The final game on the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule ran the gamut from excitement to nightmare as the Fighting Irish fell 37-35 to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame gave up 30 unanswered points after jumping out to a 28-7 advantage and spoiled the debut of new head coach Marcus Freeman.
Freeman turns 36 later this month but gained some gray hairs after watching the early Irish dominance fade. Notre Dame appeared to be heading into halftime with a 28-7 lead, but a quick score set the stage for the defensive slide after the break. The loss gives the Irish a final record of 11-2 and a bitter stamp on the start of 2022.
Below are some of the key aspects of the game:
Looking to make an early statement, Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and scored their first touchdown with less than two minutes gone in the contest. The first play set the tone for the drive, with a 25-yard screen pass to Chris Tyree. That was bookended by a third-down call in which Coan found a wide-open Lorenzo Styles Jr. for a 29-yard touchdown reception.
Two series later, the Irish drive temporarily stalled with back-to-back false start penalties before eventually rebounding with a 53-yard scoring toss to Tyree. That touchdown pass came about after Coan beat the blitz and found Tyree, who scampered untouched to double the Notre Dame lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
Going to the Air
Kyren Williams‘ decision not to play in the Fiesta Bowl helped remove a huge chunk of the Irish running game with it. Early on, it quickly became apparent that any Notre Dame victory was going to have to come on the arm of Coan, who ended up completing 38 of 68 passes for 509 yards and five touchdown passes
Coan threw for 342 of those yards in the first half, with running back Chris Tyree serving as a better receiving outlet than running possibility. Yet, Coan ended up having his own struggles after the break, throwing a key interception in Oklahoma State’s red zone with under seven minutes left. He also failed to move the ball deep in Irish territory in their next series, which ended up with the Cowboys notching what became the clinching field goal.
Prior to the start of Oklahoma State’s comeback, the Notre Dame defense had largely held their offense in check, allowing 157 yards before the Cowboys’ late first-half score. However, by the time the game ended, the Irish had allowed 605 total yards and 34 first downs.
Notre Dame simply had no answer for Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders, who threw for 371 yards and four scores and also ran for a game-high 125 yards on 17 carries. The Cowboys’ receiving duo of Brandon Presley and Tay Martin each grabbed 10 passes and combined for 241 yards. In addition, Martin snagged three touchdown passes.
While the late first-half score by Oklahoma State should have been a warning flare for Notre Dame, any defensive adjustments they may have made during the break appeared to be invisible when play resumed. Irish cornerback Clarence Lewis was a frequent target of Sanders, yet the missed tackles of his teammates also allowed the Cowboys to pick up healthy chunks of yardage.
In stark contrast, Oklahoma State’s ability to frustrate Coan was especially evident during the third quarter, when Notre Dame managed just 52 yards of offense. Of course, being able to ignore the Irish running game made that effort easier.
Lifelines Not Used
Oklahoma State had multiple opportunities to seemingly cement the victory but eventually won it by recovering a last-ditch onside kick. Before that contribution from the special teams unit, they found a way to provide Notre Dame with chances to avoid what ended up becoming the sad reality.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys led 31-28 before fumbling near the Irish goal line, allowing Ramon Henderson to recover in the end zone for Notre Dame. A quick three-and-out for Notre Dame led to Oklahoma State doubling their lead with a field goal. Later on, Coan’s interception was followed by Sanders fumbling in the Irish red zone. Four plays that gained no yardage ultimately led to another three-pointer for the Cowboys.
The offseason begins for Notre Dame, though things will remain busy as Freeman prepares for his first full season at the helm. He and the Irish will be challenged immediately with a 2022 opener on the road against Freeman’s alma mater, Ohio State. This marks only the third trip to the Horseshoe for the Irish, the other contests taking place in 1935 and 1995.