It started after Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders escaped a sack and converted a first down instead of putting the Cowboys in second and long against an Irish defense that was getting consistent pressure.
Momentum slowly flowed in the direction of OSU, and a quick score before halftime – and the lack of aggression from the Irish when the coaches decided to let the clock run out instead of taking a shot downfield to set up a field goal – helped rev up the previously reeling Cowboys.
But it was coaching adjustments for Oklahoma State, and lack of the same from Notre Dame, that helped the Cowboys keep the momentum right up until Notre Dame failed to recover an onside kick that would’ve given the Irish one last gasp of hope.
Notre Dame is going to learn from this Fiesta Bowl going into the 2022 season.
OSU figured out how to better cover the Irish pass-catchers while also stuffing a running game that was already mostly non-existent, in part because stud running back Kyren Williams opted out. Oklahoma State also figured out how to get Sanders going and the Irish had no answer for wide receiver Tay Martin.
It’s easy to point fingers in the wake of a loss, especially one that features an epically blown lead. And with Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman working his first game in that role, it will be easy to suggest that the coaching is the main reason the Irish feel apart.
There does seem to be some truth to that – the Irish didn’t seem to adjust as well as Oklahoma did. Even with Williams out, I don’t understand why the Irish didn’t run the ball more after jumping out to the big lead – it’s not like Chris Tyree is incapable.
Even accounting for the fact that fellow RB Logan Diggs struggled, the Irish could’ve found more usage out of the ground game, especially while still leading. Asking QB Jack Coan – or anyone – to throw the ball 68 times in one game is not a recipe for success, usually.
Then again, one of the issues was poor execution on the part of the players. Coan missed a few easy throws in the second half, and a few other passes were dropped. I also think the momentum shifts right back to the Irish if a Coan didn’t just miss on a long bomb in the second half.
Back to the coaching – I’m willing to cut Freeman slack since it’s his first game as the head man, though I do remember being frustrated by his adjustments (or lack thereof) as the defensive coordinator in the season opener against Florida State – a game the Irish nearly lost.
I also acknowledge that for those of us sitting at home watching the game on our couches, it can be hard to tell if coaching issues came from Freeman or his coordinators – Tommy Rees on offense and Mike Elston on defense.
I generally like how Rees has called games and I see no reason to believe he will regress. Freeman should be able to take what happened in this game and use it as a learning experience. If he can better learn to adjust and his players execute better, the Irish will be just fine going forward.
This loss will sting, especially since it will fuel the narrative that the Irish don’t deserve to play in major bowls, thanks to an 0-8 record in their last 8 New Year’s Six or BCS/CFP games. That narrative is, of course, hogwash. Each season is its own entity and the only constant over that time has been former head coach Brian Kelly, and he was only present for a handful of those games and he didn’t coach the Irish in this one.
One can also argue that the Irish faced a superior opponent in each bowl game and that what happened doesn’t invalidate the regular season. I don’t think any bowl loss invalidates a full season’s body of work and that’s especially true for teams that draw opponents that are better.
Oklahoma State (who was one play away from the playoff) may have been a better team than ND this year. Even if not, the Cowboys were probably better than the number 9 ranking they had going into the game.
It’s going to be a long wait to see what happens next season but one thing is clear to me: If the Irish coaching staff – and the returning players – learn from this game, they will be fine. If they don’t, look for another strong regular season followed by bowl game disappointment.