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Notre Dame Football

An Early Look at Oklahoma State

December 6, 2021

Less than a yard. That’s how close Oklahoma State came to having a shot at the College Football Playoff.

They might not have ultimately got in, but they would have at least been in the conversation. The Cowboys came up short on that 4th and goal play and lost out on a Big 12 title and any chance at a national championship. Their consolation prize is the Fiesta Bowl and a matchup with Notre Dame.

It’s the third New Year’s Six Bowl for Mike Gundy in his 17 seasons at Oklahoma State and he has to get his program ready to play against an Irish squad that played their best football to end the season.

There are other matchups that might have been a bit more fun for Notre Dame fans, but this one is intriguing because we get to see how much the improvement of Tommy Rees’ offense translates against a legitimately great defense.

Back to those first half of the season defenses

In the first five games of the season, Notre Dame faced five defenses that ended up ranked in the top-40 in F+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings). The top two were Wisconsin (2nd) and Cincinnati (8th). It’s not a coincidence that they struggled to move the ball in both of those games.

Oklahoma State presents the toughest challenge for the Irish offense since then. They are ranked 3rd in F+, 3rd in EPA per play, and 4th in yards per play. They’re 2nd in points per drive.

On paper, they don’t have an obvious weakness. They’re 1st in the country in sack rate, have a 24% Havoc rate, and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles attacks with pressure frequently.

They match up in man to man with their corners over 40% of the time and are able to do that because they hit home on the quarterback so often.

All of the progress Jack Coan and the offensive line has made in the back half of the season will be tested in this game.

A different story on offense

Oklahoma State has had plenty of dynamic receivers and running backs during Gundy’s time in Stillwater, but this team is lacking in that department. It was the defense that carried them to 11 wins. The offense just came along for the ride.

Ranked 53rd in F+, they’re 75th in ESP per play and a dismal 91st in YPP.

Everyone saw the bad version of Spencer Sanders with his four picks against Baylor. He’s thrown for 12 total on the season and against teams with a winning record he has thrown only seven touchdowns against nine interceptions. His mobility is an asset (5.5 yards per carry minus lost sack yardage), but he’s not someone who has proven he can carry their offense as a passer.

Running back Jaylen Warren is more of an x-factor for them. He’s rushed for 1,134 yards and is third in the country in forced missed tackles. They greatly missed him against Baylor, but they rely on him to make those tacklers miss because they aren’t great up front. They’re 95th in average line yards per carry and 87th in EPA per rush.

As difficult as it may be for Notre Dame to put up points against their defense, it should be equally as difficult for their offense to move the ball against Marcus Freeman’s defense.

Freeman’s first game as a head coach has the makings of a low-scoring affair. It might not be all that dissimilar from the game Oklahoma State just played when they lost to Baylor. Of course, it could look a lot different if Notre Dame shows they can handle pressure and beat man coverage better than they did early in the season.

It should be fun to find out where the offense stands because if they can put up a lot of points in this game, it bodes well for how good they can be next season.

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