The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will culminate the 2021 campaign in Saturday's PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against the Oklahoma State Cowboys led by new head coach Marcus Freeman, stepping in for Brian Kelly who departed for LSU after 12 seasons at the helm. Consistency at the top has been a common theme for the Cowboys, meanwhile, with Mike Gundy finishing off his 17th season — and 16th straight winning season — in Stillwater.
The Fighting Irish opened the 2021 season with a pair of three-point wins over Florida State and Toledo, followed by a 27-13 home win over Purdue and a 41-13 win over Wisconsin in Chicago's Soldier Field, the latter moving their Shamrock Series record to a perfect 10-0 since initiating the neutral-site series in 2009. A 24-13 Week 5 loss to then-No. 7 (now No. 4) Cincinnati was the lone setback as Notre Dame rebounded with a 32-29 victory in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech, the first of its seven straight wins to close the regular season while allowing 16 or fewer points in five of the seven.
The Cowboys, likewise, were victorious in the first four weeks — with three of the four wins by just one possession — which moved the Cowboys into the AP Top 25 going into October. Their ascent continued thanks to two more wins over fellow ranked Big 12 representatives in Baylor and Texas before a Week 8 trip to Ames as Iowa State erased a seven-point halftime deficit to hand then-No. 8 Oklahoma State its first and only loss of the regular season. The Cowboys closed the regular season with five more wins, including a 37-33 shootout over then-No. 10 Oklahoma in the finale, before Baylor avenged its Week 5 loss in Stillwater with a 21-16 Big 12 Championship Game victory in AT&T Stadium.
This will be the sixth Fiesta Bowl appearance for Notre Dame and the third for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have won both of their previous trips in 1974 and 2012, while the Fighting Irish's lone Fiesta Bowl win in 1989 — when QB Tony Rice and DE Frank Stams took home MVP honors — capped off the 1988 season with the program's most recent national championship.
Additionally, a 12th win awaits this year's Fiesta Bowl champion. Such a finish would be Notre Dame's fifth overall and third in 10 years, most recently in 2018 en route to its first College Football Playoff appearance. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has only one 12-win season to its credit (2011) and also closed by a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, the Cowboys' most recent New Year's Six bowl triumph and only one under Gundy.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
Spread: Notre Dame -2
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
The Fighting Irish finished the regular season just above the national midpoint in total yardage, but the offense more than made the most of its gains to finish in the top 20 in the FBS in scoring (35.3 ppg). Notre Dame will need to find a way to replace a significant portion of that productivity, however, as leading rusher Kyren Williams declared for the NFL draft and opted out of the Fiesta Bowl.
Williams leads the team with 1,002 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, alongside 42 receptions for 359 yards and three more scores. Those 17 touchdowns represent 32 percent (53 total) of the team's output thus far.
True freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner was second on the team in rushing with 336 yards and three scores, with Saturday's likely starter Chris Tyree totaling 204 yards and a touchdown on 50 carries, while freshman Logan Diggs was right behind with 201 yards (with three scores).
The constant amidst the changes will be quarterback Jack Coan, whose play throughout the season has evolved thanks to substantial improvements by the offensive line. The graduate transfer from Wisconsin has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions coming in the final five weeks. Coan's play in the back half of the schedule was ultimately fueled in large part by having more time in the pocket to find an open receiver. He was sacked 19 times in the first four weeks compared to a total 11 of over the final eight regular-season games.
Staying ahead of the chains will be a key to the Irish's offensive success as Oklahoma State's defense has made a living when it comes to coming up with negative plays. The Cowboys enter this game leading the FBS in both sacks (55) and tackles for a loss (113). The former could definitely be a problem, given Notre Dame's previous issues with pass protection.
There hasn't necessarily been one dominant playmaker on the defensive side of the ball for OSU, adding to the challenge facing the Irish's line. Freshman Collin Oliver leads the way with 11.5 sacks, followed by seniors Brock Martin (seven) and Devin Harper (six).
Oklahoma State also enters this game leading the Big 12 and ranking among the top 15 nationally in the major categories. The Cowboys are third overall in total defense (278.4 ypg), fifth against the run (91.2), 12th against the pass (187.2), and eighth in points allowed per game (16.8). Another strength of the unit has been its ability to stop opponents on third down: the Cowboys have allowed conversions on just 26.1 percent (49 of 188) of third downs this season, the second-best mark in the FBS.
When Oklahoma State Has the Ball
The Cowboys' offense has had its ups and downs this season, eclipsing 30 points just twice in its first seven games — averaging 25.7 per game in that span — but doing so three times in the final five weeks. That second half of the season was about as clear of a home-field advantage as could be evident, with Oklahoma State scoring 55, 63, and 37 points in its final three regular-season home games — fueling a 37.3 points per game season-long scoring average in Stillwater — nearly two touchdowns per game better than its 24.2 clip across five regular-season road games.
Oklahoma State may not be the most prolific attack on offense, but the Cowboys have been fairly well balanced, to the tune of 221.2 yards per game through the air and 181.8 on the ground. Leading rusher Jaylen Warren missed the Big 12 title game loss to Baylor with an injury but says he is "100 percent" healthy and should return for his first bowl game with the Cowboys after spending the previous two seasons at Utah State. After being held under 100 rushing yards in five of his last six games, Warren will look to replicate his early-season play, which included his 218-yard, two-touchdown effort in Oklahoma State's narrow 21-20 win at Boise State in Week 3.
When not handing off to Warren, quarterback Spencer Sanders will tend to make some of his own plays on the ground in addition to the passing game. Sanders has 22 touchdowns to his name, 16 of which have come through the air. A key for Sanders on Saturday will be limiting the turnovers. In his first five games (missed the opener against FCS Southwest Missouri State), Sanders had six touchdown passes compared to five interceptions as the Cowboys went 5-0. He then picked it up, with nine scores and only pick over the next five contests (4-1 record), before stumbling late. Against Oklahoma (win) and Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game (loss), Sanders had just one touchdown and six INTs. He has to take care of the football against this Notre Dame defense.
Sanders' primary targets in the passing game have been Tay Martin and Brennan Presley. The pair is responsible for 12 of Sanders' 16 touchdown passes with Martin leading the team in both receptions (5.8 per game, second in Big 12) and yards (78.5 per game, third). Presley also has been a weapon on special teams, averaging more than 36 yards per kickoff return, including taking one back 100 yards for a touchdown in the Bedlam win over the Sooners.
The Fighting Irish's defense may not be as high atop the national leaderboards as Oklahoma State's, but this unit has been quite stingy, especially as the season has progressed. Under Freeman's leadership as defensive coordinator, Notre Dame limited its final four opponents to 23 total points, embarking on a run of 14 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
The Irish will aim to keep that momentum going without safety Kyle Hamilton, however, after the All-American announced that he would opt out of the bowl game in preparation for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Even without Hamilton — and potentially also without top cornerback Cam Hart, who is dealing with a lower-body injury — Freeman will still have plenty of reliable contributors to count on. Linebacker JD Bertrand went from a practice-squad contributor to a fixture in the middle, pacing the team in tackles in eight of 12 regular-season games en route to totaling a team-high 92 for the season. His play together with that of senior Drew White (second on the team with 49 tackles, along with 4.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, INT returned for a touchdown) as well as versatile defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (47 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 10 sacks) and the interior tandem of Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (11 TFLs and 4.5 sacks combined) will be a tough obstacle for the Cowboys to fully account for on Saturday.
Both of these defenses have played extremely well at times throughout the season, with Oklahoma State among the nation's leaders in virtually every major category, while Notre Dame has been more of a consistently strong unit. Whichever offense can better overcome injuries and opt-outs combined with a lengthy pause since last taking the field has the best shot to win this Fiesta Bowl and start the new year on the right foot. To that end, the Irish seem to have the advantage, since they have scored 30 or more points in six of their past seven wins to close out the regular season while the Cowboys did this just three times — all at home — in the same span.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Oklahoma State 20
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.