It would be easy to argue Notre Dame’s 2023 Sun Bowl triumph meant next to nothing. It was a ho-hum postseason victory that moved the Irish up a mere few spots in the polls. A season that started with hopes and dreams of a New Year’s Day College Football Playoff experience ended at approximately 3 p.m. local time in El Paso, Texas.
And yet still, there was genuine pride on Marcus Freeman’s face when he hoisted the game’s silver trophy into the dry Texas sky.
Perhaps some of that pride could have better been described as simple relief: The stress-free blowout win lifted the weight of a roller coaster season off Freeman’s shoulders. But Notre Dame, after a sixty-minute contest that felt as if it was over after the first twenty minutes, had earned a distinction more important, if less tangible than any silverware: noticeable improvement from Freeman’s first season as head coach.
Freeman minced no words about this uptick after the game:
“Ten looks better than nine,” said Freeman after the game. “To me, it’s a reflection of the direction of this program. Nine wins last year, 10 wins this year, we just want to continue to improve … That’s the challenge of college football. How do you progress? How do you continue to take this group of football players and coaches to a place where we can win those close ones, win the ones we’re supposed to? I’m extremely pleased with our program, where it’s at now, and our direction in the future.”
The difference in the perception of a 10-win team and a nine-win team is significant. Freeman is as keenly aware of that as anyone. A nine-win team is one in transition between coaches, still figuring out how to pace itself over the course of a season. A 10-win squad is one on the doorstep of taking the next step, ready to make a playoff push next fall.
That isn’t to say 2023’s iteration of Notre Dame football didn’t stumble into some of the same roadblocks that hindered the 2022 squad. The Irish failed to rise to the occasion on the road against Louisville and Clemson — losses that would doom the team’s New Year’s Six hopes. But the 40-8 romp over Oregon State allowed a season of peaks and valleys to end on one final high.
Playing without traditional lineup staples like Sam Hartman, Audric Estimé, Joe Alt and Cam Hart, Notre Dame flexed its depth. In a game that saw its potential star power dimmed considerably, the Irish replacements rolled.
Few would have batted an eye if the Sun Bowl was a grit-and-grind low-scoring affair. The buildup to the game was highlighted by opt-outs and transfer portal departures. But an Irish offense powered by a quarterback making his first career start (Steve Angeli), a freshman receiver who started the summer as a preferred walk-on (Jordan Faison) and a tandem of underclassmen running backs (Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love) found a rhythm.
Notre Dame was never going to make national headlines in El Paso, but Freeman and his squad looked confident and comfortable amid perhaps college football’s most chaotic month. Staring down a long, cold offseason, the Irish were able to kindle a final 2023 spark with a momentum-building, proof-of-concept win.