New coach, old pain: Notre Dame unravels in Fiesta loss

Sports

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman watches during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Oklahoma State, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — A promising young coach, a souped-up passing game and a couple turnover gifts from Oklahoma State’s offense weren’t enough to end Notre Dame’s January misery.

The Irish built a 21-point lead in the first half of the Fiesta Bowl only to watch it slowly evaporate in a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday. Notre Dame has lost 11 of its past 12 postseason games played in January dating to 1995.

The fifth-ranked Irish (11-2) couldn’t get the win in Marcus Freeman’s head coaching debut despite a huge day from senior Jack Coan, who threw for a career-high and Fiesta Bowl-record 509 yards and five touchdowns in his final game. The big numbers were overshadowed by two fruitless offensive drives in the fourth quarter after a pair of Oklahoma State turnovers.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t execute when it mattered most,” Freeman said.

Coan was nearly flawless in the first half with 342 yards passing and four touchdowns but the production waned after halftime. No. 9 Oklahoma State certainly gave the Irish a couple juicy opportunities.

Trailing 34-28, Notre Dame got a huge break when Cowboys receiver Brennan Presley fumbled at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, which the Irish recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The Notre Dame offense was driving after the momentum swing, but Oklahoma State’s Malcolm Rodriguez intercepted Coan’s pass in the fourth quarter, squashing the potential go-ahead drive.

Coan said Oklahoma State’s defense — which came into the game at No. 3 in total defense in the nation — simply played better after the break.

“I feel like they were just making more plays,” Coan said. “They weren’t doing anything crazy to confuse me or the offense.”

Notre Dame had another chance to drive for the win after the defense earned its second straight takeaway when Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders fumbled at the Irish 11. But Coan and the Irish couldn’t even get one first down and the Cowboys were able to hang on for the win.

Oklahoma State’s 21-point comeback was the largest in Fiesta Bowl history. The charismatic Freeman — just like all the Irish — appeared powerless to stop it.

“I think we can all learn from this,” Freeman said. “Myself included.”

The 35-year-old Freeman was promoted from defensive coordinator on Dec. 3, four days after Brian Kelly’s surprising departure for LSU. The quick move allowed Notre Dame to make a smooth transition into bowl preparation.

In the game’s early moments, the Irish were certainly ready. Coan played some of the best football of his college career in the first half, completing 24 of 33 passes.

Every move and decision Notre Dame made was working. Oklahoma State brought an all-out blitz in the first quarter but Coan calmly floated a pass over the pressure to Chris Tyree, who ran untouched 53 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead as Freeman clapped his hands on the sideline.

Coan later threw a perfectly placed ball to tight end Michael Mayer for a 7-yard touchdown and a 28-7 lead and the Irish looked every bit like the juggernaut that won the last six regular-season games by at least 10 points.

That’s about the time things started to unravel.

Oklahoma State needed just 39 seconds to travel 75 yards on four plays, scoring a crucial touchdown with 37 seconds left in the second quarter to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 28-14 at the break.

It was a bellwether of what was to come for the Irish defense, which couldn’t stop Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders on the ground or through the air. Sanders finished with 371 yards passing and four touchdowns, including three to Tay Martin. The quarterback also had 125 yards rushing.

It wasn’t a huge surprise the Irish opted to go for a pass-heavy offense against the Cowboys. Their top running back Kyren Williams opted out of the Fiesta Bowl, leaving a huge hole in the offense.

But after the fast start, Coan struggled in the second half. He completed just 14 of 35 passes after the break. The defense also faded as the game progressed and the Irish gave up 605 total yards.

Freeman said he hopes the team’s players who are returning use Saturday’s loss as motivation.

“We’ll get back to work,” Freeman said. “That’s the only thing we know how to do. Win or lose, we’re going to get back to work, we’re going to find ways to improve and make sure we’re even more prepared to have success next time we’re on the field.”

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