The stupid major bowl losing streak looked like it was finally going to end. Notre Dame played a near-perfect 29 minutes to start the Fiesta Bowl only to play the most flawed 31 subsequent minutes of football we’ve seen in a long time. The Irish squandered a 21-point lead in Marcus Freeman’s first game as head coach and now head into the long off-season with a lot of what-ifs and a lot of roster questions that yesterday’s epic collapse shun a lot of light on.
This loss will linger with the program for a long time
Of all the major bowl losses Notre Dame has had over the last 30 years now, this one stings the most because it’s the only one they absolutely, positively should have won. You should win 100% of the games in which you have a 21-point lead. Full Stop. Notre Dame was 79-0 since 2004 in such games. Starting the Freeman era off with the first such loss since 1991 is not how anyone envisioned things going.
There are reasons why the collapse happened – some very preventable, some that should have been more predictable in hindsight – but there are zero excuses for it. Regardless of the circumstances coming into the game, the Irish held a 28-7 lead with just over a minute left in the first half and lost. That is the kind of gut-punch loss that lingers with a program.
This collapse is now just another chapter in an embarrassing in the narrative of Notre Dame not being to win a major bowl since they haven’t since 1994. So all the graphics yesterday about the losing steak will now be updated to show another loss but one in which the Irish also blew a 21-point lead.
Personnel issues in the secondary were exploited
One of the reasons (again, read reasons, not excuses) for the collapse was Oklahoma State exploiting the Irish secondary like no other offense was able to. Spencer Sanders, a quarterback who came into the game with just 16 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in 13 games, tossed four touchdowns and didn’t throw a single interception. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my prediction post about not worrying about Sanders having a big game because he carved up the Irish defense.
Sanders and the Cowboys did a number on Clarence Lewis, who looked like a player that had lost all his confidence by the end of the game. Unfortunately, the coaching staff didn’t do him too many favors by continuing to leave him alone on an island when it was clear he was being targeted by the Cowboy offense all second half long.
Notre Dame did a fantastic job covering up for Kyle Hamilton’s injury in the second half of the season. But, with a month to prepare, Oklahoma State exploited a secondary that is in dire need of an infusion of talent. Help is on the way with Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey, and Jayden Bellamy, but Notre Dame needs one of this year’s freshmen corners, none of whom played meaningful reps, to develop in a hurry.
Help at safety is not so immediately available, and Notre Dame will likely have to scour the transfer portal.
Notre Dame’s wide receiver “rotation” didn’t make much sense
Notre Dame was down to five scholarship wide receivers for the game, but even with the low numbers, the rotation – or lack thereof – made zero sense to me. Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Lorenzo Styles rarely left the field despite Notre Dame calling 71 pass plays. Deion Colzie played three total snaps. So too did walkon Matt Salerno. Freshman Jayden Thomas played none. With a month to prepare, there’s no excuse at all for the staff not having Thomass ready to play at least a handful of snaps to spell the starters.
The starting trio of receivers was totally gassed by the end of the game, and rightfully so. Maybe if Lorenzo Styles would have had a few more breathers, he and Coan connect on that deep bomb in the fourth that was just a hair away from being completed. Likewise, maybe Kevin Austin can make a better play on the failed 4th and 7 if Colzie had spelled him at times throughout the game.
The wide receiver room is perhaps the biggest mess on the roster in years right now, and it’s more apparent than ever that a new voice is needed to rebuild that room.
Jack Coan played out of his mind and isn’t why Notre Dame lost
Notre Dame’s offense being unable to score points in the second half until it was too late is another reason for the collapse, but I’m not going to pin it on Jack Coan at all. Oklahoma State adjusted, and Notre Dame couldn’t counter. Yeah, the interception in the fourth was terrible, but the dude was asked to drop back more than 70 times in a single game. He broke Fiesta Bowl records for attempts and yards.
Coan came up just short of breaking the Notre Dame single-game passing record in his final game with the Irish. However, he threw for five touchdown passes on the day.
I do think that Tommy Rees and Marcus Freeman should have inserted Tyler Buchner in the early part of the 4th quarter when it was clear the offense had stalled, but that doesn’t mean I’d pin the blame squarely on Coan’s shoulders either.
Coan’s deficiencies are what they are and aren’t new, so the second-half offensive collapse is on the coaching staff, not the quarterback who had over 500 yards passing and five touchdowns.
Special teams looked like a unit without a full-time coach
In hindsight, the loss of Brian Polian, a lightning rod of criticism from Notre Dame fans, was more significant than most felt it would be. Notre Dame’s special teams looked unprepared and out of sorts. Jonathan Doerer missed a very makeable 41-yard field goal that ultimately loomed very large. Jay Bramblett, who entered his name into the transfer portal immediately following the game, had one good punt and then couldn’t do much to help flip field position for the Irish in any way. He ended up averaging just 36.6 yards a punt.
Some fans will point to the Doerer miss, see the two-point loss, and say all he had to do was make that kick and the Irish win, but the entire late game dynamics change if he had made that kick, so it’s not that simple, but the miss was obviously huge.
Marcus Freeman made several rookie head coach errors
The final 90 seconds of the first half were a crash course in rookie head coaching mistakes for Freeman. First, Notre Dame could have milked the clock more to give Oklahoma State less time, to begin with, but a first and goal incompletion stopped the clock for the Irish. That is a time where a run, even if they thought it would be unsuccessful, would have made a ton of sense, but it would have kept the clock running.
When Oklahoma State took the field in a clear passing situation, the Irish weren’t in a good defensive look to stop it. A time out there, or even after the Cowboys hit their big pass play, would have made sense, but Freeman sat on his timeouts.
Finally, with 42 seconds left and all of those timeouts, the decision to run out the clock when Coan and the offense were rolling was egregious. I’ll contrast this to the UVA game when Brian Kelly made a similar decision that didn’t bother me at the time. The big difference here was that UVA wasn’t doing anything against the Irish defense that day. Yesterday, Oklahoma State had just marched down the field in about 40 seconds for a touchdown.
However, the biggest rookie head coach mistake came much later in the fourth quarter when Freeman went for a 4th and 7 inside his own 20 in a one-score game with three timeouts and just under three minutes left. Isaiah Foskey bailed him out with a huge forced fumble. Still, there was no justification for going for it there even if Dan Orlovsky inexplicably agreed with the decision during the telecast.
These are the kind of rookie mistakes that a first-time head coach will make and highlight why it’s so hard to make a head coaching debut in a bowl game against a top-10 opponent.
The war of attrition at linebacker was finally lost
Notre Dame started the year with a deep and talented linebacker corps. It ended the year as a MASH unit. In Notre Dame’s two losses this season, the linebackers were exploited in coverage. And for the second time this season, Marist Liufau was greatly missed. JD Bertrand led the team in tackles but was also the runaway leader in missed tackles. Jack Kiser got swallowed up at times. Bo Bauer’s aggressiveness was used against him,
Like receiver, Notre Dame had no one left to put in to spell these guys either. A season’s worth of playing too many snaps out of necessity finally caught up with the linebacking corps.
The good news for Notre Dame is that immediate help is on the way. Jaylen Sneed, Josh Burnham, Nolan Zeigler, and Junior Tuihalamaka will all be on the roster in Columbus in September. Initially, I thought one of the four could play early, but it wouldn’t surprise me if two were in the two-deep.
Between the return of Liufau, an entire off-season for Prince Kollie, and the four incoming freshmen, the linebacker corps that lines up against the Buckeyes should look very different.
If Notre Dame just tackled well, they win easily
For all the blown coverages, missed passes, and bad coaching decisions, all Notre Dame had to do to win this game was just tackle. Instead, we saw the worst tackling we’ve seen since the season opener against Florida State. This game was eerily similar to that contest, with the Irish building a big lead and then blowing it all away. This time the Irish weren’t as lucky to escape with an overtime win, though.
Still, the tackling yesterday was terrible. Maybe even worse than that season opener. Notre Dame missed sacks where Spencer Sanders should have been a sitting duck. They failed to wrap up on easy tackles for loss. They let up a touchdown on a reverse that DJ Brown sniffed out but missed the tackle.
For all of the talk about the intense practices and more ones versus ones, Notre Dame’s tackling looked more like a team that did the reverse in the lead-up to the game. Perhaps the intense practices were too intense? Hindsight is always 20-20 but whatever the reason for the poor tackling, it’s something Freeman and the next defensive coordinator have to fix this off-season.