Between the end of the regular season and the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish had 35 days off. This over a month-long pause between games was a “pause” in name only for the Irish. Since they last played, Notre Dame flirted with a College Football Playoff berth, only to see their hopes dashed after an Alabama victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship all but guaranteed the Irish would be seeded fifth. The program endured the unexpected departure of head coach Brian Kelly, and righted the ship, hiring Marcus Freeman to take over the job.
The Irish had a chance to put these 35 days of turmoil behind them and start fresh by winning the Fiesta Bowl against an experienced Oklahoma State squad. This would have ended a streak of nine consecutive losses in New Year’s Six bowl dating back to 1993, while also getting Marcus Freeman off to a fast start. Notre Dame failed to capitalize on the moment, losing the Fiesta Bowl 37-35 to Oklahoma State.
The defensive formula for Oklahoma State was evident early and often: they wanted to stop the run. The Cowboys were set on making Jack Coan and the passing game beat them even though the Irish were without Kyren Williams, who opted out in advance of the NFL draft. Early in the game, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and the Irish offense did just that and unleashed a masterful passing attack, exhibiting some of their strongest play all season.
The first play from scrimmage, a pass to Chris Tyree that gained 25 yards, was largely indicative of how the entire first half proceeded offensively. On a third down four plays later, Jack Coan found Lorenzo Styles over the middle in the end zone and placed a perfect pass to grab the early 7-0 lead.
Then, the Irish turned to their defense, who appeared ready to compete early. On the first third down the Cowboys faced, defensive end Isaiah Foskey beat his man on a speed rush for a critical sack to force a punt. On the first two Oklahoma State possessions, the Cowboys only mustered nine total yards. After the second punt in as many drives, the Irish took over and once again began charging down the field.
In only five plays, the Irish found themselves facing a third-and-7 from their own 47. Oklahoma State decided to bring pressure. Jack Coan read the pre-snap formations cleanly, so when the Cowboys rushed seven men, he was prepared to dump the ball quickly to Chris Tyree after calling the proper audible. With the middle of the field completely empty because of the blitz, the speedy Tyree raced into the end zone untouched for a 53-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 14-0 only midway through the first half.
This time, the Oklahoma State offense responded. The Notre Dame defense missed numerous tackles on an 82-yard touchdown drive that only took 2:29 and cut the lead in half to 14-7.
After the two teams exchanged punts, the Notre Dame offense once again sparked to life. The Irish mustered a 10 play, 78-yard touchdown drive to increase their lead to 21-7. The highlight play was Jack Coan linking up with Michael Mayer for the 16-yard score on third down. Mayer is one of the most explosive weapons on the Notre Dame offense, and for this reason he was consistently double covered throughout the game. On the touchdown score, crossing routes after a play-action fake made the sole safety choose a route to double cover. He did not choose Mayer, which left the star Irish tight end in single coverage. Mayer subsequently beat his man, and Coan found him for the score.
Toward the end of the first half, things continued to get better for the Irish. Another long touchdown drive, this time 11 plays for 84 yards, stretched the lead to 28-7. The key play on this drive featured a third and 9 where Kevin Austin Jr. caught the ball short of the sticks and broke a tackle to set up first and goal. Coan would find Mayer yet again two plays later for the score.
With only 1:16 left in the half, the game looked promising for the Irish. Social media was ablaze with #FreemanEra tweets praising the new regime. However, Oklahoma State was not ready to go away. They struck quickly, needing only three plays and 39 seconds to make it a two score game, 28-14, heading into halftime.
Overall, the offense in the first half was masterful. The Irish were aware Oklahoma State had the fifth-ranked run defense nationally, so they went all in on igniting the pass game. Jack Coan threw for 342 yards in the first half, just 22 yards below his season high for a full game. The defense, even with a disappointing final drive, also had a strong showing in the first half.
However, the second half quickly got off the rails for the Irish. The Cowboys received the kickoff and maintained the momentum from their score late in the first half. A poor kickoff return meant they needed to drive 87 yards, but they did so successfully over 12 plays, using their hurry up offense to get the Irish defense tired and more susceptible to mistakes. This drive cut the lead to 28-21.
The Irish offense then went stagnant, punting on two straight possessions. The newly invigorated Oklahoma State offense then took over and traveled 89 yards to tie the score. On this drive in particular, the legs of quarterback Spencer Sanders were on full display. He had rushes of 26 and 12 yards on the drive and finished the day with 125 yards rushing.
After another punt by Notre Dame that led to an Oklahoma State field goal, the Cowboys took their first lead of the game at 31-28. The third quarter gracefully came to an end for an Irish team that was outscored 17-0 over the 15 minutes.
However, the Irish were still only down by three and began driving to start the fourth quarter. The offense finally found some rhythm and moved the ball nicely to the Oklahoma State 44. Then on a first and 10 run, Logan Diggs fumbled, and the Cowboys recovered. While this was certainly a frustrating error for Diggs, it was textbook defending from Kolby Harvell-Peel, who forced the fumble. His teammate had the legs of Diggs wrapped up, so rather than going for the tackle, Harvell-Peel knew he could go for the strip instead, and both forced and recovered the fumble.
While the Cowboys had the Irish on the ropes, they could not land a knockout punch right away. Oklahoma State had a golden opportunity to stretch the game to two scores when Drew White forced a fumble right at the goal line, keeping the game within three points.
Unfortunately, the Irish could do nothing with this turnover, and their following punt turned into three points for Oklahoma State. Once again the game remained within one possession, and the Irish mounted a solid drive to the Oklahoma State 30. Then came Jack Coan’s most head-scratching throw of an otherwise strong performance. He forced a throw to Kevin Austin Jr. over the middle, failing to see a lurking Oklahoma State linebacker, and the throw was easily intercepted.
Oklahoma State once again had the chance to put the game out of reach. But, after driving the ball into Notre Dame territory, the Irish defense forced a turnover thanks to an impressive forced fumble from Isaiah Foskey to give the offense a final chance at a one score game. Sadly, the Irish offense went nowhere with this opportunity, turning the ball over on downs on four plays.
Oklahoma State then kicked an easy field goal to finally make it a two score game at 37-28. Notre Dame then mustered their only touchdown drive of the half in the waning moments, and failed to recover the onside kick, cementing the 37-35 loss as final.
What went wrong for the Irish? Only looking at the box score indicates a great offensive performance, as Coan threw for a mind-boggling 509 yards, and three receivers eclipsed 100 yards receiving. However, stagnation in the second half combined with crucial turnovers greatly hurt their ability to score when it mattered most.
The defense could hold their heads high after the first half, as they did not allow the Cowboy’s potent hurry up offense to affect them. However, the hurry up offense did affect them in the second half, and dual threat quarterback Spencer Sanders torched the Irish for 371 yards through the air and 125 on the ground. Notre Dame gave up 30 unanswered points.
This was a disappointing loss for the Irish. There is no way around that. A win would have meant so much to this program, getting the new coaching regime off to the right start and putting an end to the New Year’s Six losing streak. To have the prospect of this win so close, with a 21-point lead, adds to the pain this Irish team must feel. There will be many questions asked about this loss throughout the offseason, and rightfully so. It is up to the new staff as well as the players to respond and be ready to compete in Columbus versus Ohio State come next September.