SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman has endured this kind of week before.
Last season a blown second-half lead against Ohio State in college football's game of the week, led to a letdown and another loss — that one at home to Marshall.
Now, Freeman is trying to avoid another hangover when the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (4-1) visit No. 17 Duke on Saturday. Beating the Blue Devils (4-0) would get Notre Dame's season right back on track. A second straight loss would almost certainly end any hope of reaching the College Football Playoff in its last season as a four-team event.
“We game plan for an opponent,” Freeman said. “But Notre Dame has to execute at the level that we need Notre Dame to. That’s our focus.”
After losing last year's season-opener at Ohio State, Freeman's team lost its confidence and its home opener 26-21 to Marshall in Week 2. That 0-2 start only exacerbated the internal doubts about a team being led by a first-time head coach.
“You lose to Ohio State and then you lose to Marshall,” Freeman said. “You don’t know if you’re ever going to win.”
This year's team insists it's more self-assured and resilient, especially with an experienced and proven hand running the offense — sixth-year quarterback Sam Hartman, who continues to climb the major college football career charts in yards passing and touchdown passes.
And this time, Notre Dame also has the early season results to answer any questions about winning. All of this season's wins have come by margins of 21 points or points.
“We know we’re a really good football team,” Notre Dame center and team captain Zeke Correll said. “We’re a very confident group, and we’re confident we’re going to go out there and play to the best of our abilities.”
The Irish may be more confident, but Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes still stings.
Notre Dame outplayed Ohio State for much of the game, a stark contrast to the 2022 contest. Yet they squandered the lead because of a series of late-game mistakes, the most notable being one player short for the Buckeyes' final two plays. Ohio State cashed in by scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 1 second left.
The 37-year-old Freeman now in his second season with the Irish, presided over a few one-score wins in 2022.
But Notre Dame's inability to protect a 14-10 lead after getting the ball back with 4:12 remaining had a television audience topping more than 14 million wondering why Freeman used his final timeout with 7 seconds to go and how the Irish didn't have their full allotment of players on the field afterward.
It wasn't the first time that happened this year, either. The Irish also got caught short-handed on Tennessee State's lone scoring drive three weeks earlier.
“There’s a whole bunch of systems in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but ultimately, it falls on me,” Freeman said. “That’s the reality. I’m not going to get up here and say this person should have done that. Ultimately, I have to do a better job as the head coach.”
Of course, teams with more experienced coaches also make mistakes.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day wanted to run a fake punt with 12 men on the field in the fourth quarter of last year’s playoff semifinal against Georgia, but the Bulldogs called timeout.
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won seven national championships, lost to rival Auburn in 2019 when his team drew a substitution penalty that turned a fourth-and-4 into a game-sealing first down with 66 seconds to go.
Freeman's solution: Installing a new signal to alert a defensive player to jump offsides and make contact with an offensive player, stopping the play so the Irish can line up properly.
Otherwise, Freeman is urging Notre Dame to leave last weekend's loss — and the roller coaster of emotions — behind while trying to avoid another stumble at surprising Duke, which already has an upset of Clemson on its resume.
“No one’s talking about it anymore,” Correll said. “Everyone’s talking about our (next) opponent.”