And In That Corner … No. 9 Oklahoma State and Marcus Freeman’s first challenge as Notre Dame’s head coach

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
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Bowl games bring unusual opponents after long layoffs. That is their charm. That is also what makes for unexpected moments from unknown players. When No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) faces No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) on Saturday (1 ET; ESPN), it will be the first matchup between the two programs, not to mention the first game for new Irish head coach Marcus Freeman.

To give some insights on these Cowboys, let’s turn to Hallie Hart of the Stillwater News Press

DF: Let’s start with bowl season’s always-present uncertainty, primarily with that dreaded o-word: opt-outs. To be fair, I don’t think I have heard Mike Gundy gripe about them this year, just a few too many other coaches. To my pre-Christmas memory, Oklahoma State had lost a running back and a safety to opt-out and/or transfer. Do I have that right? In that respect, the Cowboys are oddly similar to Notre Dame. Those pieces must be more easily replaced than Kyren Williams and Kyle Hamilton, right?

HH: Leading up to the bowl game, four Cowboys entered the transfer portal. You’re right, that group includes a running back (Dezmon Jackson, 19 carries in the Big 12 championship game) as well as a safety (Tanner McCalister, 37 tackles this season). Offensive lineman Hunter Anthony and defensive lineman Jayden Jernigan are also in the portal. However, their decisions don’t necessarily equate to Fiesta Bowl opt-outs. 

“I plan on finishing out the season with my team, and ending out the year strong,” Jackson said on Twitter. It appears that McCalister and Jernigan are doing the same – during the Monday media videoconference, Gundy said the two defenders will compete in the bowl game. 

It’s tough to compare any of those Cowboys to Williams and Hamilton, who have clearly been two of Notre Dame’s top stars, though the Irish had to reshuffle their defense after Hamilton’s injury. But McCalister and Jernigan have played key roles in the Cowboys’ defensive unit, and Jackson has backed up first-string rusher Jaylen Warren. Oklahoma State has prided itself on depth this season, so the team needs as many available contributors as possible.

Of course, that comes with senior running back Jaylen Warren a question mark. Maybe that question mark is only in my head. Oklahoma State did not have him in the Big 12 championship game, an injury that arguably cost the Cowboys’ a Playoff spot and an absence that only came to light the day of the game. That latter part is why I quietly — and now not so quietly — remain a little dubious he will play Saturday. If I am being too conspiratorial, how healthy is Warren?

In the words of Warren himself, “100 percent.” 

We talked to Warren on Wednesday, and he is looking forward to the opportunity to join his teammates for one last game in an Oklahoma State jersey. Before the Cowboys left for Arizona, Gundy had said Warren was doing well, but they had been taking a cautious approach and somewhat limiting his involvement in practice.

Now, Warren is eager to return.

Grant me the assumption that most Notre Dame fans watched Oklahoma State only in that loss-by-inches to Baylor. How much better is the Cowboys offense with Warren compared to that Saturday afternoon?

Warren can fuel the run game, and he also provides an abstract quality that makes a major difference: energy. Something special happens when he bowls past defenders and dives ahead for extra yards. The Cowboy offense clicks.

That didn’t happen in Arlington during the Big 12 title game.  Jackson and Dominic Richardson are talented rushers, and so is quarterback Spencer Sanders, but they couldn’t change the fact that Oklahoma State lost its offensive spark with Warren on the sideline instead of in the game. Without him, the story of this season would probably be different.

This game is going to be a slog, in my mind. At no point this season, Bedlam aside, did Oklahoma State rely on its offense for a win. Take out routs of Kansas and TCU and the Cowboys averaged 28.0 points per game, hardly the mark of an explosive team in 2021. It’s hard to fathom, though, given this is Oklahoma State and Mike Gundy. Can you describe that massive change for me in something less than the 2,000 words it probably deserves?

There’s no denying that this Oklahoma State team has strayed from the Gundy-era pattern. As you mentioned, the Cowboys have typically been known for high-powered offense, while the defense hasn’t received much attention.

This year, Oklahoma State flipped that trend upside down. The Cowboys have dealt with uncharacteristic offensive lulls, and a stout defensive unit has had to rescue them. They had a rocky road from the beginning with diminished offensive depth because of injuries.

As the season progressed, newcomers improved, and so did Oklahoma State’s health. The offense has done enough to slip past some tough opponents, but you’re not going to see a revival of the Brandon Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon connection. Instead, the hallmark of this team is dependable defense, and Notre Dame also has a gritty defensive unit, which means I think you’re correct in not expecting a high-scoring Fiesta Bowl.

Adding to that big-picture thinking, this seems to be the usual cyclical peak for the Cowboys. They were in the Sugar Bowl in 2015, the Cotton Bowl in 2013 and the Fiesta Bowl in 2011, winning only a decade ago. I know this is kind of a bland and broad question, but what does this appearance mean to the program? Oklahoma State doesn’t have the hook that Notre Dame does of chasing a major bowl win, thanks to that overtime victory against Stanford and Andrew Luck.

Of course, the Cowboys were disappointed to miss the College Football Playoff after falling to Baylor in the Big 12 title game. They couldn’t avoid heartbreak, but this was the next best scenario for Oklahoma State.

Reaching a New Year’s Six bowl is a significant achievement, and this time, the opponent matters as much as the game. Gundy has talked about how meaningful it is for him to face a tradition-rich program like Notre Dame. Defensive end Tyler Lacy said the same. This is a historic first meeting between the Cowboys and the Irish, and the Fiesta Bowl is an ideal stage for the matchup. 

I’ve covered some of the details of the weekend. I’ve touched on the concept of motivation in a bowl game. I guess the only thing left to do is ask what you think we’ll see Saturday afternoon.

I think we’ll see a suspenseful game full of momentum shifts. This is a fairly even matchup, so I don’t anticipate a blowout victory for either side. Throughout the season, Gundy has often predicted (sometimes accurately, and other times not) “fourth-quarter games” for the Cowboys. That’s exactly what I’m expecting when they face Notre Dame.