Noie: Ready for the New Year and a new era for Notre Dame football

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One more sleep, as the kids today like to say. 

One more sleep, and we get to watch Notre Dame play football for the first time in five weeks, back when everything looked and felt a whole lot different that Saturday night in Northern California for the regular-season finale against Stanford. 

One more sleep until we see what the Irish offense looks like under wonderkid coordinator Tommy Rees without the heavy hand of Brian Kelly tugging at the call sheet. Less than 48 hours after another regular season ended with another double-digit finish for Irish wins, Kelly took off for LSU. We know what came next. 

One more sleep until we see nose tackle/captain Kurt Hinish smear eye black across his face and wear the blue No. 41 jersey one final time. No player has appeared in more games in program history than the kid from Pittsburgh. Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl is career game No. 61 for Hinish, who will be missed for his interview candor as much for an ability to crack heads with the opposing center. Hinish always was a must-listen guy when he spoke, and that remained the same out here this week. 

One more sleep until — and we’ve really buried the lead as us media dopes like to say — we see the start of a new era for Notre Dame football. Marcus Freeman will run out of the State Farm Stadium tunnel shortly before 11 a.m. local time, adjust his headset and settle in for an afternoon at the office, much like he did the previous 12 games in his first season as the Irish defensive coordinator. But that’s so yesterday. 

The 35-year-old Freeman now is the head coach of arguably the most storied college football team in the country. It’s the Four Horsemen. It’s the Gipper. It’s the gold helmets and Touchdown Jesus and come Saturday, its #FreemanEra. 

What’s it all going to look like? How’s he going to look? That blank canvas will begin to fill in against a talented and tenacious Oklahoma State team (11-2) that will challenge Notre Dame in ways it rarely was the final six weeks of the regular season. 

Still, the Irish were trending in a dominant direction. 

“As of the Stanford game, we were playing our best football,” Freeman said. “It’s been a whirlwind over the past few weeks. Our kids are ready to go.” 

They better be. Oklahoma State isn’t a disinterested USC squad. This isn’t a one-dimensional North Carolina outfit. This isn’t Navy or Virginia or Georgia Tech or Stanford, all overmatched and out of Notre Dame’s league. This is a really good football team, something the Irish likely are going to learn from the first scrimmage snap. 

Dec 28, 2021; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Notre Dame football players go through drills during practice for the Fiesta Bowl, December 28, 2021, at Chaparral High School, 6935 E. Gold Dust Ave., Scottsdale, Arizona. Mandatory Credit: Mark Henle-USA TODAY Sports

They’ll challenge the Irish with their intensity and physicality. They’ll challenge the new Irish head coach in ways he’s likely never been on a college football field. He’s been there as a player, and as an assistant and as a coordinator, but never as a head coach. Now, he’s the head coach. 

Kickoff for Freeman and the Irish and everyone else can’t come soon enough. It’s tough think of anything else — even the weather — as game time nears. Sleep’s already hard to corner with a two-hour time difference from home in the Eastern Time Zone. This column was started and nearly finished in the darkness of an Arizona morning. 

Cacti stand sentry out the window. Birds chirp to greet the last day of 2021. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. There’s Camelback Mountain out the door. It paints a pretty picture, one that doesn’t feel anything like bowl season. Doesn’t feel anything like winter. 

► History:Notre Dame no Fiesta stranger

Notre Dame again is in a bowl that matters, a big-time one with a lot of  and expectations, but this one hits differently. That’s saying something for a program that’s been to the College Football Playoff semifinals two of the previous three years and nearly made it to a third this season. 

Those semifinals against Clemson (2018) and Alabama (2020), felt more like coronations for the other guys — and they were — than a competition. Notre Dame was out of its league then, and also out of it when it played for the 2012 national championship. Out of it a lot when “big bowl game” and “Notre Dame” shared the same sentence. 

► Four:Keys to Saturday's game

There’s now an energy and an anticipation around this bowl game that hasn’t been felt through the program in years. Maybe decades. Maybe going all the way back to when former coach Lou Holtz took his Irish out here, also for the Fiesta Bowl in neighboring Tempe, also on New Year’s Day. You remember how that one went. 

Bowl games, bowl moments, like that have been few and far between. Saturday has a chance to match it. What’s it all going to look like? What’s Freeman going to look like?  

Following Friday morning’s final Zoom call, a sense of coaching normalcy likely settled in with Freeman. No more media obligations. No more running around the country recruiting as he did in the hours and days after he got the job. For the next 26 hours after his 32-minute session ended before 9 a.m., local time, Freeman can just be a football coach. 

There would be a trip to the stadium, a walk-through, some down time, dinner, meetings. Same as it’s been since Labor Day Weekend in northwest Florida. 

“My mindset will be similar, just my last-minute preparations,” Freeman said. “As we go into (Saturday), we’ve got to wake up and play. You don’t have a lot of time to think about what you’re going to do (Saturday) morning. 

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust your preparation. You’ve got to trust that we prepared the right way.” 

► Four More:Players to watch

Win or lose, Freeman will deal with all the other stuff that comes with being the Notre Dame head coach. He’s already learned that no two days are the same and something different comes at him like an Isaiah Foskey pass rush every single day. 

Rain was forecast much of Friday in the Valley of the Sun, but locals like to remind you that even a rainy day here is a lot better than a day anywhere else. Certainly, that’s true of back home, where they’re gearing up for the season’s first winter storm. Get to the store for bread and milk. Get to the store for your go-to football food. 

Get one more sleep. It’s almost game time. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI