SOUTH BEND — You couldn’t really see it as the head coach exited early Saturday evening, as much as you could sense it.
Somewhere along the way, once the post-game stuff was done and the sun had set, there might even be a celebration, maybe a presentation of the game ball, which would go somewhere on some mantle for Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman.
But that was stuff for later.
For then, for that night, you could sense that a weight greater than anyone in college football has ever known — the only ones who do are the ones who have done what Freman has done in the place that he’s doing it —lifted from his entire existence.
Freeman didn’t walk off the field and up the tunnel and into the home locker room at Notre Dame Stadium as much as he floated. After two really tough losses, and tougher days on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, Freeman would take that first win as the Irish head coach any way that he could get it.
Once Saturday’s 24-17 decision over California finally went final, which was an ordeal until the end, Freeman got it. He even managed a smile in his post-game press conference. Previous two weeks, best he could offer was a smirk.
“This is a special day for me, personally,” Freeman said. “I keep trying to tell myself to enjoy it.”
The coach in him wouldn’t let him. He probably dwelled too long on what the Irish could do better (a lot). He probably dwelled too long what the Irish didn’t do. He may have even taken a peek at some North Carolina film before midnight. He wanted to enjoy it and embrace it, but he’s a head coach. It’s hard.
“If you don’t take a minute to enjoy these things, you’re going to regret it,” Freeman said, “That’s what I keep reminding myself — to enjoy this victory. We’ll get back to work (Sunday).”
For at least a few days, the vitriol filling the message boards and text chains among Irish fans about how the only real solution was to fire everybody on the staff and bench everybody else will cease. At least for a few days.
We’ve been told time and again that winning at any level is hard, and it has been this year for Freeman and the Irish. Maybe after Saturday, maybe moving forward, it gets a little easier for the head coach and for a team that just had to find a way to figure it out.
They won’t say it, and they haven’t, but there had to be a ton of pressure on everyone to get the first one for Freeman. Pressure on Notre Dame out in the desert on New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl. Didn’t happen. Pressure in Columbus two weeks prior. Didn’t happen. An enormous amount the previous Saturday back at home for the first time. Also, didn’t happen.
It was there. It was real. It lurked Saturday, but Notre Dame (1-2) never allowed it an extended stay. It was there, and then, it was gone. For good. Now they can settle in and just play football.
“It was just a refusal to lose,” said defensive tackle Jacob Lacey. “At some point, it’s got to pay off. We fight through everything.”
What happened before, wasn’t happening again
There was plenty to fight through, especially late. This one was over, and then it wasn’t. Not after a targeting penalty on Irish linebacker JD Bertrand wiped out the defense’s first takeaway (a Clarence Lewis interception). Then it was over again, and then it wasn’t, not after Jack Plummer was ruled down by a Justin Ademilola sack, which nullified the defense’s second shot at its first takeaway (a TaRiq Bracy scoop and score).
The third time finally was the charm. It was over after a jump-ball throw by Plummer nearly nestled into a Cal receiver’s gut, and the feeling in every Irish fan’s belly was anything but pleasant.
“Oh … (shoot),” came the response from someone at field level watching that last place fly through the air toward a host of bodies down there in the south end zone.
Given the way this regular season has gone, given the way this game had gone, you half expected Cal to come up with the wing, then have one last prayer answered by making good on a two-point conversion and getting back on its charter flight back to NorCal with a how-the-heck-did-that-happen win.
How the points were scored: Notre Dame 24, California 17
When Plummer’s pass was ruled incomplete and the game clock finally hit zeroes, the 36-year Freeman had his first win. Take it. Remember it.
“Whew,” Freeman said to no one in particular as he entered his post-game press conference.
Welcome to life as the Notre Dame head coach where, if Freeman didn’t already know it by then, nothing comes easily. Nothing.
This one wasn’t easy on the eyes for long stretches. Like when Notre Dame had four possessions that all ended punts to start. Ugh. Like when quarterback Drew Pyne, making his first collegiate start, looked those first 15-plus minutes like he’d never played the position. Ooof..
“We,” Freeman said, “weren’t playing clean football.”
Like when Cal answered an Irish score with a big drive of its own to take a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter. Prevailing attitude around campus? Here the Irish go again. Going to wilt in the fourth quarter. The attitude on the Irish sideline? This (stuff) stops now. Here. Go and win the game.
When it was time to deliver on offense (hello, Audric Estime), they delivered on offense. When it was time to deliver on defense (we see you, too, Isaiah Foskey) they delivered on defense.
Most importantly, when it was time to go and win a close game in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame went and won a game in the fourth quarter. Again, it wasn’t pretty or aesthetically pleasing, but in the end, it was a win. Notre Dame’s first. Freeman’s first.
“You realize all the preparation you put into the week paid off,” said tailback Chris Tyree.
“It was a tough week for all of us,” said Freeman.
For myriad reasons. For the players, who had to realize that, yeah, they were good. They still can play. For the coaches who had to cut through all the outside noise and realize they still can coach. So take it, celebrate it and move on to North Carolina prep. As tough and has hard as the Irish worked last week for this one, they’ll have to do it again and again and again to get this back on track. To get it going in the right direction.
There’s still plenty of mess to clean up, but it’s easier to haul out the bucket and the mop when you’re not staring at 0-3 and another round of sleepless nights.
“There’s a lot more work to be done,” said Estime, who did a lot of work Saturday with 18 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown.
More work remains. More work will be done. Notre Dame may not have gotten better on Saturday, but it did get something else.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.