SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The anguish was evident all over coach Marcus Freeman’s face Saturday night.
Notre Dame needed one stop to beat then-No. 6 Ohio State for the first time since 1936, and yet it couldn’t finish the job.
Instead, a series of miscues over the final, frantic minutes allowed the Buckeyes to keep their perfect season and playoff hopes intact with an improbable 17-14 victory that will force the Fighting Irish to search for answers this week.
“As I just told the team, it’s disappointing,” Freeman said before seeing his team fall two spots to No. 11 in the new Associated Press Top 25. “We had a lot of opportunities to win that game and then we didn’t. Credit to them for continuing to battle back and be resilient when we went up. We’ve got to finish that game.”
Chalk it up as yet another learning experience for the second-year Irish coach and his players.
A year ago, Freeman lost his first two games, at Ohio State, his alma mater, followed by an inexplicable home loss to Marshall. Notre Dame also wound up as one of three teams Stanford beat.
But this year was supposed to be different with the more experienced coach and new starting quarterback Sam Hartman.
Through the first four games, all wins, Hartman gave the offense a real jolt while the defense looked even stouter. The combination sent the Irish into the top-10, setting up college football’s game of the week at one of the sport’s true cathedrals.
Freeman’s team donned its green uniforms and fans obliged with the same color choice, turning the night-time sellout crowd into an early version of Christmas with green and red attire dispersed throughout the Stadium.
Beloved former coach Lou Holtz and some of the 1988 players celebrated the silver anniversary of their national championship. Even 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown was in the house.
So when the Irish cut the deficit to 10-7 late in the third quarter then forced a punt, marched 96 yards to take a 14-10 lead on Hartman’s 2-yard TD pass to Rico Flores Jr. in the fourth and subsequently stopped the Buckeyes on fourth-and-1 from the Notre Dame 11 with 4:12 left, the electric crowd sensed Notre Dame was about to add another memorable moment to the program’s long and illustrious history.
Instead, everything went wrong.
Freeman opted not to play it safe offensively, opening the last real drive with a completion to Flores. But after picking up a first down, an incompletion wound up saving some precious seconds.
“What I didn’t want to do is concede, ‘OK, let’s just run the ball three times, make them use two of their time-outs, right?” he said. “And then all of the sudden we’re just punting the ball and just giving them a chance to come down the field with the same amount of time they had.”
Three plays later, the Irish were punting and the Buckeyes had one last chance against what quarterback Kyle McCord identified as “soft” coverage. It was a huge mistake.
The Irish defense couldn’t get the stop it needed on fourth-and-7, dropped what would have been a game-sealing interception in the final minute, then gave up a 21-yard completion to the 1-yard line on third-and-19 with 7 seconds left.
Then came the biggest mistake of all. For the second time this season, the Irish had only 10 players on the field for the Buckeyes final play — a 1-yard TD run with 1 second remaining that sent Ohio State up two spots to No. 4 on Sunday and the Irish back to the drawing board.
“You want to go and watch it and learn from it,” Freeman said. “ We have to use — we use every game to make us better. But specifically this one, right? How do you find a way to make your team better through a difficult loss? We’ll do that.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll