Fiesta Bowl Preview
Marcus Freeman's first game as head coach comes at critical juncture
We are just about two weeks out from Notre Dame’s New Year’s Six matchup against Oklahoma State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. The Irish were the first team left out of the College Football Playoff and they are the No. 5 team in the country, while the Cowboys come in as No. 9 following a loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship.
A lot has changed since Notre Dame last played at Stanford on Nov. 27th. Former head coach Brian Kelly is now the main man at LSU, and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has been promoted to head coach. His hiring has energized and united the fan base in a way that many have never seen, and he will have opportunity to grow the hype around the program if he can bring Notre Dame their first win in a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl game since 1998. Since then, the Irish are 0-7 in these major bowl games, in which they have been outscored by 161 points and lost all seven of the games by at least 14 points.
But the hope is that without Kelly, who could never seem to get his team up for a big game, something will click for Notre Dame with their new leadership. Despite the news that safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams will enter the NFL Draft and forego the chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish have opened as 2.5-point favorites over the Cowboys. Ahead of a huge matchup for the Freeman and the program as a whole, let’s take a look at how the two teams match up on both sides of the ball.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Oklahoma State Defense
The loss of Kyren Williams hurts. Big time. But the current ND running back room is deep enough that they should be able to cover up the loss. I expect Chris Tyree to finally carry a bigger load as he gets fully healthy and has to fill the void left by Williams. Freshman Logan Diggs has also been phenomenal, and while neither him nor Tyree are the Franchise that is Kyren Williams, they should be able to combine to make up for his loss.
Given that Kelly is now gone, I will be interested to see how much Tyler Buchner we see at quarterback in this game. Does Tommy Rees mix it up a lot or does he stick with Jack Coan all game? I think we will see Buchner here and there, but I doubt he attempts more than one pass and keeps it almost exclusively on the ground. Coan will need to be solid against a good Cowboy defense, and there can be no red zone turnovers from this team if they want to win. Tight End Michael Mayer should get the ball a lot, but I am hoping that Coan will be willing to take some shots downfield to Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin, and Lorenzo Styles to keep the defense honest. The line has to show up in the way that it did down the stretch of the season, as they have been excellent in giving Coan the time he needs as of late.
The Notre Dame offense will need to be on the top of its game as Oklahoma State boasts the best defense in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. The Cowboys have racked up a whopping 54.0 sacks this season, a concerning number for a Notre Dame offensive line that struggled mightily at the beginning of the year. The Cowboys are giving up just 278.4 yards per game, with just 91.2 of those on the ground per game. They have also forced 28 turnovers on the year, and with the amount of pressure they can force on the quarterback, they definitely have the chance to force Coan into some costly mistakes.
Oklahoma State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
This matchup is where Notre Dame has the real advantage. The Oklahoma State offense has struggled to move the ball at times, and Cowboy QB Spencer Sanders does not protect the ball well. This was evidenced by his FOUR interceptions in the Big 12 Championship game, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the Cowboys loss to Baylor. Even without Hamilton, the Notre Dame secondary has been great this season as they have intercepted opposing QBs five times in the five weeks since they lost their star safety against USC. Sanders has thrown just 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season, and the Irish secondary should be able to capitalize on his struggles to force Sanders into more mistakes on Jan. 1st. As for receivers, Oklahoma State does have eight receivers with at least 10 catches this year, but Tay Martin and Brennan Presley are the two that Notre Dame will have to watch. Jaden Bray presents a decent deep threat, but the receiving corps is nothing beyond what the Irish have already encountered this season.
Aside from a few subpar performances against FSU and UNC, the Notre Dame defense has been elite all season. They have forced 23 turnovers and racked up 40 sacks, both results of Freeman’s new system. Defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey, Justin and Jayson Ademilola, Kurt Hinish, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa have lived in opposing backfields, and they will look to do the same against Oklahoma State, especially for RB Jaylen Warren. Warren has racked up 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, and he represents the biggest offensive threat to the Irish. Sanders is the Cowboys second-leading rusher with 543 yards on the ground, and his ability to improvise at the end of plays could cause troubles for Notre Dame if they don’t contain him in the pocket. Linebackers JD Bertrand, Drew White, Bo Bauer, and Jack Kiser will be busy keeping him in check. If they can contain OSU on the ground, the Irish should be golden.
Marcus Freeman will coach his first game as a head coach against Oklahoma State, but this does not seem to be a major concern for those in and around the program. The hiring of Freeman was greeted with extreme enthusiasm on all fronts, and the way that he has energized the team and fanbase is a welcome change from Kelly. If anything, the team will be incredibly motivated to get their new coach his first win, so Freeman’s lack of head coaching experience shouldn’t be a huge worry in this one, especially because most of his staff remained intact.
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy is almost the antithesis of Freeman’s coaching youth, as he comes into the game having been the Cowboys coach for 17 years and the program’s all-time wins leader with 148 victories. He was one of 15 FBS coaches to be named a semifinalist for the 2021 George Munger College Coach of the Year award, and his experience should give his team a slight advantage in this category. His teams have appeared in five New Year’s Six bowls since 2010, but they have never played in the College Football Playoff.
Both teams have outstanding defenses that should keep this game low-scoring. I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I trust Coan more than I trust Sanders, and I believe the Notre Dame defense will force the Oklahoma State QB into multiple turnovers. If the Irish can capitalize on these turnovers and avoid turnovers of their own – especially in the red zone – then the defense will clear the way for Notre Dame to win their first New Year’s Six or BCS bowl game since 1998.