Notre Dame football California dreamin' of a magical end to regular season

Tom Noie
ND Insider
No words are needed when it's Notre Dame and USC from Los Angeles. That's OK. We still found some.

In a fall full of firsts for head coach Marcus Freeman and his Notre Dame football team, a run of lasts has arrived. 

Last time Freeman met the media at noon Monday in his weekly press conference. Last Tuesday night media access with players, who sit at tables on the second floor of the Irish Athletic Center and offer their takes on the state of Irish football. Last team meal, which will be one of/on Thanksgiving, before a road trip. Last police escort to the airport. Last charter flight — the longest one — to the last road game. 

The end of the regular season line for No. 13 Notre Dame (8-3) brings one final first for Freeman, the rookie head coach who saw his world turned upside down this time last year (more on that later). This week is game No. 12 in the regular season of his coaching career. Whether it’s a home game, a road game, a game against the Atlantic Coast Conference, a game against a ranked team, Freeman’s got his game routine tight. 

Chat transcript:What's the formula for Notre Dame to knock off another top-5 opponent at USC?

Until this week, when everything seemingly changed. There was a different vibe about this week as early as Monday afternoon, when Freeman stepped into the conference room just off the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium wearing a sharp blue suit to go with his ever-present custom dress shirt and white sneakers. He still said no to socks despite the mid-winter like temperatures. It might’ve been the first time this year that Freeman has held a presser in that attire. His usual look falls in line of business casual. 

This week was all business. 

Same goes for the questions. A typical Monday presser might include a stray query or two about that week’s opponent. Most of the time is geared toward Notre Dame and the quarterback, the play-calling, the execution (sorry), the losses, the wins, the minutiae of Irish football. 

On Monday, the first four questions Freeman fielded were about the opponent, about the fifth-ranked team in the country (AP, No. 6 CFP), about Notre Dame’s most storied rival. When it’s USC week, everyone wants to talk USC. There are big games on the Notre Dame schedule every year (see Ohio State, see Clemson), then there is this game. 

Arguably, the game. 

You don’t see many BEAT ACC or BEAT NAVY license plates around town. You do see BEAT USC. 

Freeman got a taste of the USC rivalry last season as Irish defensive coordinator in a 31-16 win. Saturday, he’ll see another side of it. For the first time since 2018 Notre Dame plays USC (10-1) at the storied Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. An evening kickoff on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, (7:30 p.m., ABC) the way it should be. 

“It’s unique,” Freeman said. “When you play USC in the middle of the season, it’s a little bit different than going out there and playing the last game of the year. There’s a different feeling about this one.” 

A plane flies over before the Notre Dame-University of Southern California NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 at the LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. (Tribune File Photo)

Notre Dame skipped its last scheduled trip to Los Angeles in 2020 because of a global pandemic. Something about that season didn’t feel complete because there was no game in Los Angeles. No night game in the Coliseum. No hearing the USC marching band do what the USC marching band does during games. It plays. Constantly. You know it. Fight on! You probably hate it. 

That’s part of what makes this rivalry great. Unmatched. You can have your Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night and the dozens who care. You can have your Michigan-Ohio State bare-knuckle brawl back in the snow and the cold. You can have your Iron Bowl and your Apple Cup and your Old Oaken Bucket and any other rivalry game played on Rivalry Saturday. 

Give us a Southern California sunset and downtown Los Angeles off in the distance. Give us a shot of the Hollywood sign. A flight into LAX. A view of the Pacific Ocean. An option of hitting In-N-Out Burger after the game. Traffic on the 405. Palm trees and a breeze. And football. Yeah, that works. 

Find a better setting, scene for a rivalry

Freeman has been to the Coliseum once — in 2008 as a member of Ohio State. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes lost that one, 35-3, to No. 1 USC. Freeman made seven tackles and had a sack from his linebacker spot in the September non-conference game. This will be the first time he’s ever been there as a head coach. The first time he’ll stand on the south sideline. The first time he’ll make that loooooooong and winding walk from the field to the locker room through the famed tunnel. 

You can’t get a true sense of how enormous the Coliseum is until you’re on the floor of it. Same for this rivalry. Until you’re in it, you just don’t know. 

Freeman knew even before retreating to his office Saturday night to re-watch Notre Dame’s 44-0 victory over Boston College that this week, this game, is different. The routine, though, has to stay just that. 

“Stay in the present — focus on preparation,” Freeman said. “Saturday will get here before you know it. It will be a great challenge for our team.” 

More:No. 13 Notre Dame football's depth chart for Saturday's game vs. No. 5 USC

This one’s special for sure, but it’s also big for the big picture. Nobody saw this game becoming a big game. Not after Notre Dame opened 0-2, then lost at home to Stanford in early October. No way this one at the end of the year out there would mean something. Mean anything. Now it means a whole lot. 

Notre Dame has won five straight and eight of its last nine and suddenly is pounding on the door of double-digit wins for a sixth consecutive season. The Trojans are in the way. Southern California has dreams of going to the College Football Playoff. The Irish are in the way. 

Saturday is the first time that both teams enter this game ranked in the Top 15 since 2017. It’s the first time both teams are ranked with at least one in the top five since 2006. 

Feels good. Feels right. 

Last time USC beat Notre Dame was in 2016. Freeman was 30 years old and the co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Purdue. Now he’s 36 and tasked with making it five wins in a row and six of seven, which also would stretch the Irish overall November win streak to 20. 

More:Cam Hart's injury could give Notre Dame freshman Jaden Mickey more chances in homecoming finale at USC

Speaking of firsts — and lasts — this was the last week/weekend last year that Freeman could go about his job and his life in relative anonymity. Notre Dame closed out an 11-1 regular season, also in California, a few hundred miles to the north in Palo Alto. Less than 48 hours later, word leaked that Brian Kelly was headed to LSU, even as Notre Dame was headed to a New Year’s Six bowl. Three days after Kelly blew town after a thanks-for-everything meeting with his players, Freeman became a first-time head coach. 

Seems like more than a year ago. Seems like a minute ago. Everything about his job description changed, but Freeman vowed he wouldn’t. From the periphery, he seemingly hasn’t. 

“Shoot, you don’t become a new person because of your title and your role,” Freeman said. “You continue to attack challenges being the person you are. If you would have (told) me last year at this time, ‘Hey, you’re going to be the head coach next year getting ready to face USC,’ I’d think I’m a different person. It’s not. It’s a different challenge. 

“Continue to be who you are. Lead with your heart.” 

Freeman's will beat a little faster Saturday evening. Can’t help it. That’s what this game against that team does. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.

No. 13 Notre Dame (8-3) at No. 5 USC (10-1) 

  • When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (78,467), South Bend, Ind. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: USC opens as a 5 -point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 48-36-5 
  • Last meeting: Notre Dame won 31-26 in South Bend in 2021.