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Notre Dame Football

Desert Disappointment: Notre Dame fails to hold big lead, falls in Fiesta

January 1, 2022

No coronation.

No senior send-off

No winning debut.

Nothing much memorable about Notre Dame’s latest shortcoming in a New Year’s Six setting, despite all the new elements within the program.

The Fighting Irish raced to a 28-7 first-half lead Saturday, and it seemed this PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in front of a crowd of 49,550 State Farm Stadium might be something of a national statement about a new Notre Dame program.

Then an undaunted Oklahoma State squad score the game’s next 30 points in a stunning, 37-35 setback that marred the first-ever game for Marcus Freeman as Notre Dame head coach and denied the program’s deep senior class the opportunity to exit the Arizona desert as Fiesta Bowl champions.

The game simultaneously marked the largest-ever comeback-win for Oklahoma State and Notre Dame’s worst come-from-ahead setback in a postseason game.

“Obviously didn’t finish the outcome that we wanted,” said Freeman, who took over the Irish program after Brian Kelly bolted to LSU after the conclusion of the regular-season. “Obviously disappointed. …

“I thought the kids prepared tremendously. … At the end of the day, we didn’t execute when it mattered most. More than anything there’s a group that is 1, disappointed, and 2, motivated. Motivated to right what happened today.”

The Irish (11-2) got a Jack Coan to Kevin Austin scoring connection with 65 ticks left on the clock to pull within two, 37-35.

Their last-gasp attempt for a miracle never had a chance.

Jonathan Doerer, who earlier missed a crucial 41-yard field-goal attempt that would have padded the Irish’s second-quarter bulge, saw his onside-kick attempt bounce short and softly into the arms of Oklahoma State’s Jason Taylor II.

A couple of kneel-downs later for Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders, who riddled the Irish defense for 496 yards’ total offense that included a whopping 125 on the ground, extended Notre Dame’s major bowl/College Football Playoff losing streak to 10 games and almost three decades.

This after Oklahoma State (12-2) didn’t nab its first lead, 31-28, until Tanner Brown’s 38-yard field goal with just six seconds left on the third-quarter clock – the first of Brown’s three-straight makes after a first-half miss sailed wide right. Brown also converted from 41 and 25 yards out to cap the Cowboys’ 30-straight points.

For almost the entirety of the first half, this game appeared to be a national statement for the Irish and Freeman, the 35-year-old first-team head coach who was officially hired by the school Dec. 3.

Notre Dame raced to the seemingly commanding 28-7 lead, and Coan looked unstoppable guiding the Irish aerial attack.

Playing his last-ever game for the Irish in his lone season as quarterback, Coan riddled the Cowboys’ defense for 342 first-half yards, four touchdowns and 24 completions – the yardage and completions reflecting Notre Dame bowl records.

Coan made it look easy with a game-opening score to Lorenzo Styles, and he added a 53-yard scoring strike to Chris Tyree when the Cowboys unleashed on a heavy blitz on third down.

The Cowboys got on the board with a Jaden Bray touchdown reception from Sanders.

Still, Notre Dame again struck quickly with back-to-back strikes. Coan hit Michael Mayer for consecutive Irish touchdowns that covered 16 and 7 yards, respectively – as the sophomore Mayer passed Cole Kmet for the program’s single-season scoring record with his sixth and seventh touchdowns.

But Oklahoma State engineered a shockingly swift scoring drive to close the first half with momentum, and by the time Notre Dame again scored, it simply was too late.

Coan in the losing effort established Fiesta Bowl records with 509 yards and 68 passing attempts, and tied the bowl’s record with five passing touchdowns. Coan finishes his lone season as Irish signal-caller with 3,150 passing yards, 25 touchdowns through the air and seven interceptions.

“It’s definitely very tough, when you have a lead like that at half you want to be able to build upon that and win,” Coan said.

Styles had by far the most productive game of his first college season; the freshman wideout finished with 136 receiving yards and the score.

Isaiah Foskey, whose NFL decision might loom largest for the Irish defense, climbed up the program’s single-season sacks record with his 11th, and he also added a forced fumble late that kept alive Notre Dame’s hopes.

The Irish then had a four-and-out on offense, and Brown’s final triple finished the Cowboys’ scoring. Notre Dame earlier had forced a potentially vital turnover, when Drew White forced a fumble that Ramon Henderson recovered in the end zone to set up the Irish offense at the 20-yard line.

Oklahoma State outgained Notre Dame, 605 yards to 551, and limited the Irish to a scant 42 rushing yards. 

“This is a learning opportunity,” Freeman said. “… Let’s hopefully next time not put ourselves in that situation.”

It gets no easier for Freeman’s path at Notre Dame. His first regular-season game as Irish head coach arrives Sept. 3 against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. The Irish also have games next season at North Carolina, against BYU in Las Vegas and at the University of Southern California, headed by new coach Lincoln Riley, and a home date to open November against Clemson, among other high-profile contests.

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