“The pain of defeat is tough,” Freeman said. “It hurts. You’re sick when you lose.”
Thirty-six years old and thrown into arguably the biggest pressure cooker of a job college football has, Freeman was one play — one of any number of plays — from an all-time victory over Ohio State on Saturday night in South Bend.
It was all there. A tough, resilient team. A frenzied crowd. A four-point lead. One more first down. One more defensive stop. One more of anything, really.
Finally, one last minute, one last yard to defend. And that’s when Notre Dame sent just 10 men onto the field.
They survived the first time when a Kyle McCord pass was broken up.
The second time — and while there never should have been a first time, there never, ever, ever should have been a second time — Buckeyes running back Chip Trayanum plunged through right side of the defense where the missing Irish defensive lineman would have been.
Why Notre Dame had just 10 defenders on the field was a coaching and communication error.
“There are a bunch of systems to ensure things don’t happen, but it falls on me,” Freeman said. “It’s ultimately on me to do a better job to make sure our systems are executed. We as a staff need to be held at the same standard as our players. Fight the drift. You can’t get caught watching the game. We need to make sure things like that never happen again.”
The second time, he explained Saturday, occurred because while he knew they were down a man, he was out of timeouts and he didn’t want to take a penalty to allow for a substitution.
The explanation made little strategic sense. The ball was at the 1-yard line. Any penalty — from illegal substitution, to offsides, to unsportsmanlike conduct (say, Freeman running onto the field) — would result in the ball moving just 18 inches closer to the goal line.
'To me it was like, "Hey, don't give them another opportunity to get settled and to try and make a different call,’ right?" Freeman said after the game. “‘Hey guys, stay off the field. Let's not give them a freebie from the half-yard line and let's try to stop them.’”
The “freebie” was lining the Holy Ghost up as a defensive end. It should have been avoided at all costs. Certainly having 11 men defend a half yard is preferred to 10 men defending a full yard.
Running the defensive lineman out there was risky because he would have had to make contact with an Ohio State player to trigger a flag. Freeman said the proper move would have been to signal his defense to jump offsides.
Notre Dame had no such signal in place though.
“As we talked as a staff, we know we can’t let that happen,” Freeman said on Monday. “We can’t let 10 guys be on the field and not see it. We also have to have a call or signal to make someone jump offsides and touch the offense to stop the play.
“It was a learning moment.”
Freeman was promoted to head coach after the 2021 season based on his potential and personality. There is little doubt he is a likable figure, a good recruiter and was an excellent defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Notre Dame for a season. Seemingly everyone wants him to succeed.
There were other regrets during the game, but even the greatest coaches have those (a play call here, a fourth down there).
Mostly he deserves credit for putting together a team capable of beating Ohio State. Very few coaches and programs can manage that.
Yet they didn’t beat Ohio State. They lost in possibly the worst fashion for a young coach still trying to prove himself. A victory would have been potentially career-defining, establishing himself as the man in South Bend in front of an electric home crowd, a massive television audience tuning in and a slew of recruits.
Instead, he’s trying to explain how they blew the big game.
“Great teams find a way to execute when it matters the most,” Freeman said. “We didn’t. We needed to execute and we didn’t. Ohio State did. We need to learn from the critical moment and help us to improve as we move forward.”
There are no words that can ease this one. There are only future results. Freeman can move past a high-profile mistake only one way … winning in the future. Maybe one day he can brush it off as an early career lesson learned.
Notre Dame isn’t generally the place for on-the-job training. The Irish play big games and rarely have the talent advantage when they match up with the nation's elite — this season they face Ohio State, USC and Clemson.
The hope has been that Freeman can elevate the program to that level. Brian Kelly arrived at South Bend with 20 years of head coaching experience, but he went just 3-11 against top-10 opponents. Freeman brings different strengths. His team showed it across 59 hard-fought minutes.
Then came the big mistake.
Monday he admirably searched for the words to explain what went wrong. He impressively stood and took all the blame. He wasn’t hiding. He wasn’t dismissing the criticism.
“You have to own it and face it and attack it…” he said. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”
What comes next is all that’s going to matter. This loss either defines him, or a whole lot of future victories do.
It starts at Duke on Saturday.