and in the first half. They played poorly on both sides of the ball. The offense managed just one first down and the defense barely held on to a 35-32 win.
Back to bust.
That anemic second half bust against Navy was followed up by a 44-0 boom over Boston College and then a 38-27 “mini bust” loss at USC.
The Irish overall played well enough to come from behind, after a mostly busted start, to next defeat South Carolina in the Gator Bowl, 45-38.
2022 ended and a clear pattern was coming into focus for Marcus Freeman teams, and it was not a pattern of consistently good play.
2023 opened with four straight wins for the Irish. Phenom play caller Gerad Parker’s offense averaged 46 points per-game and Sam Hartman was the toast of the town, if not the college football world. The defense was also holding up well with better than expected play by the front four, linebacker play was as good as had been expected and the pass defense, outstanding.
Notre Dame fans no doubt remember that “boom” feeling from a few short weeks ago as National Championship dreams were dancing in their heads.
But during the 2023 “boom” cycle, cracks were appearing. 10 penalties and a slow start against a physical North Carolina State team and another slow start against Central Michigan, foreshadowed the next “bust” phase for Marcus Freeman’s Irish.
How would the Irish play against Ohio State? Well, a pattern of playing well in “big” games seemed to be emerging, and so not surprising, the Irish were outstanding, right up until the devastating end. Despite leaving first half points on the field, they outplayed the Buckeyes, until the last 1:26 of the game. That’s when things went BUST! Several breakdowns occurred, the most egregious of which was having just 10 defenders on the field for the biggest downs the Irish had played in oh, about 25 years?
That bust cycle for the Irish since the closing minutes of the Ohio State game has continued. Throughout most of the Duke game, the Irish self destructed. They committed 12 penalties, missed field goals, dropped passes and missed tackles. Somehow the Irish snatched an against all odds win despite a lot of subpar play. In the game the Irish managed just two touchdowns, in the first four games they had averaged five each game.
And that brings us to Louisville. Odd play calling, going for a 4th-11 from the Louisville 35 with 10 minutes left in the game, rotating offensive linemen, 5 sacks, 1.6 yards per rush, 5 turnovers. I’ll stop there, no need to relive any more of the pain. But it was predictable. Obviously the odds makers, who had the Irish favored by 6 have not been paying attention to the Marcus Freeman 21 game “boom bust” cycle.
When Marcus Freeman was hired in December of 2021, Fighting Irish Preview did a deep dive on the resumes of ND head coaches over the years. Executive summary: those with head coaching experience did well, those that were first time head coaches did not. The hope with Freeman was, that an ability to recruit talented players would outweigh his need to learn on the job. So far that hope has not looked particularly promising, but the sample size is not large. An analysis of his first 21 games however, has to raise some eyebrows.
Say what you will about Brian Kelly, but Kelly made a habit of winning the games he was supposed to, even if his teams struggled against elite opposition. Marcus Freeman has trended in the opposite direction. His teams have played well in big games, but against lesser competition, there has been a lot of “bust”.
The good news for this week would be that if the Marcus Freeman “boom/bust” cycle goes to form, the Irish are due for a lights out “boom” of a performance this week against 6-0, #10 USC.
And all will be well in South Bend again…….. for at least a couple of weeks.