Notebook: Herbstreit sees a brighter future for Notre Dame football

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As Kirk Herbstreit dug into his film study for Saturday night’s Notre Dame-USC clash, he saw an Irish team he feels is trending in the right direction.

As in a College Football Playoff contender in future seasons.

With the same, familiar missing pieces… but with the recruiting momentum to address them.

“I think every team is saying, ‘OK, our quarterback play has got to be at a certain level and our perimeter play (as well), whether that’s corners or receivers’ — the game is played in space,” Herbstreit said earlier this week on a Zoom call with the media.

“So you’re defending space, and you’ve got to have guys who can win in space. And I think right now they’re pretty good in those areas. I’m sure that through the recruiting in these next couple of years, you’re going to try to see them go to another level.

“But those would be the obvious areas to me, just continuing to raise the bar on the perimeter and making sure that you’re getting a quarterback that can be a game-changer, that can spin it, that can run around, make plays … to really make a run.”

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The best that the CFP 15th-ranked Irish (8-3) can do Saturday night (7:30 EST; ESPN) along the playoff storyline is to end the CFP run of No. 6 USC (10-1) in the first battle between these arch-rivals since 2017 in which both are ranked.

Herbstreit, Chris Fowler and Holly Rowe include ABC’s broadcast crew for the game set in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Notre Dame has won four straight in the series and a nation’s-best 19 consecutive November games, a streak that began in 2018. That’s about the time Herstreit began to see the Irish program begin to take incremental steps toward competing with the nation’s elite teams on the bigger stages.

“I remember the year they lost to Miami down at Miami,” Herbstreit said of a 41-8 mauling of the Irish in 2017 in a game he called. “It was, ‘OK, huddle up, we’ve got to regroup here and find out where we really want to go as an organization.

“And I felt like if you remember the trip that they made to Athens, when they played Georgia (in 2019), that was really a turning point when it came to just athletically where Notre Dame was. Then during COVID, they played Clemson at home and they beat them with all those great athletes. And so I think that they’ve been trending in a much better direction.”

The Trojans are ranked one spot higher in the AP and coaches polls, at No. 5, than where the CFP slotted them on Tuesday night. In the 25 games the Irish played against AP top five teams ahead of ND first-year head coach Marcus Freeman’s hiring and dating back to the Bob Davie coaching era, ND was 2-23.

On Saturday night, Freeman has a chance to win the match in his third game against top 5 competition this season and from a team that was once 3-3 this season.

“I think somewhere along the way, like any team throughout a 12-week season that has been successful, they found an identity,” Herbstreit said of the Irish. “They found, ‘OK, this defense is going to keep us in every game that we play. Our line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, that’s going to be a strength for us no matter who we play.’”

Notre Dame QB Drew Pyne warms up ahead of a 44-0 Irish win over Boston College last Saturday. (Jeff Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

Freeman’s offensive evolution

There were times in the early months after Marcus Freeman was elevated last December from Notre Dame defensive coordinator to head coach where offense almost had to be an afterthought.

Between hiring seven new assistant coaches, living up to the promise he made to himself to be the lead recruiter on every prospect, establishing how he’d spend his limited time and what he’d prioritize, reconnecting with former ND players in a big way , and even lifting weights with the Irish players during their winter workouts, it left little time for the 36-year-old former linebacker to nurture the quarterback room.

Eventually, though, Freeman built in the time and found a way to make a difference. Apparently a profound difference.

“During our FSA line, our stretch lines, he comes up to every single player,” said the junior QB Drew Pyne, who makes collegiate start no. 10 on Saturday night. “And he probably spends an extra two seconds with me and tells me how to attack that day, how to attack practice.

“That small moment is something that I really take to my heart. I say every single day, ‘I will.’ Whatever he says, I say ‘I will,’ and then I go practice hard.

“There are certain weeks I meet with him one-on-one. We watch a movie, and he texts me all the time and I’m able to text him all the time. We have a great relationship. He instills confidence in everybody. That’s the way he coaches and that’s his personality. I love it. I really take those moments to my heart.”

As Freeman has grown as a head coach in all facets from game 1 to game 12, the thing players like Pyne noticed the most are the ways in which he stayed constant.

“Obviously, he’s learned things throughout the season,” Pyne said. “But I don’t think his demeanor or the way he coaches or has team meetings have ever changed. I think that he’s an unbelievable coach.

“The best part about it is win or lose, he treats it the same way. You can’t let the game mask what you have to learn. If you win, you’ve still got to coach hard and ask to be coached hard and to learn. Coach Freeman, his whole thing ever since he’s gotten here is. ‘One game, one life; one day, one life.’ And that’s how he’s approached every week.

“I got so fired up. Sometimes you have class all day and you get in there at 2:40 for our team meeting and you’re dragging a little bit. Coach Freeman always picks you up. He’s talking about the bumpier the road, the better.

“There are always bumps along the road, and you’ve just got to keep getting better. I’m so thankful to be able to play for Coach Freeman. He’s the best.”

Bowl update

The most likely postseason landing spots for the Irish continue to be the top three Tier 1 bowls in the ACC’s non-New Year’s Six lineup — Cheez-It, Gator and Holiday. An upset win over USC would provide a path for Notre Dame to a New Year’s Six/Cotton Bowl date with the American Athletic Conference Champ (Tulane, Cincinnati or UCF).

It’s still fairly narrow, but it wouldn’t have to involve too many unexpected results. The thing to keep in mind is should the Irish take down the Trojans Saturday night, Notre Dame would need to get to at least 11 and probably No. 10 to make the New Year’s Six field.

And the 15th-ranked Irish wouldn’t necessarily need the teams immediately ahead of them to lose for Notre Dame to leapfrog them, particularly No. 14 Utah (8-3) and No. 13 (Washington).

The Irish can get to 12 by Kansas State either losing its regular-season finale this weekend with Kansas or the Big 12 Championship Game against No. 4 TCU. Then it comes down to whether USC falls behind the Irish to get them to No. 11 or perhaps No. 9 Oregon loses to Oregon State or against the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game.

Another plausible scenario is No. 8 Clemson losing to surging South Carolina or in the ACC Championship Game against North Carolina.

One more bowl remains in play, beyond a New Year’s Six option and the aforementioned Tier 1 bowls, and that’s the ReliaQuest Bowl, Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla., against an SEC team. But the narrow path there would likely require No. 11 Penn State to be ranked ahead of both No. 7 Alabama and No. 10 Tennessee in the final rankings to trigger that option for the Irish to be considered.

Squibs

• According to research done by Manny Navarro of The Athletic, only four freshmen in the College Football Playoff Era (2014-present) have had more interceptions in their first college season than the Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison (5).

Syracuse’s Andre Cisco (7 in 2018) leads that group.

• When Notre Dame and USC meet in Los Angeles in two seasons, the Trojans will be in their first season as members of the Big Ten. USC has been a member of the Pac-12 or its forerunners since 1915.

• Notre Dame junior running back Chris Tyree is a big fan of the 3-1 personnel look (three running backs, one tight end) Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees sprinkled into the Boston College game last Saturday — particularly when Tyree carries the ball and Audric Estimé is out in front.

“I would love to have him every play as a lead blocker,” Tyree said. “That’s a freight train running at you full speed every play.”

• USC is the only FBS school never to have surnames on the back of its jerseys.

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