Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman will learn from first big-game miss at Fiesta Bowl

Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman will learn from first big-game miss at Fiesta Bowl


The first half of Marcus Freeman’s debut as Notre Dame head coach was a hit.

The second half, however, was a reminder of the pressure Freeman inherited when he took over for the departed Brian Kelly on Dec. 3, 2021. No. 9 Oklahoma State rallied from a 28-7 deficit and beat No. 5 Notre Dame 37-35 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. 

With the loss, Notre Dame (11-2) dropped to 0-8 in Bowl Championship Series/New Year’s Day Six bowls. A victory would have made for a fantastic entrance for Freeman. Kelly, who left as Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach, had a 3-10 record against top-10 teams from 2010-21.

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Freeman was thrust into that head-coaching role and had an opportunity to make a splash, albeit without star safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams.

That looked like it would happen in a fast-paced first half. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who opted to stay with Freeman in South Bend, had a fantastic game plan.

Quarterback Jack Coan hit freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. for a 29-yard TD on the game’s first possession and added a well-timed screen pass to Chris Tyree for a 53-yard TD. Coan found standout tight end Michael Mayer for a pair of TDs in the second quarter, which built a 28-7 lead with 1:16 left in the half. Coan had 342 of his 509 passing yards by halftime, but the Irish had just 14 carries for 16 yards.

That caught up with them. Oklahoma State (12-2) is used to those Big 12 style shootouts. Quarterback Spencer Sanders, who finished with a Fiesta Bowl record 496 total yards, led a TD drive before half.

The Cowboys had 374 yards in the second half and scored 30 unanswered points. If not for a pair of red-zone fumbles in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma State would have tacked on more. Notre Dame had 42 rushing yards in the loss. 

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Freeman might be second-guessed for opting to go for it on fourth-and-7 from the Irish 15 yard line down six with 2:38 remaining, which allowed Oklahoma State to kick another field goal and put the game out of reach.

Coan threw a 25-yard TD to Kevin Austin Jr. with 1:05 remaining, but it wasn’t enough at that point. Those are easy second-guesses that could go either way in back-and-forth shootouts. It still goes down as another big-game bowl loss for the Irish, and that list dates back to the Bob Davie era: 

Notre Dame in BCS/NY6 Bowls 

2000 No. 5 Oregon State 41 No. 10 Notre Dame 9
2005 No. 4 Ohio State 34 No. 5 Notre Dame 20
2006 No. 4 LSU 41 No. 11 Notre Dame 14
2012 No. 2 Alabama 42 No. 1 Notre Dame 14
2018 No. 7 Ohio State 44 No. 8 Notre Dame 28
2018 No. 2 Clemson 30 No. 3 Notre Dame 3
2021 No. 1 Alabama 31 No. 4 Notre Dame 14
2022 No. 9 Oklahoma State 37 No. 5 Notre Dame 35

The full-scale outlook on Freeman doesn’t change despite losing a 21-point lead. The 35-year-old coach brings back a talented roster, and Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner will battle for the starting quarterback job unless the Irish dip into the transfer portal. 

Tyree and Mayer are proven playmakers, and Styles’ 136-yard breakout performance was a sign of things to come. Freeman will continue to have a hand in improving the defense, and that adds up to yet another top-10 preseason ranking. Notre Dame has won 10 or more games in five straight seasons, and Kelly left the cupboard full.

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The value of New Year’s Day Six bowls has diminished, but this was an opportunity for Freeman to start a new era off by erasing that losing streak.

He won’t have to wait long for another chance. Freeman will travel back to his alma mater when the Irish face Ohio State on Sept. 3 in the 2022 season opener. That will be the most-anticipated September non-conference game, and another chance for the Irish to dispel the narrative about their big-game troubles. 

“The honeymoon stage is over,” Freeman said after the Fiesta Bowl loss.

Freeman will know what to expect now.