With 18 straight wins and counting, Notre Dame football takes 'Win in November' mantra to heart
SOUTH BEND — As Clemson week dawned and the calendar flipped to his first November as Notre Dame’s football coach, Marcus Freeman convened a high-level cabinet meeting of the program’s sports performance experts.
The session included Matt Balis, director of football performance since 2017; athletic trainer Rob Hunt, football nutrition director Alexa Appelman and John Wagle, hired in May to maximize and synthesize sports performance throughout the athletic program.
Wagle, who holds a PhD in sport physiology, spent the previous four years in a similar role with baseball’s Kansas City Royals.
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Even with No. 18 Notre Dame (7-3) riding an 18-game November winning streak, the longest active run at the FBS level, Senior Day on Saturday afternoon against Boston College will carry the stamp of that recent thinktank.
“I met with them to look at different ways to enhance the production from our players,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to be so bullheaded and narrow-minded that (I say): ‘This is what we’re doing. I don’t care what anybody says.’ No, I try to take advice and opinions from different professionals.”
Under Brian Kelly, who went 9-12 in November from 2013-17 before finding the formula, late-season practices would sometimes be shortened with an eye toward combatting mental and physical fatigue while increasing efficiency.
Freeman, whose 2021 season as Irish defensive coordinator took flight in November, has sought in-season enhancements to that proven approach even while increasing the overall intensity of practice.
“We’ve tweaked some things,” Freeman said. “Listen, we’re not going to ever change the intensity of practice, but maybe the length, the amount of plays, the structure. Is there a better way to structure what we’re doing to give our players a better chance to feel better mentally and physically and play better on Saturday?”
Weekly meeting schedules, pregame walk-throughs, travel itineraries and nutrition routines were all reassessed on the fly as November arrived.
“Every little thing that we do,” Freeman said, was up for discussion.
“I’m convinced — and there might be some people who say I’m wrong — but the two most important things in recovery are sleep and nutrition,” Freeman said. “If that’s the case, then how can we enhance the way we replenish our body and enhance the way we have training table and the little things that we do?”
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The former Ohio State and NFL linebacker isn’t so far removed from his own playing career that he’s forgotten how hard it is for modern players to juggle those responsibilities.
“We can’t force these young people to go to sleep at a certain time,” he said. “But we can explain to them: ‘If you go to sleep for this amount of hours, this will be the benefit for you on Saturday.’ These guys want to do whatever it takes to make sure they’re performing at the highest level on Saturday.”
November records in historical context
This run of November success for the Irish isn’t just impressive, it’s historically significant.
Lou Holtz (26-11-1 in November) and Dan Devine (16-6-1) led the program to its last two national championships, but neither coach could put together a November winning streak longer than six games.
Lower the bar to include ties, and Ara Parseghian’s teams had a 20-game unbeaten streak (17-0-3) in November games that spanned 1965-1970. A two-time national champion, Parseghian went 33-6-3 in November but was able to keep the month spotless just three times (1967, 1969 and 1973).
In prior eras, regular-season finales often took place in early December, but from 1945-51 the Irish enjoyed a 21-game November unbeaten streak (19-0-2). The run began with a pair of November wins under Hugh Devore and accelerated amid Frank Leahy’s string of post-war national titles.
Knute Rockne’s Irish teams won their final 10 November games (1929-30) and had a 20-game unbeaten streak (18-0-2) in November that carried from his 1918 debut until a season-ending loss at Nebraska in 1922. Of course, five days earlier the barnstorming Irish were shutting out Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.
Under Rockne, the Irish went 47-7-5 in November. His predecessor, Jesse Harper, closed out his five-year run (1913-17) with eight straight November wins.
Harper went 18-2 in November with both losses coming at Army.
Balis' WIN workouts: 'It's chaos'
Sixth-year senior guard Josh Lugg is the only player on the current roster who can remember Notre Dame’s last November loss: 38-20 at Stanford to close out the 2017 season. Lugg spent his freshman year on the scout team and never saw the field.
“We take immense pride in being able to finish out the season strong,” Lugg said. “It’s a huge tribute to everybody in the program – from players to our strength staff and the offseason workouts they put us through. We literally have a ‘Win in November’ workout theme.”
Winter conditioning runs for six weeks in the gloomy chill of January and February. Balis saves up the WIN gauntlet for the end.
“It’s chaos,” Lugg said with a smile. “Coach Balis and the crew come up with something that’s meant to be very, very challenging. It’s when guys are bumped up and bruised. They might not feel their best, but they understand how critical it is to have their best on command.”
WIN workouts start in the weight room at the football building and continue across the street at the indoor practice facility, where prowler sleds stacked with weights are set up for high-energy competitions.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gone outside,” Lugg said. “But I remember some of them, we’d run through the snow into the IAC. So maybe that was our little taste of November air.”
A 26-game winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium has given way to a 7-3 mark since the loss to Cincinnati last October. Marshall ended the 42-game winning streak against unranked opponents, but the Irish still own November.
“It has everything to do with the culture of our program,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola said. “It has everything to do with coach Balis and what he stands for: the mindset of his players and what we train for in the offseason. All year we train: ‘Win in November. Win in November.’ That’s what we harp on.”
Two wins away from completing a perfect November career at Notre Dame, Ademilola isn’t about to slow down now.
“Sometimes things may not go the way we want them to go, or life may be a bumpy road,” he said, “but when it’s time to go, we go.”
Pampered and pushed
Al Golden is back in the college game for the first time since 2015 at Miami. Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator shakes his head when asked how far the concept of sports performance at the FBS level has advanced during that time.
“Crazy amount,” he said. “It’s woven into it now. That’s part of it.”
After spending the past six seasons as an NFL assistant, Golden has seen pretty much every technological innovation in the areas of rest and recovery. Notre Dame has invested heavily in recent years in GPS tracking, sleep optimization, load management, prehab and the like.
“There’s a commitment here to be the best,” Golden said. “Wherever it goes in terms of sports science or nutrition, that’s where we’re going. We’re growing and developing.”
And Freeman isn’t being asked to fly blind into a snowstorm.
“He’s getting a lot of support there,” Golden said. “There’s definitely a couple of people that coach Freeman is talking to about recovery and rest and how to practice and what to cut, how to take a take a team on the road.”
Those ongoing conversations have helped consolidate this newly forged tradition of November excellence, even after Freeman altered the practice schedule this season to switch the off day from Sunday to Monday. Treatment starts at 11 a.m. on Sundays, followed by weight training at 1 p.m. and practice at 4.
“He’s a big believer in routines,” said Braden Lenzy, the fifth-year wide receiver. “We use these Sundays to get out lactic acid, and as the weeks go on, those Sunday practices get a little harder. You play a game like Clemson in Week 9, when we ran the ball a lot, I’m sure the O-Line and D-Line could barely walk. They have to keep it going because it pays dividends.”
As Lugg noted, the training room is always open. Whether it’s the saltwater float tank, the darkened sleep room with ambient sound or the $800 air compression sleeves said to increase circulation and revive aching leg muscles, Irish players feel pampered and pushed at the same time.
“I might be bumped and bruised after the Clemson game,” Lugg said, “but I can’t be like, ‘Hey, coach, can I not run on this Sunday?’ That won’t fly.”
Not after all those grueling “Win in November” workouts in the dead of winter.
“Winning in November is huge,” Lenzy said. “Depending on where you’re at, it means you’re pretty good at playing with weather issues. That’s obviously the case here. It means you’re playing your best football at the end of the season and you’re able to battle through injuries.”
All are indications, he said, of programs with staying power.
“It speaks a lot on what we’ve done in the past under BK and what we’re currently doing under Freeman,” Lenzy said. “Winning at the end of the year is a big part of who we are.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.
No. 18 Notre Dame (7-3) vs. Boston College (3-7)
- When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST
- Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind.
- TV/Radio: NBC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
- Line: Notre Dame opens as a 19 -point favorite
- Series: Notre Dame leads 16-9
- Last meeting: Notre Dame won 45-31 in Chestnut Hill, Mass.