Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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6 JANUARY 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED D id that really happen? Did Notre Dame really usher in the new year and a new coaching era with a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, only to allow 30 straight points and eventually lose 37-35? Did Notre Dame really lose the only game of the previous 80 when it held a 21-point lead? Did Oklahoma State actually win a game that analytics in the second quarter indicated it had only a four percent chance of doing so? What happened in Arizona needed to stay in Arizona. But un- fortunately, this damning defeat for a program and drastic debut for its new head coach had a first- class seat on the charter back to South Bend, because this one won't soon be forgotten. "The honeymoon stage is over," Mar- cus Freeman grandly understated after the game. "The whole new head coach, it's a great story, but now it's about hav- ing a great product and it's about having a great team." Big picture, it's just another bad bowl loss for Notre Dame. Outside of the Music City, Pinstripe and Camping World tier, bad bowl losses have been the norm for this pro- gram since 1994. But this one was different because the fairytale felt so right while Notre Dame built its 21-point lead. With the players rallying around their new head coach, Freeman looked like the perfect choice to lead this program to new heights, until midnight struck. "All we can do now," Freeman said, "is start focusing on what we'll do as we move forward to make sure that we're successful the next time we are on the field." And while a loss is just a loss if it has no national championship consequences, somehow getting blown out by Okla- homa State would've felt more tolerable with key injuries, a coaching transition and player opt-outs already built in as understandable excuses for Notre Dame. Instead, this was the worst collapse in a game for the Irish since they blew a 24-point advantage to Tennessee in 1991, and it was also the biggest come- back win in Oklahoma State and Fiesta Bowl history. But beyond flipping a lousy bowl legacy, the Fiesta flop cost Freeman a chance to set an immediate and posi- tive tone for the Fighting Irish fan base during a long offseason before a date at Ohio State Sept. 3, while at the same time, send a message to prospective re- cruits that his program is ready to move from relevant to elite. Consider the positive momentum and fresh "new era" message Freeman could've sold in the living rooms of pro- spective recruits with a Fiesta win. "We'll get back to work," he said. "That's the only thing we know how to do, win or lose, we're going to get back to work." So, with Freeman's honeymoon cut about eight months shorter than hoped, uncertainty surrounding the coach will damper his popularity, and two impor- tant questions will linger between now and the Labor Day weekend trip to Co- lumbus, Ohio. TOO MUCH, TOO SOON? When Oklahoma State made its halftime adjustments to take away a Notre Dame passing at- tack that gained 342 yards and scored four touchdowns in the first half, why weren't Free- man and Irish offensive coor- dinator Tommy Rees inspired to insert freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner into the game, if for no other reason, as a change of pace to loosen the Cowboys defense? From the outside looking in, and with five weeks to practice and plan, Buchner should have been overly prepared as a criti- cal asset in the game plan, es- pecially given the presumption that he'll make his first career start at Ohio State. TROUBLE SPOT? How, in the next eight months, is Notre Dame going to improve a worri- some defensive secondary that allowed Cowboys redshirt junior quarterback Spencer Sanders to lead the nation's 67th-ranked passing offense to 371 yards through the air, four touchdown throws and no interceptions? Ohio State returns Heisman hope- ful quarterback CJ Stroud and dynamic wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who led the Rose Bowl champions with 95 catches and 1,606 receiving yards as a sophomore. The Buckeyes finished third nationally in passing offense in 2021 (380.9 yards per game) and were also third with 46 touchdown passes. Again, this loss to Oklahoma State is just a defeat from a broad perspective, and Freeman shouldn't be judged solely on this Fiesta Fiasco. But at least for the time being, it's going to be hard to get this one out of our heads. ✦ Marcus Freeman's debut began with a 28-7 lead, but turned sour after the Fighting Irish allowed the biggest comeback in Oklahoma State and Fiesta Bowl history. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl Flop Makes For A Long Offseason UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at

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