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First-half offensive onslaught not enough for Notre Dame in Fiesta Bowl collapse

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Tay Martin #1 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys makes a catch for a touchdown past Clarence Lewis #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the third quarter during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

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So ends the Marcus Freeman honeymoon.

“We obviously didn’t finish,” the new Notre Dame head coach said after a 37-35 loss in the Fiesta Bowl. “The outcome wasn’t what we wanted. We’re obviously disappointed.”

The Irish had No. 9 Oklahoma State (12-2) right where they wanted before the Cowboys responded with 30 straight points. Even after the crux of that collapse, unexpectedly trailing 34-28, No. 5 Notre Dame (11-2) had chances to end the season on a high note and start the Freeman era with a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Instead, the last-minutes drive got started only when it was much too little, much too late, completing what could be described as nothing but an Irish collapse. Notre Dame’s first-half offensive explosion staked it to a 28-7 lead just before halftime, and its following failures on both sides of the ball eventually resulted in the 37-35 loss, a score made closer by a garbage-time touchdown.

After that record-setting touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer — his seventh score of the season, the most from a tight end in Irish history — Notre Dame gave up a quick Cowboys touchdown before the break, and the comeback was on. Oklahoma State blew through the Irish in the third quarter, scoring 17 points to take the lead and put Notre Dame on the brink.

The Irish desperately needed to respond to Oklahoma State’s surge before the sudden deficit became double digits. Instead, the Cowboys stripped freshman running back Logan Diggs. Within moments, Oklahoma State looked to be on the verge of a double-digit lead, only for Notre Dame junior linebacker Jack Kiser to strip Cowboys receiver Brennan Presley just before Presley could cross the goal line.

The Irish did nothing with that gift, a three-and-out series neither threatening for the lead nor giving the Notre Dame defense a chance to catch its breath, but a personal foul face-masking penalty stalled Oklahoma State in the red zone, the subsequent field goal keeping the Irish within one possession.

But Notre Dame did nothing with that reprieve, either. And yet, the next time the Cowboys were on the brink of putting away the Irish, junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey stripped Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders, giving Notre Dame’s offense one last chance. The Freeman honeymoon could continue if the Irish could channel past comebacks and cover 89 yards in 3:07.

Three incompletions later and the Cowboys were set up for the field goal that sealed the game and the comeback that felt more like a rout.

“For me obviously, as the leader of this program, again, it’s a pit in your stomach,” Freeman said. “As I told the group a minute ago, that you want to bottle it up and you want to remember how this feels. The honeymoon stage is over. The whole new head coach, it’s a great story, but now it’s about having a great product and it’s about having a great team.

“We have to make sure that it’s about developing this team for next year. This year is over, so everything we do from now moving forward is going to be development and making sure we’re prepared to have success.”

A Notre Dame touchdown drive in the final minutes allowed Kevin Austin to find the end zone and Jack Coan to nearly set the Irish record for passing yards in a game with 509 — just 17 yards short of Joe Theismann’s 42-year-old record — along with five touchdowns, but it did not change the outcome in Freeman’s head-coaching debut.

Coan erupted in the first half for what would usually be a game’s worth of stats, throwing for 342 yards and four touchdowns on 24-of-33 passing. Freeman said that success was why Notre Dame never turned to freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. After sharing time with Coan for most of the season, Buchner did not take a snap Saturday.

Without him, the Irish never developed a run game. In the first half, they took 13 carries for 17 yards (sacks adjusted), and even with some rushing emphasis in the second half, Notre Dame finished the game with 19 carries for 52 yards, led by Diggs’ nine rushes for 29 yards.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, found some balance. The Cowboys rushed for 245 yards (sack adjusted), averaging 5.7 yards per carry, while Sanders threw for 371 more. He was also Oklahoma State’s leading rusher, his combined 496 yards from scrimmage outdone by just one individual Irish opponent in history, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s 502 in 2010.

Specifically, Sanders picked on Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis. Not that any one player was responsible for the second-half debacle, but Sanders repeatedly connected with receiver Tay Martin in the third quarter at Lewis’ expense.

“We got to do a better job, maybe mixing it up,” Freeman said. “But you know what? [Lewis] is gonna do great things for us and he’s done great things for us.”

Martin finished with 104 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches.

First Quarter13:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Lorenzo Styles 29-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma State 0. (5 plays, 75 yards, 1:39)7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 53-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Oklahoma State 0. (4 plays, 66 yards, 2:08)1:46 — Oklahoma State touchdown. Jaden Bray 9-yard pass from Spencer Sanders. Tanner Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Oklahoma State 7. (8 plays, 82 yards, 2:29)

Second Quarter11:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 16-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Oklahoma State 7. (10 plays, 78 yards, 3:43)1:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 7-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Oklahoma State 7. (11 plays, 84 yards, 4:25)0:37 — Oklahoma State touchdown. Tay Martin 9-yard pass from Sanders. Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Oklahoma State 14. (4 plays, 75 yards, 0:39)

Third Quarter10:52 — Oklahoma State touchdown. Martin 5-yard pass from Sanders. Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Oklahoma State 21. (12 plays, 87 yards, 4:08)2:47 — Oklahoma State touchdown. Martin 8-yard pass from Sanders. Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Oklahoma State 28. (10 plays, 89 yards, 2:22)0:06 — Oklahoma State field goal. Brown 38 yards. Oklahoma State 31, Notre Dame 28. (7 plays, 36 yards, 2:17)

Fourth Quarter9:07 — Oklahoma State field goal. Brown 41 yards. Oklahoma State 34, Notre Dame 28. (7 plays, 37 yards, 2:40)
2:16 — Oklahoma State field goal. Brown 25 yards. Oklahoma State 37, Notre Dame 28. (4 plays, 7 yards, 0:22)
1:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 25-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Oklahoma State 37, Notre Dame 35. (8 plays, 75 yards, 1:11)

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