For a non-Playoff or title-game appearance, this may be Notre Dame’s most-hyped game in decades. The No. 5 Irish (11-1) are already one of the most consistent teams in the country, and now they add a charismatic, young head coach to the mix, making his debut on the sport’s second-biggest stage.
Marcus Freeman’s career at Notre Dame will not be determined today. His success or failure will really begin taking shape in the days to come, with decisions to be made that will impact his first full season. But Freeman’s debut against No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) will still come with overreactions and set a tone for the next nine months before he heads to Columbus, Ohio, to face his alma mater in the 2022 opener.
TIME: 1:00 ET, 11 a.m. local time. These early afternoon New Year’s Day games are usually welcomed begrudgingly by those who most enjoyed New Year’s Eve festivities, though with such gatherings limited this year, perhaps that begrudging can be shelved.
Four years ago, to the minute of kickoff, Notre Dame won in a similar spot, thanks to Ian Book’s last-minute heave to Miles Boykin against No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl, a 55-yard touchdown that somewhat sparked five straight seasons of the Irish winning at least 10 games.
TV: ESPN and thus the Watch ESPN app should be many’s friend. If anyone was worried about the dispute between Disney and YouTube TV earlier in December, rest assured, that was settled two weeks ago and you should have no trouble today watching this game.
PREVIEW: Most precedent gets discarded before a normal bowl game, including New Year’s Day bowls. Too much time has passed since the last game: 28 days for the Cowboys and 35 for the Irish since they last played.
Add in the chaos sown by the pandemic in the last two weeks, and even more uncertainty is afoot than usual, though per both head coaches on Friday, that should not be an issue here. (Knock on wood with all your might right up until kickoff.)
Marcus Freeeman says #NotreDame currently has no COVID cases that will prevent players from participating in tomorrow's Fiesta Bowl.
— Tyler James (@TJamesND) December 31, 2021
But then, add in what Notre Dame has gone through in the last month and the momentum of the second half of the season is no longer the prime factor it once could have been. When Brian Kelly bolted for LSU two days after the Irish concluded their 11-win season at Stanford, he threw chaos into the mix with that momentum. Notre Dame’s positive vibes were “under attack” for three days, to use the phrasing offered by Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, part of the Rees’ reasoning to staying in South Bend rather than joining Kelly in Baton Rouge.
The quick promotion of Freeman led to praise and spin across the board, but that week of tumult still had some effect. It could not otherwise. After all, these are 18- to 22-year-olds we are talking about here.
Bowl games are all too often a question of motivation and cohesiveness. On the surface, Freeman doubled down on both in the first days of December. His first words to the Notre Dame roster as head coach included a bowl-game focus, Playoff or not.
“We’re going to get going toward our mission,” he said on December 3 in the Notre Dame Stadium locker room. “We owe it to the seniors. This isn’t about the future. Let’s be clear. That’s a disservice to this group. This isn’t about next year, this isn’t about five years from now, this is about right now. It’s about finishing this season off the right way for these seniors.”
That is one thing to say. Seeing it on the field in Arizona will be another.
PREDICTION: Rees was the key to Freeman’s promotion. Without Rees, Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick was admittedly less likely to promote a first-time head coach with no offensive experience. He wanted to surround Freeman with known commodities.
Today, Rees will be the key to Freeman’s first win — or loss. Without being so self-serving, Rees at least knew the Irish offense would have a challenge today as soon as he heard the bowl matchups. Notre Dame’s offensive surge through the latter half of October and all of November was built on facing inferior defenses. Rees was not that blunt when he took Freeman’s place in the first Fiesta Bowl media availability, but he made it rather clear all the same.
“To be quite honest with you, it gives us a great opportunity offensively to kind of figure out where we’re at,” he said in early December.
Long-term perception may suggest no Big 12 team is going to have a defense of note, but that does not fit with the reality of 2021.
“Over the last 10 years or so, when you think about that program, you think of offense, right?” Rees said. “But I think [Ohio State-bound defensive coordinator Jim] Knowles has done a great job preparing them. They’re second in the country on third down and third in the country in total defense.”
Indeed, the Cowboys have allowed opponents to convert only 25.81 percent of their third downs and give up just 278.4 total yards per game.
“This is a barometer game for us,” Rees said. “We’ve felt the steady improvement throughout the year, and now we get to go against a great defense and see how much we’ve improved.”
Notre Dame’s “steady improvement” came against seven porous defenses. There is no other way to phrase it. Compared to Oklahoma State’s defense, those seven defenses may as well have escorted the Irish into the end zone.
The Cowboys rank No. 3 in the country in EPA (expected points added) per defensive play, lowering an opponent’s expected output by 0.187 points each snap. This metric takes into consideration down-and-distance, score, time remaining and other situational aspects, making it far more informative than raw stats. Oklahoma State has the No. 1 run defense in terms of EPA, at -0.221 per rush against, and the No. 8 pass defense, at -0.158 per pass against.
Compare those rankings to the seven opponents Notre Dame feasted upon since being forced into a “Hurry Up Jack” offense in the final minutes at Virginia Tech. (All rankings from before bowl games, to be consistent with Oklahoma State’s rankings.)
|Team||Defensive EPA/play rank||Rush against EPA rank||Pass against EPA rank|
|Virginia Tech||No. 70||No. 100||No. 38|
|USC||No. 117||No. 106||No. 119|
|North Carolina||No. 88||No. 97||No. 74|
|Navy||No. 81||No. 52||No. 102|
|Virginia||No. 125||No. 124||No. 113|
|Georgia Tech||No. 119||No. 25||No. 130|
|Stanford||No. 111||No. 122||No. 81|
The Irish offense, meanwhile, would have fit right in with most of Oklahoma State’s opponents. Notre Dame averages 455 total yards per game and 5.96 yards per rush. In EPA terms, the Irish rank No. 61 in offensive EPA per play, No. 78 in EPA rush offense per play and No. 49 in EPA pass offense per play. Of the Cowboys’ last seven opponents (seven to be a comparable length of time to the above defenses) …
|Team||Offensive EPA/play rank||Rush EPA rank||Pass EPA rank|
|Iowa State||No. 33||No. 51||No. 30|
|Kansas||No. 89||No. 92||No. 68|
|West Virginia||No. 69||No. 68||No. 64|
|TCU||No. 5||No. 29||No. 6|
|Texas Tech||No. 48||No. 48||No. 51|
|Oklahoma||No. 12||No. 19||No. 27|
|Baylor||No. 34||No. 33||No. 41|
Notre Dame has found success against defenses far worse than Oklahoma State, while the Cowboys’ defense made its claim as one of the country’s best against offenses comparable to the Irish.
“As we got to that point later in the season, now we have an opportunity for that group of guys to go against a great defense — not a good one, but a great defense — to really see how we stack up,” Rees said.
But let’s not forget, Notre Dame did not give up a November touchdown until the final half at Stanford. The Irish relied on their defense to survive the offensive woes of September. That defensive success is what, in no small part, got Freeman hired despite being only 35 years old.
Which is all to say, when PointsBet sets the combined point total Over/Under at 45.5, take the Under, even as Oklahoma State is favored by one point early Saturday morning, a number that jumped from favoring Notre Dame by 2.5 points on Friday afternoon. Predicting anything beyond a low-scoring game is to predict the emotions and motivations of 18- to 22-year-olds on New Year’s Day.
Notre Dame 24, Oklahoma State 14.
(Straight up — 11-1; Against the spread — 10-2; Over/under — 8-5.)
Before we get to the main event, let me say I'm not getting on a side tomorrow. #NotreDame has covered seven in a row, but I'd rather hop Under an inflated @PointsBetUSA total. pic.twitter.com/WTOYvkWUlO
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) December 31, 2021
SOME OTHER NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
35: The Irish have won 35 straight games in which they were favored, tracing back to the end of the 2017 regular season at Stanford.
14: Kyren Williams had 14 rushing touchdowns in 2021, including his last ever carry in a Notre Dame uniform, a carry that also put him over 1,000 yards rushing (1,002) for the second straight season. Williams has opted to not play in the Fiesta Bowl.
12: Fifth-year offensive lineman Josh Lugg started all 12 games at right tackle, but a slight meniscus tear will keep him out today, replaced by freshman Blake Fisher, who started at left tackle in the season opener before a meniscus tear cost him the next 11.5 games.
8: The Irish have covered the spread in eight of their last nine games, the exception being their sole loss this year, to now-No. 4 Cincinnati.
Marcus Freeman says #NotreDame CB Cam Hart will be ready to go for the Fiesta Bowl. He had a thigh bruise earlier this week. Quite the difference from Wednesday's practice when Hart was walking slower than me.
— Tyler James (@TJamesND) December 31, 2021
INSIDE THE IRISH
— On Marcus Freeman slipping into coach speak, the transfer portal, and an alternate Notre Dame reality in 2013
— Defensive coordinator, coaching staff not Marcus Freeman’s first priority yet; Notre Dame safety Khari Gee to transfer
— Fiesta Bowl offensive line shuffle could be precursor of Notre Dame’s 2022
— Notre Dame behind the scenes content blitz marks start of #FreemanEra
— And In That Corner … No. 9 Oklahoma State and Marcus Freeman’s first challenge as Notre Dame’s head coach