Notre Dame looks to christen the Marcus Freeman era with its first Major bowl win since 1993 as they take on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. While it is Freeman’s first game as a Head Coach, the taller task is on Tommy Rees and the offense of which he now has full control over. The Cowboys are a massive step up in the level of competition Notre Dame has faced since the bye, and will the revamped offense continue to have success against an elite defense? Follow along as we break it down with all of the key stats and numbers you need to know.
This is a game where ideally Notre Dame would throw the ball 70% of the time. Is that likely to happen? Probably not, but we have seen Tommy Rees lean into the pass heavily in previous games this season and expect him to do the same on Saturday because of Oklahoma State’s run defense. The Cowboys rank similarly both in advanced metrics and PFF grading when facing the run and profile very similarly to Wisconsin. In case anyone needs a refresher, in that game the Irish ran for -0.19 EPA/Play, a 37% Success Rate, and 2.4 Yards/Carry. With Kyren Williams forgoing the game as he prepares for the NFL Draft, there should be no hesitation to air the ball out all over the field.
This isn’t to say Notre Dame is going to have an easy day by any means through the air, as Oklahoma State still defends the pass at an elite level. Linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and his 81.8 PFF Coverage Grade poses a difficult matchup for Michael Mayer, and their starting trio of Cornerbacks (Christian Holmes, Jarrick Bernard-Converse, and Tanner McCallister) all have posted above-average Coverage Grades on the year. But the reason to go after this group than trying to attack the Cowboys on the ground is they are slightly less efficient defending the pass. That, combined with the Irish being more efficient at passing, means the best chance at offensive success likely begins with Jack Coan.
While Notre Dame’s offense might not put up the dominant performances fans were accustomed to seeing in the last two months of the season, it shouldn’t significantly hamper their chances due to the overall mismatch on the other side of the ball. While the Irish offense should be proficient enough to put up some points, there should be less confidence in Oklahoma State’s to be able to do the same. They have a pretty average passing offense combined with a rushing attack they rely on way too much (55% rush rate) that ranks in the bottom 25% of the country in EPA/Play.
Their rushing attack is similar to Georgia Tech’s from the standpoint of the Running Back playing really well but having very limited success due to the lack of help around him. Jahmyr Gibbs had one of the best PFF Grades in the country coming into the Yellow Jackets’ game against Notre Dame (and is highly coveted as his transfer to Alabama suggests). But coming into the game he was averaging -0.07 EPA/Rush and a 37% Success Rate. It appears Cowboy Running Back Jaylen Warren will be healthy enough to play and ranks in the Top 5 in Oklahoma State’s offense in PFF Grade at 79.3 But that hasn’t translated into the expected output, as he’s rushed for -0.03 EPA/Play and managed only a 39% Success Rate, with a large part of that due to Oklahoma State ranking only 61st in PFF Run Block Grade.
The problem for Oklahoma State, however, is that throwing the football hasn’t fared much better either. Now to be fair, PFF does like Spencer Sanders’ play better than his EPA numbers suggest, as his 78.9 Passing Grade ranks 68th out of 225 Quarterbacks. So unless the offensive structure has drastically changed over the last four weeks, the Cowboys are going to need to rely on Sanders’ playmaking ability to stay in this game. He does pose a significant threat on the ground as he’s been their only credible rushing threat (0.21 EPA/Play). And if he can find explosive deep threat option Tay Martin often (0.54 EPA/Play, 13.9 aDOT), they can certainly threaten Notre Dame’s defense. But it’s tough to find another path to success for them when, quite frankly, they aren’t that dangerous offensively.
As a result, both Jack and I are going to take Notre Dame to win outright and cover the 2.5 spread. We do expect this to be a low scoring affair with two really good defenses facing off. But Notre Dame has shown enough offensively to believe they’ll be able to score enough, where it’s tough to think the same of Oklahoma State. So expect to see a defensive battle, but one where the Irish come out on top.