The Notre Dame Fighting Irish had a massive opportunity to get their new era off to a great start, but somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turn a 28-7 first-half lead into a 37-35 loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the
Tostitos Playstation Fiesta Bowl.
Due to an allergic reaction I incurred on New Year’s Eve for reasons still unknown to me (it started shortly after lunch, so don’t you go judging me) I watched this game alone on my couch bleary and doped out on Benadryl, locked in a desperate battle against the insatiable temptation to itch every swollen, hive-covered inch of my hands, feet, and face. That surely contributed to my overall depression in the hours following the game, but I still think this is true: for a game that looked like it was going to break Notre Dame’s embarrassing streak of big-bowl losses, this one somehow managed to be the most depressing one yet. Let’s dive into the takeaways and find out why.
Marcus Freeman Still Has a Learning Curve
As much as it pains me to admit this (I was as excited as anyone else for the start of his coaching tenure), Marcus Freeman and co. were utterly out-coached in this game. The Irish, as I expected due to Freeman’s motivational skills, came out with their hair on fire, playing with edge and energy on both sides of the ball and with every scheme seeming to work to perfection. But when Oklahoma State made adjustments on both sides of the ball and started finding success, the Irish had no response. That lies squarely on Freeman as well as Tommy Rees and Mike Elston, each of whom seemed altogether too reluctant to change their tendencies when the tide turned toward the Cowboys.
Which shortcoming was most frustrating? Take your pick. Blitzes that were so predictable even Dan Orlovsky was able to see them coming, which failed so consistently that I started to sound like Mike Valenti screaming about blitzes that never made it home. No adjustment to cover the quarterback run even as Spencer Sanders easily evaded those pressures and got one chunk play after another. No safety help for Clarence Lewis as he was completely abused by Tay Martin for three quarters. Not attempting to score with three timeouts and thirty-nine seconds remaining in the first half, when their previously on-the-ropes opponent had just scored and was getting the ball to start the second half. No change whatsoever in the offensive gameplan even as the Cowboys’ secondary moved in to play press coverage and the officials made it clear practically anything would go. No adjustments in personnel (foreshadowing alert) or formation to allow for more success running the ball.
I want to make this clear: I am still very excited about Marcus Freeman’s future at Notre Dame. I still think he will be a good head coach and has the potential to be a great one. But what we saw on Saturday was one veteran coach who knew how exactly how to command the necessary adjustments from the top, pitted against another who was doing it for the first time. Hopefully Freeman absorbs the lessons from these games and comes out ready to implement them in Columbus next September.
APB: Tyler Buchner
In my view, the biggest offensive coaching failure in this game was Tommy Rees’ refusal to use Tyler Buchner at any point in the second half. One understands leaving Jack Coan in the game throughout the first half and early in the second, as Coan was absolutely on fire. But late in the third and early in the fourth quarter, with Coan sputtering due to the Cowboys’ adjustments in the secondary and the Irish failing to generate any kind of consistent running output, a move to Buchner - at least for a drive or two - could have created a much-needed spark that Oklahoma State hadn’t yet accounted for.
This is not to fault or denigrate Coan, who put up spectacular numbers with only one real blemish, and whose first half alone should have been enough to win this game for the Irish; it is more to highlight the refusal of the Irish coaching staff to break tendencies and keep the Cowboys guessing even as it became abundantly clear that A) they weren’t going to give up and B) they knew what was coming in the second half. Oklahoma State was absolutely stuffing the Irish running backs in no small part because Coan was no threat in the read option - what if Buchner had taken a few of those snaps? The Cowboys would have had to adjust and someone, somewhere would have found a hole. We will likely find out a lot more about Buchner’s overall skillset next year, but we know what he was capable of this year and it was something the Irish desperately needed.
The Future is Still Bright
As I said introducing this article: this was one of the most depressing Notre Dame football games I have watched. But I don’t want my last piece of this season to be a rant, or a total downer. We can’t let one game completely dampen our outlook for the future of this program, which was exceedingly positive up until New Year’s Day. Even with big challenges on the depth chart in a few key spots (looking at you, wide receiver and cornerback), the Irish have a ton of talent returning, a great recruiting class coming in and an even better one coming together for 2023. I can’t wait to see what Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Tyler Buchner do together next year. I think Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree can put up some big numbers behind a healed and improved offensive line - possibly one coached by Harry Hiestand.
As I write, needed staff turnover is taking place, with Del Alexander out. The Irish will take the offseason to find a lasting solution at defensive coordinator. Marcus Freeman coached his first game as the head man in a top-ten postseason matchup and nearly won despite making a ton of mistakes - there is no reason to think that he and the rest of the staff will not learn from those mistakes. Notre Dame is still in a great position moving forward, and while it didn’t come on Saturday, I still believe those bigger wins will come. Here’s to a 2022 that can only go up - go Irish!