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Everything was going wonderfully in Marcus Freeman’s debut as Notre Dame head coach. And then the wheels fell off.
Facing Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame was carving up the OSU defense with its passing game and jumped out to a 28-7 lead late in the first half. And with the Notre Dame defense stifling the OSU offense, it looked like the Irish would cruise to a victory to kick off the Freeman era in South Bend in style.
Instead, Oklahoma State stormed back and scored 30 unanswered points en route to a 37-35 victory over the Irish.
Notre Dame’s defense simply had no answers in the second half. The Cowboys cut Notre Dame’s lead to 28-14 with a four-play, 75-yard drive right before halftime and that carried over into the second half.
In the third quarter, Oklahoma State embarked on scoring drives of 87 and 89 yards to tie the score at 28-28. Spencer Sanders, who struggled mightily in OSU’s Big 12 title game loss, was excellent during the comeback. And before the quarter came to an end, Oklahoma had a 31-28 lead — its first of the ballgame.
From there, the Cowboys added on two more field goals to make it 37-28 late in the fourth while the defense put the clamps on Notre Dame’s offense. The lead actually should have been bigger. Oklahoma State fumbled twice inside the Notre Dame 15 in the fourth quarter, including once just before crossing the plane of the goal line.
But those mistakes wouldn’t matter. The heralded Oklahoma State defense, playing without defensive coordinator Jim Knowles (who left for Ohio State), made the halftime adjustments it needed and overwhelmed the Irish throughout the second half. The Irish wouldn’t get on the second half scoreboard until there was just 1:05 remaining. It was too late.
With the win, Oklahoma State reached the 12-win mark for just the second time in program history. The Cowboys lost a heartbreaker in the Big 12 title game and just missed out on a College Football Playoff berth. A New Year’s Six bowl win over a program like Notre Dame has to feel like a strong consolation for the Cowboys.
On the Notre Dame side, it was a pretty stunning collapse after such a hot start. Jack Coan was on fire early, throwing for 342 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. Those passing lanes for Coan were not there in the second half as he was just 14-of-35 for 167 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the game’s last two quarters.
By comparison, Sanders was 23-of-30 for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. He finished the game with a season-high 371 yards and four touchdowns through the air. He also rushed for 125 yards, another season high.
There’s still a lot to be optimistic about for Notre Dame under Freeman, but this is a game that will leave a bad taste throughout the offseason.