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Unlucky Seven: Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State, Jan. 1, 2022 (Fiesta Bowl)

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I. Just before kickoff I tweeted this:

This was obviously wrong, for multiple reasons. First, kickoff was at 11 a.m. in Arizona, because I have forgotten what it's like to not do daylight savings time.

And, um, yeah.

It seemed right at the beginning. The Irish took all of the intensity that the #FreemanEra inaugurated and aimed it full-blast directly at Oklahoma State. It took 99 seconds from the opening kickoff for Notre Dame to draw first blood when Jack Coan ripped a 29-yard pass right down the seam to Lorenzo Styles. Later in the first quarter, Coan beat the all-out blitz by finding Chris Tyree, who outran all of the fastest Cowboys to establish a 14-0 lead.

While the 'Pokes did get on the board before the end of the first, in the second quarter Coan dropped two dimes to Michael Mayer, the latter of which opened up a 28-7 advantage with just 1:16 to go before halftime.

But after Oklahoma State scored lightning-quick, alloting ND 37 seconds with all three timeouts to try to get one more tally in before kicking the ball away to start the third quarter, the Irish, inexplicably, let off the throttle.

I hate limping into halftime. It made sense in 1987 to eat the ball, when coaches like Lou Holtz proclaimed that three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad. But Notre Dame, who has established an unflattering but justifiable reputation for showing up flat to big games, had the Cowboys right where they wanted them, and chose not to go for the throat.

Nothing was the same after that.

II. Boy, did the offense miss Kyren Williams.

Oklahoma State's defensive game plan clearly revolved around stopping Notre Dame's ground attack, and it worked: the Irish netted a paltry 42 yards on 21 tries.

Notre Dame lacked the dominating up-front performance necessary to break a team's will and also starve the clock. The first five ND drives of the second half went like this:

3-and-out
couldn't convert a 3rd-and-4 pass at midfield, punt (gag)
3-and-out
fumble by Logan Diggs
3-and-out

Putting any points up would have been nice, but the Irish offered barely a speed bump to Oklahoma State's otherwise unstoppable momentum.

III. Boy, did the defense miss Kyle Hamilton (among others).

First, let's set one thing straight, Kirk Herbstreit: the NFL is a young man's game, and I support any player who has nothing left to prove to NFL scouts choosing to start the clock on his pro career at the peak of his financial viability. I used to have the reflexive "stay in school" opinion, but decades of coaches making millions and schools making billions gave me the proper perspective.

But the same Notre Dame defense, sans Hamilton, that allowed North Carolina to shred them showed up in the second half against the Cowboys. Some of that was schematic, as Irish Sports Daily's Jamie Uyeyama explains:

Some of it is bad luck, as Marist Liufau would have been a difference-maker in the back seven. But much of it is systemic: Notre Dame consistently runs into problems against great offenses because those teams' playmakers routinely abuse the Irish secondary.

Kyle Hamilton was not enough to overcome that — the defense needed half the season to get any good at all, and it's now probable that the "defense stepped up in Hamilton's absence" narrative was really more like "ND's last few regular-season opponents were offensively broken."

Cam Hart will not be enough to overcome that. The junior, who had a two-interception game against Wisconsin, was stout in coverage despite injuring himself in the run-up to the bowl. But whether he was a shutdown corner or the 'Pokes just had juicier targets is an open question.

IV. Marcus Freeman has an opportunity that no other newly-minted ND coach has ever really had in terms of recruiting: not only can he harvest high school players, he can actively find fifth-year seniors via the transfer portal. Along with keeping most of the '22 class intact, this gives him an extraordinary ability to maintain continuity.

Mike Gundy hit the Irish right where it hurt, and now that the weaknesses are exposed, Coach Freeman should have his shopping list ready to go:

Secondary should be the highest priority, as it's been the Irish's weakest leak for at least the last 20 years, responsible for everything from embarrassing ND blowouts to JaMarcus Russell's weight gain. You can never have enough offensive weapons, either: RBs, WRs, whatever, just guys who do damage with the ball in their hands.

This can't wait three years.

V. Speaking of which, I'll say it because apparently nobody else will: Thank you, Jack Coan.

In a season of unfathomable swings of fortune, Notre Dame was lucky enough to have an experienced hand at the wheel. Yes, I know he has limitations and was not always strong, but there was a reason Brian Kelly kept going back to him: he really was the best option.

Part of the reason Oklahoma State shut down the Irish run game was a rational decision to make Jack Coan beat them, and he was doing a fine job of it until the offense lost its mojo. Coan's inconceivable line of 38-68 for 509 (!) yards looks even better when you ponder who he was throwing to: his best receiver was his tight end, and he was also missing his security-blanket running back and another of his best wideouts due to injury. The guys he had left would have been second-string if they suited up for the other side.

Every Sunday morning quarterback has all sorts of hot takes about why Tommy Rees didn't insert Tyler Buchner into the game as a change of pace. But it's not as if OSU would have radically altered the game plan to account for Buchner's running ability — they still would have made the Irish throw to win.

Besides, the bloom was off Tyler Buchner's rose since his disastrous performance against Virginia Tech, where he threw two picks that would have cost the game had Coan not stepped back in and pulled the Irish out of its tailspin. Buchner didn't rock the boat particularly hard in any of his appearances after that, but he certainly wasn't going to present anything that the Cowboys wouldn't have been ready for with a month to prepare. They've seen RPOs before.

VI. The clamoring for Tyler Buchner is one thing, but the "I'd rather win a New Year's Six bowl than get blown out in a playoff semifinal" is the quintessential "didn't age well" take. It was a dumb thought experiment in the first place, as those were only two of the four possible outcomes. But even given the choice, no competitor would choose to win the safe option. I'd rather humiliate myself on "Jeopardy!" than win my weekly pub trivia game. I get that it looks bad to lose again, especially choking on a big lead, but getting dragged on Twitter is the least of my concerns. Quick: who won the Fiesta Bowl last year?

I had to look it up. Apparently, Iowa State beat Oregon, and significantly: 34-17. If that loss was said to set the Ducks back in any way, I missed it.

It's an exhibition, literally a footnote to the season. In a sane world, nobody cares. It's only because the loss feeds the narrative of "Notre Dame can't win a major bowl" that this game sticks in anybody's craw at all. By any objective measure, the loss to Cincinnati this season was far more consequential.

And can we please stop with the panicky overreactions on how this reflects upon the #FreemanEra? I'm already seeing people ponder who Notre Dame should hire next because apparently, losing to a top-10 team while not having the services of two of his three best players is a sign that Freeman is in over his head. Jesus Christ.

VII. That being said, even though I hate the "lose to win" strategy, if I had to choose between a team that entered next season overconfident after finishing the blowout in the Fiesta Bowl, or a hungry team looking to make some haters shut the hell up, I know which one I'd rather have. (Yes, I know I just presented a false dichotomy after railing against false dichotomies, but screw it.)

Much like someone who got fired and found a better job, or dumped and found the love of their life, this could be the greatest thing that ever happened.

I can nurture that thought for, oh, 245 days.

#GoIrish #BeatTheBuckeyes

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