Marcus Freeman Era Set to Commence at Fiesta Bowl

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The Marcus Freeman era is set to begin for Notre Dame at the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish seek their first New Year’s Six bowl victory since January 1st, 1994. Saturday’s game marks the 27th anniversary of that victory in the Cotton Bowl. After that game, Notre Dame lost nine straight postseason appearances and they’re also working on a nine-game losing streak in BCS or New Year’s 6 bowl games. Can Marcus Freeman, in his first game as head coach, change that stretch of bad fortune for the Irish? They’ll face a stiff challenge in the ninth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Big 12 runner-ups were about a half-yard short from potential CFP qualification. In the Big 12 championship, Baylor stonewalled Mike Gundys squad at the goal line to preserve the victory. 

Marcus Freeman Era begins in hostile territory

The Irish have not exactly had a fantastic time in their recent Fiesta Bowl appearances. Their history with the bowl started swimmingly; the Irish won the 1988 national championship over West Virginia in their first-ever appearance. However, since then, Notre Dame is 0-4 in their appearances at the Fiesta Bowl. They never came closer than 14 points and lost by an average score of 40-20. 

It seems fitting that given the turmoil that surrounded the departure of Brian Kelly, the Freeman era starts in Arizona and in January. The Irish are 1-11 in their past 12 January football games. Can the Irish kick off their new head coach’s tenure with a victory. They are 2-point favorites against the Cowboys and their elite defense. 

Oklahoma State Preview

The Cowboys undoubtedly lean on their defense – a rare formula for success in the Big 12. No offense scored more than 24 points on Oklahoma State. Only Oklahoma exceeded that point total, and they got nine points from their defense in a 37-33 loss. The Cowboys are strong against both the run and pass, ranking fifth in rush defense and sixth versus the pass. They give up just 268.5 yards per game. 

That success starts with Malcolm Rodriguez, one of the best linebackers in the game. Rodriguez has 16 tackles for loss and three sacks. He’s a linchpin of the Oklahoma State 4-2-5 defense, a modern style designed to stop the spread attack. Defensive ends Collin Oliver, Brock Martin, and Tyler Lacy create plenty of chaos in the backfield. Safeties Kolby Harvell-Peel and Jason Taylor combined for five interceptions and are difficult to beat through the air. Corners Christian Holmes and Tanner McCalister have two interceptions and ten pass breakups. 

Offensively, Oklahoma State is above average but not overly scary. They rank 34th in rushing offense and 43rd through the air. Top running back Jaylen Warren is expected to play after missing time with injury. He’s the key to the Cowboys’ offense, accumulating 1325 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in 2021. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is inconsistent, tossing 16 touchdowns and 12 picks this season. He’s best in a game-management role; he threw for 300 yards just once during an 11-2 campaign. However, he does add value as a runner, with 543 yards and six scores on the ground. His top targets are Tay Martin and Brennan Presley. They combined for 58% of Sander’s passing yards and 12 of his 16 touchdowns. The Cowboys were held under 30 points on eight occasions in 2021 and are certainly not unstoppable. 

Keys to starting the Marcus Freeman Era with a W

The Offensive Line

This has to be the #1 priority for a multitude of reasons. First, against an elite-run defense, the Irish need to give their backs a chance. The Cowboys love collapsing the line and getting early contact against opposing rushers. In particular, freshman Joe Alt will be critical for Notre Dame’s chances. With Oklahoma State’s aggressive approach comes a weakness. The Cowboys have given up several big runs created by patient backs avoiding early contact and bouncing outside. Teams have often increased the power of this play against the Cowboys by pulling their left tackle over as an additional blocker. Logan Diggs is a patient runner, and Alt has been phenomenal this season. If the two freshmen play well, Notre Dame will be in a good spot. Oklahoma State also brings a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks’ blindsides and Alt must protect Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner. If the offensive line struggles, it’ll be a long game for the Irish.

Run defense

If you’re Notre Dame, you want this game to be put squarely on the shoulders of Spencer Sanders. Oklahoma State wants to win this game with their running game – not their quarterback that has one touchdown and six interceptions in their past two games. Look to Notre Dame’s run defense, which ranked seventh in the country over its final three games, to step up. Defensive tackle Kurt Hinish leads the group and must hone in on Jaylen Warren. Additionally, the Irish linebackers must be ready to keep an eye on Sanders, who will try to create with his legs.

Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer

These two players are crucial to the Irish’s offensive hopes in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish faced the nation’s #1 rush defense in Wisconsin and leaned on Austin and Mayer in the passing game. That approach will likely remain the same. Mayer is virtually impossible to guard 1-on-1, and Austin is a tough receiver that can win 50-50 balls. Facing a lot of pressure, Coan will need to be able to throw to his first read and trust receivers to make tough catches. Mayer and Austin should be prepared to see a lot of targets on Saturday. 

The Marcus Freeman era begins for real on January 1st. 27 years to the day since Notre Dame last won a major bowl game, can the Irish’s 35-year-old head coach accomplish the feat? The kickoff is at 1 pm Eastern.