Cowboys Storm Back, Claim Fiesta Bowl
The 2021 Fiesta Bowl was a tale of two halves on Saturday. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish came out firing in their first game under head coach Marcus Freeman. An early surge put the Irish up 28-7 with 1:16 to play in the first half. However, Oklahoma State scored at the end of the half, made key locker room adjustments and dominated the final two quarters. Despite struggling to land the knockout blow, the Cowboys chipped away and won 37-35.
Tay Martin victimized the Irish badly, reeling in 10 catches for 104 yards and three touchdowns. Brennan Presley also hauled in 10 receptions for 137 yards. Quarterback Spencer Sanders finished 34-51 for 371 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 125 yards (excluding kneel-downs) on 17 carries, and running back Jaylen Warren added 83 rushing yards. For the Irish, Jack Coan set a Fiesta Bowl record with 68 pass attempts and 509 passing yards and tied a Fiesta record with five passing touchdowns. However, the record that mattered was Oklahoma State’s – their 21-point comeback was the largest comeback in Fiesta Bowl history. The Irish had three 100-yard receivers; Lorenzo Styles had 136, Chris Tyree had 115, and Kevin Austin had 105. All three players had a touchdown reception, and tight end Michael Mayer had two scores.
Fiesta Bowl Quick Hits
The Irish offense was red-hot early, scoring 28 points in the first half. In that performance, Coan completed 24 of 33 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. The running game did very little on the ground, but Tyree was a big contributor as a receiver. He hauled in 111 yards on five receptions including a touchdown. Mayer had two first-half scores, and Styles was the first receiver to find paydirt, catching Coan’s first touchdown pass.
However, the third quarter brought major problems for Notre Dame. Oklahoma State outscored the Irish 17-0 in the period, dominating the flow of the game. Martin became a major issue, with three touchdown receptions, and Notre Dame notched just two first downs in three drives. That left the Irish with a 31-28 deficit entering the fourth quarter. Oklahoma State had several chances to finish the game, but they fumbled twice in the red zone and settled for a field goal. However, the Irish couldn’t capitalize on any defensive momentum, turning the ball over twice themselves. The Cowboys finally hit a third field goal to take a 37-28 lead with 2:16 to play. The Irish scored, but it was too late, and they failed to recover the onside kick.
Quarter 1: Irish On Fire, Cowboys Adapt
The Marcus Freeman era got off to a sizzling start on Saturday afternoon. Their opening drive needed just five plays to march 75 yards for a score. Pass plays of 25, 15 and 29 yards were sparkplugs as Notre Dame faced just one third down and converted it for a touchdown. Coan found a wide-open Styles up the middle for the 29-yard score and early 7-0 lead. Defensively, Isaiah Foskey drilled Sanders for a third-down sack, and the Irish looked to be off to the races.
However, things slowed down a little bit – Notre Dame went 3 & out on their next drive and looked to be headed to a similar fate on their third. However, Tyree collected a short dump pass over the middle and went untouched for 53 yards and a touchdown. Oklahoma State blitzed on the play and no one picked up the sophomore back out of the backfield. Notre Dame got their third straight defensive stop following the score, but the offense again failed to pick up a first down. Finally, the Cowboys garnered some momentum with an efficient eight-play drive. They went 82 yards and utilized a tempo offense to keep the Irish on their heels. A 9-yard sweep by Jaden Bray polished off the drive for Mike Gundy‘s squad.
That kept the deficit manageable for Oklahoma State, but the quarter ended with Notre Dame leading 14-7.
Quarter 2: Notre Dame Offense Stays Hot
Notre Dame regained momentum early in the frame, putting the finishing touches on a quick defensive stop. The Irish then took the ball at their 22-yard line and went 78 yards in 10 plays. Left guard Andrew Kristofic delivered a vicious block on a screen pass for a 16-yard gain on 3rd and 10, keeping the promising drive alive. Coan later found Mayer for 16 yards and a 21-7 lead. The Cowboys failed to respond after a promising start. They marched into Notre Dame territory, but two incompletions and a stuffed run forced a field goal attempt. The 48-yard effort was pushed well to the right, maintaining the current scoreline.
The Irish did miss their own field goal, but ultimately the two offenses traded scores to end the half. The Irish marched 84 yards in 11 plays to take a 28-7 lead with 1:16 to play. Austin starred in this drive with three catches for 44 yards. Mayer finished the job with his second touchdown reception, a diving effort from seven yards out. It was Mayer’s 7th touchdown reception of the year, setting a single-season tight end record for Notre Dame.
However, Oklahoma State responded in four plays to keep the halftime score respectable. Presley hauled in a 41-yard catch to get the Cowboys moving. Martin toe-tapped in the back of the end zone to secure the score.
Quarter 3: Oklahoma State rallies
Oklahoma State completed the second half of their double score to start the third quarter. The drive covered 87 plays in 12 plays, and Oklahoma State converted a pair of third downs after being 0-6 in the first half. Consecutive completions of 15 and 25 yards brought the Cowboys to the Irish five-yard-line, and Martin brought in his second touchdown reception of the afternoon.
After Notre Dame punted, the Irish defense came up with a huge stop, not allowing a first down. The Irish offense managed to flip the field a little bit, getting out to midfield and pinning the Cowboys at their 11-yard-line. That meant little to Sanders and Co. They cruised 89 yards in ten plays. In a balanced effort, Oklahoma State ran for 41 yards and passed for 48 on the drive. Ultimately, Martin again provided the final blow, with an eight-yard touchdown reception. After forcing three straight incompletions, Oklahoma State slapped three more points on the board at the end of the quarter. A 38-yarder gave the Cowboys their first lead of the night, 31-28.
Quarter 4: Cowboys Chip Away, Irish Rally Is Too Late
Things continued to go poorly for the Irish in the fourth quarter. But Oklahoma State struggled to stick the dagger. Between their field goal to end the third quarter and the first two drives of the fourth, the Cowboys had three red zone trips and mustered six points. Irish fifth-year linebacker and captain Drew White forced a fumble on the goal line to keep things within reach. This kept a lethargic Irish offense in the ballgame, even if all the momentum was with the Big 12 regular season champions.
Notre Dame looked to flip that momentum, finally garnering some yards on offense. Completions of 21, 16 and 10 yards brought Notre Dame to the Oklahoma State 24. However, defensive end Brock Martin beat freshman right tackle Blake Fisher for a key first down sack. On second down, Coan forced a throw into double coverage, and Malcolm Rodriguez came up with the interception. The Cowboys got the ball back with 6:35 to play in the half.
By all appearances, the Cowboys finally iced the game. They blistered down the field and converted a 3rd and 10 on a 29-yard pass. But then Sanders fumbled, and White recovered. But again, Notre Dame could do nothing with the chance. They went for a fourth down and didn’t convert, leaving the Cowboys a chip-shot field goal to make it a nine-point game.
That sealed it – Notre Dame scored quickly, but they needed an onside kick attempt. The Irish delivered a solid effort, a chopping ball that nearly eluded the Cowboys, but it was not to be. The Irish lost their fifth consecutive Fiesta Bowl appearance, 37-35. Despite a blistering start, Marcus Freeman falls to 0-1 as a head coach.