SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman cherishes every game day.
The home opener for the Fighting Irish on Saturday carries special significance because one of college football's most storied programs hosts Tennessee State, both the first historically Black school and the first from the Championship Subdivision to play Notre Dame. The only remaining FBS school that hasn’t played an FCS opponent is Southern Cal.
Freeman and Tigers coach Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, aren't treating this like just another game.
“We have an opportunity to go up to South Bend and play at a historical venue (next to) ‘Touchdown Jesus,’ the cathedral of all stadiums,” George said. “I think this is going to be a great opportunity for our kids to experience that, play Saturday football up there against a damn good opponent.”
On the field, No. 13 Notre Dame is trying to start 2-0 for the fifth time in six years, and quarterback Sam Hartman makes his home debut after transferring from Wake Forest. Hartman tied the school record with four touchdown passes in his starting debut last week.
But this game resonates beyond the field.
Freeman is one of 14 black coaches among the 133 Bowl Subdivision schools, and Saturday's game will be just the third time black head coaches have faced one another at Notre Dame Stadium.
Freeman has taken time this week to make sure his players appreciate the moment.
“We’ll make sure they are grateful for the opportunity to be able to do this,” Freeman said Monday. “I know that they are different universities, but they’re both distinct in celebrating their own way. I think at the core, the core values that both universities possess, they align.”
The Tigers have one win over an FBS school, beating Georgia State 17-10 in the 2017 season opener. George, now in his third season, knows this will be a much tougher challenge but isn't conceding anything.
“We’re excited to go up there, give it our best shot and come away with a victory," he said.
Last weekend, Notre Dame unveiled its revamped offense with Hartman, who competed 19 of 23 passes for 251 yards as the Fighting Irish averaged 7.8 yards per play in the rout. Hartman is one of seven scholarship transfers Freeman acquired during the offseason, Notre Dame's highest total in the transfer portal era.
George also tapped into the portal, collecting 14 players from FBS schools including defensive back Tyler Jones from Missouri and receiver Lucien Brunetti from Tennessee. He also added 6-5 tight end Trenton Gillison, who once played at Michigan State.
George said it’s “fine and dandy” that this coaching matchup features two Ohio State alumni and that he respects what Freeman has done as he begins his second season in charge of the Irish.
“It’s going to be an honor and a privilege to coach against him," George said. "I think he’s a fine human being, and certainly the program of Notre Dame speaks for itself.”
George has at least one good memory of facing the Irish. He rushed for 207 yards and three scores in a 45-25 victory during his Heisman winning season. Freeman was an Ohio State linebacker from 2004–08 and remembers admiring George's play.
“There’s many games I’ve watched of Eddie George,” Freeman said. “He was a great player. I don’t remember any distinct one, but to see him win the Heisman is a moment that I remember as a young person. We’ve met each other many times throughout my time at Ohio State. He’s always been a first-class individual.”
Oddsmakers at FanDuel Sportsbook did not issue a betting line on this game after the Tigers went 4-7 last season. Freeman opened his head coaching career last season with a loss at Ohio State and then a stunning loss to Mashall in his home debut, sending them out of the Top 25. Freeman eventually turned the program around, going 9-2 to close the season.
This year, he shouldn't have to get his players' attention.
“We don’t need some type of false narrative, some type of, ‘don’t overlook any opponent,’” Freeman said. “We don’t need that. Let’s talk about what really matters, and that’s winning the day.”
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