Oklahoma State spotted Notre Dame a 28-7 lead before roaring back to defeat the Fighting Irish by 37-35 in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl. Marcus Freeman’s head coaching debut started well, but he and his staff had no answer to strategic adjustments by the Cowboys that exposed glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame’s win drought in major bowl games continues for at least another year as the Irish end the season at 11-2.
Jack Coan threw an unfathomable 68 passes, completing 38 for 502 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately, his lack of mobility and a costly fourth quarter interception outweighed those statistics. Leading 28-14 at intermission, Notre Dame failed to score a point in the second half until a concession touchdown in the final minute. Meanwhile, while the Irish defense was being torched. The secondary did not cover the Cowboy receivers and they made matters worse by missing countless tackles.
Notre Dame started fast with a touchdown on its first possession as Coan hit Lorenzo Styles from 29 yards. Later, Coan beat an all-out Cowboy blitz by lofting the ball over the middle to Chris Tyree, who streaked in untouched from 53 yards to make it 14-0 midway through the first period.
Oklahoma State settled down as Spencer Sanders drove his team for its first score later in the quarter. The Irish stuck to the air and answered midway through the second as Coan found Michael Mayer in the end zone. As halftime approached, Coan and Mayer hooked up again to extend Notre Dame’s advantage to 28-7. With just over a minute left to go, Sanders led what was his team’s most critical drive of the game. It took him four plays and just 35 seconds to cover 75 yards. The 28-14 score still seemed comfortable for the Irish but momentum had shifted to the Cowboys in that short span.
The second half was a completely different ballgame. Oklahoma State took the kickoff and picked up where they left off. Sanders engineered another scoring march to make it 28-21, and then tied the game with a mix of runs and passes.
Meanwhile, the Cowboy defense had been stacked against the run to start the game, but they shifted to drop more players into pass coverage. The Irish struggled to make first downs and punted on each of its three possessions in the third period. They finally relinquished the lead late in the quarter when Tanner Brown added a field goal to give his team a 31-28 lead.
Things got a bit weird down the stretch. Neither team had a turnover at that point, but that statistic would not stand. Coan tried to rally Notre Dame but a fumble by Logan Diggs gave the ball back to Oklahoma State in good field position. Sanders quickly brought them to the Irish five yard line. Brennan Presley was on his way into the end zone for the killshot when Jack Kiser stripped him of the ball. It rolled into the end zone where Notre Dame’s Ramon Henderson fell on it for a touchback.
Coan could not take advantage of the gift, however, as the Irish went three and out. Oklahoma State came right back as Sanders was hot and Notre Dame’s pass coverage was criminally soft. Only a penalty in the red zone prevented another touchdown. Brown came on to add another field goal to extend the Cowboy’s lead to 34-28 with nine minutes remaining.
It was past time for Notre Dame to answer. Coan brought them down the field to the Oklahoma State 24 yard line before taking a six yard sack. On the next play, he was pressured into a poor throw that was picked off by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez. It was the best in a large group of outstanding plays by Rodriguez throughout the day.
Sanders and the Cowboys were now looking to close out the game. Oklahoma State had the Irish defense on roller skates for the entire second half, and the next series was more of the same. A critical third down pass went for 29 yards to Tay Martin, who was having his way with beleaguered Notre Dame cornerback Clarence Lewis. Two plays later, Sanders was running toward the end zone when fortune again favored the Irish. Isaiah Foskey stripped the ball from him and Notre Dame recovered on its 11.
Three minutes remained and the Irish needed to capitalize. With the Cowboys turning up the heat on Coan and mugging the Irish receivers downfield, Notre Dame failed to record a first down. A fourth down desperation heave fell incomplete and Oklahoma State took over in prime scoring territory. Another Brown field goal with 2:16 remaining after the Irish burned their timeouts put the Cowboys ahead by 37-28. The game was essentially over at that point. Or was it?
Coan took advantage of a soft prevent defense to move his team downfield. A 25-yard scoring strike to Kevin Austin made things interesting with one minute still on the clock. The ensuing onside kick was scooped up by OSU’s Jason Taylor and the Cowboys ran out the clock.
It was a bitter defeat for Freeman and Notre Dame, but they have only themselves to blame. Squandering a 21-point lead and having no answers to the second half coaching adjustments by Oklahoma State was a lesson that should not soon be forgotten. The players are culpable as well. It’s no secret that reinforcements are needed on defense. This will require an upgrade in recruiting and development that will take time. Offensively, the quarterback position needs a dynamic athlete and the offensive line needs a coach that will deliver a competent, reliable running game.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions for further analysis:
Which team will be able to rush for 150 yards or more? Oklahoma State outrushed the Irish by 234-42. Sanders accounted for 125 of these yards with scrambles and RPO keepers. Notre Dame never adjusted to this threat.
Can Lenzy and Styles deliver strong performances for Notre Dame? Styles was outstanding with eight catches for 136 yards and a score. Lenzy caught seven balls for 60 yards but was not much of a factor – especially since the Irish threw it on almost every play.
Which wideout will have the biggest impact between Tay Martin and Kevin Austin? Austin helped his team with six receptions for 105 yards and one late touchdown. His spinout from a tackle in the red zone late in the second quarter set up another score. Martin appeared headed for a miserable day when a pair of consecutive dropped passes hurt the Cowboys in the first half. He more than made up for it with ten catches for 104 yards and three touchdowns. Most of this production came at the expense of Lewis.
Will Fisher and the Irish offensive line hold up against the Cowboy pass rush? Fisher played well but the overall protection degraded in the second half after a good start. Credit Oklahoma State’s coaches for mixing up their fronts.
Can the Cowboy special teams engineer another significant play? Not much happened in this area until the Cowboys recovered the onside kick. Both teams missed a field goal and Jay Bramblett’s punts for the Irish were consistently short.
Which defense will be able to force negative plays and turnovers? Both teams had two giveaways in the final period. Oklahoma State’s ability to completely shut down and discourage the Irish running game was decisive. One can only hope that Notre Dame’s catastrophic meltdown in the secondary will serve as motivation for a better 2022 season.
Can Buchner make a notable contribution to the Irish offense? Sadly, no. Buchner should have been inserted into the game at the start of the fourth quarter, if not sooner. It was obvious to most that Oklahoma State’s adjustments had rendered Coan ineffective as Notre Dame lost its lead and failed to respond.
Will Freeman’s in-game decisions in his head coaching debut help or hurt the Irish? I’ll try to be kind but the Irish were badly outcoached in this contest. The decision to stick with man coverage in the secondary when it was clearly a losing strategy was hard to defend. Allowing Tom Rees to call 72 pass plays (four were sacks or quarterback scrambles) and have no running game with a 21 point lead was also baffling. The reluctance to give Buchner a shot when Coan was struggling badly was also a coaching failure. OSU was dropping eight into coverage and the immobile Coan was throwing right into danger. Buchner could have hurt them with his legs. Coan was 23 of 32 in the first half but only 15 of 36 in the second.
How many bowl games will Omicron win this season? Too many. Let’s hope this thing is gone before the next Irish kickoff.