No. 5 Notre Dame vs No. 9 Oklahoma State: Fiesta Bowl TV, time, preview, predictions

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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.)

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.)

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.

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

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.