Noie: What next for Notre Dame football after another big-time bowl loss?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Barely 70 minutes after the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl ended and Notre Dame again found itself on the wrong side of a big bowl game scoreboard, the team equipment semitruck crawled from a State Farm Stadium service road and headed toward home. 

It would be a challenging trek – 1,850 miles and 27 hours of drive time in good conditions separate suburban Phoenix and South Bend. Drew White, now a former Irish linebacker, knows something about long trips. 

Tight end Michael Mayer has two seasons of eligibility left at Notre Dame, but this fall will most certainly be the last one he spends with the Irish.

White just finished one, a five-year college career that saw him go from unheralded recruit out of Boca Raton, Fla., to important play-making/tackling piece of the Irish defense. When White arrived in 2017, Notre Dame was fresh off a 4-8 season. There were questions. There were concerns. There was doubt about how bright the future could be for a program that hasn’t won a national championship in now far too long. 

Five years later, White leaves Notre Dame having been part of teams that finished with double-digit wins – 10, 12, 11, 10, 11 – each of his five seasons. Along the way, White played in 41 games and made 199 career tackles, including six in Saturday’s 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State. 

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Coming clear of another Notre Dame bowl letdown, there are questions. There are concerns. There might even be some doubt about how bright the future can be for first-year coach Marcus Freeman. But White believes brighter days are ahead. For the Irish. For Freeman. 

On a day when he could’ve dwelled on the disappointment of losing his last game, White, as is his nature, went the other direction. His mood reflected the sunny, blue-sky day that beckoned outside the basement of the building. White walked away from Notre Dame football for good late Saturday afternoon, but he walked away happy with how far it’s come – how far he’s come. 

“For a lot of us, we’re leaving it better than we found it,” he said. “What a journey it’s been for me. I’ve seen the culture change. I’ve seen this program continuing to climb.” 

The climb continued shortly after this season stopped. Freeman thanked White and his fellow outgoing seniors for all they’ve done, but quickly turned the page toward the returning guys and the needed work that remains. To get the Irish to win games like these. To get the Irish back to the College Football Playoff. To get that national championship. 

White doesn’t know what the next few months hold for him in terms of his football future, but he knows that come September, he’ll have an eye on Freeman and the Irish. 

Mustering motivation won’t be a problem. For Freeman. For the returning guys. For this program. 

“This is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of everyone for months and going into spring ball,” White said. “It's going to continue to move forward for the next season. 

“I'm excited to watch Notre Dame football in 2022.” 

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Notre Dame’s Ramon Henderson (11) reacts to an OSU touchdown during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Still need that next competitive step 

What White needs to see – what everyone needs to see – for Notre Dame to build on an 11-2 season is again something it didn’t have enough of Saturday. Same as last season in the Rose Bowl loss to Alabama. Same as 2018 in the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson. Same as the 2019 regular season loss at Georgia. 

Notre Dame has the talent to get here. It still lacks the talent it needs to win here – difference makers at the difference-making positions. Doesn’t matter the head coach. Doesn't matter the scheme. You. Need. Players. 

Yes, Notre Dame was without its two best in running back Kyren Williams and safety Kyle Hamilton. Both opted not to participate to concentrate on their professional futures. That’s fair. Their absences hurt, but other teams can compensate when they lose key guys the caliber of Hamilton and Williams. They have other guys. At running back. At wide receiver. Roaming the secondary with cruel intentions. 

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Those all were spots Saturday where Notre Dame looked overmatched. 

Oklahoma State had a quarterback (Spencer Sanders) who threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 125. Jack Coan had a career day throwing it (509 yards, five TDs), but the Irish run game never got going (42 yards). Oklahoma State had two wide receivers (Brennan Presley, Tay Martin) who each caught 10 passes. No Irish wideout snared more than eight. Oklahoma State had guys like Hamilton who could cover ground and close that ground ridiculously easy. The Irish spent the second half chasing and grabbing. 

We say this every year. Said it after Clemson. Said it after Alabama. Saying it again now. There still exists that talent/play-making gap between teams that win these types of games and Notre Dame. 

The skill guys at Oklahoma State were an issue. They made plays. They created mismatches. In 2022, quarterback Tyler Buchner needs to be a problem for opposing defenses. The guys in the running back room have to make plays. The wide receivers have to create mismatches and be game-breakers. Tempo needs to work in favor of the offense, and not be a detriment to the defense. 

On that defense, find/develop another maniacal edge rusher. Or two. Find/develop another linebacker or three that can close distance and make a ton of tackles. Find/develop a Hamilton in the back end who creates wonder and worry for the guys on the other side of the ball. 

Then make sure everyone from 1 to 85 gets better. That way, not only can Notre Dame get to where it was Saturday, it can be the team on the field last. The one pulling on souvenir T-shirts, hoisting hardware, dancing and celebrating and enjoying themselves instead of trudging quietly back to the tunnel, then, off to the team dinner and eventually, back to snowy South Bend. 

Can Notre Dame get there? Can Freeman get it there? It’s not just on him to coach better, to lead better, to recruit better, to game plan better. It's on the players to prepare harder, to play better. To be better. To believe that when it looks like it’s going this way again, not to let it. Let other teams feel what the Irish felt Saturday and will feel when winter conditioning commences back on campus later this month. 

“It starts by each of us looking at our own performance and seeing what we need to get better, not just this game but throughout the entire season and then taking it from there,” said linebacker J.D. Bertrand, who came from nowhere this season to make a team-high 101 tackles, nearly 50 more than the next guy. “Becoming closer as a group and loving each other and being able to work throughout this entire season to be able to come back for that first game against Ohio State.” 

What will that Labor Day Saturday look like? What will this Notre Dame team look like? This coaching staff? It will be fascinating to find out. 

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