Things We Learned: ‘Bitter’ lessons mark Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl faceplant, but pieces of encouragement can carry into 2022

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There was always going to be a learning curve when Notre Dame made a 35-year-old defensive coordinator its head coach. Nearly every young head coach needs to accelerate his understanding of a leader’s duties, both on gameday and year-round, and nearly every defensive mind needs to figure out how he will approach game-control decisions.

And for the No. 5 Irish (11-2), as painful, frustrating and embarrassing as the collapse was in the Fiesta Bowl’s second half on Saturday, turning a 28-7 lead into a 37-35 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State (12-2), Marcus Freeman’s learning curve being made apparent in a bowl game is preferable to it remaining below the surface heading into the 2022 season.

That was never the focus of Freeman’s postgame comments, neither to his team nor to the media. And it shouldn’t have been. Postgame comments are meant to be about the game, not about what comes next.

“His main points were just talking about how we felt about the disappointment of the game, not being able to send the seniors off as champions,” sophomore running back Chris Tyree said. “Just taking everything that we feel right now and using it as motivation for the next season.”

Disappointment about sending off the seniors with a loss would be one thing, but that’s not all Notre Dame did. It sent off the likes of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish and Drew White with the most bitter of tastes as the Cowboys scored 30 straight points to storm back on New Year’s Day. It sent off Jack Coan not with a career-capping 500-yard performance, but with the feeling that five touchdowns were undone by his one interception.

“[Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] had a great game plan, as far as passing the ball for us,” Coan said. “He called some great plays for me. I guess it was a lot of yards, but at the end of the day, all I care about is winning and losing. I wish I could have done a little bit more to help the team.”

Though a one-possession game, the loss was less a result of Coan’s interception or freshman running back Logan Diggs’ fumble or even sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis’ frequent exposures in the end zone and more a result of that learning curve.

Freeman twice punted on fourth-and-shorts near midfield, moments that modern college football recognizes call for the offense. He essentially gave Oklahoma State an extra possession before halftime, which the Cowboys turned into a touchdown. The mistake was not that Lewis got burned by Tay Martin for one of his three touchdowns; the mistake was both gifting about 90 seconds to Oklahoma State in that moment in the first place and then not responding with similar tempo. Freeman needed to either push the envelope before the half or not; he could not do some of both. He clearly deferred to Rees on what quarterback to play when, a literal example of Rees’ new autonomy on this coaching staff but perhaps a chance for the exception to prove that rule if Freeman had called for freshman Tyler Buchner to spur Notre Dame’s rushing game.

These moments are unfamiliar ground for a defensive coordinator. When to call timeouts, when to punt, when to slow down are all aspects of controlling a game that a defensive leader has never needed to worry about. First-time head coaches struggle with them regularly.

But now Freeman knows what he doesn’t know. The second-half walloping emphasized it, and the too-little, too-late comeback did not provide an opportunity for selective memory.

Tyree mentioned motivation. Freeman did, too.

“Motivated to right what happened today and to start the progression for the future,” he said.

That assuredly does not apply just to the roster. A “players’ coach” trading in accessibility and authenticity will assuredly add accountability to his branding.

The landslide of a loss does not undo Notre Dame’s 2021, though. The Irish still went 11-2 and came an upset away from the College Football Playoff. They navigated a possible program-collapsing shock a month ago and exited it with a storyline the entire country is intrigued by.

These seniors — in particular those defensive fifth-years of Tagovailoa-Amosa, Hinish and White — know the flipside of that.

“I’ve seen the culture change,” White said. “I’ve seen this program continuing to climb.”

And they know Freeman made it clear more is to come, even after the Fiesta Bowl faceplant that may replace the entire 2016 season as the standard for the usage of that particular f-word.

“He thanked the seniors, thanks for everything they did,” White said. “Then he was looking forward. He was looking forward to what’s next.

“I’m excited for next year, because it’s a blessing in disguise sometimes. We all want the win, don’t get me wrong, but to have that fire under you, to push you in the offseason. This is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of everyone for months and going into spring ball.”

Next year is the only consideration now, and not just because New Year’s Day makes for a convenient point in the calendar. The only choice the Irish have after that debacle is to look forward, and despite the spotlight on the letdown, there was plenty to encourage Notre Dame.

Oklahoma State entered Saturday as the country’s best defense at getting to the quarterback, both by dropback rate and by total sacks. The Cowboys had sacked quarterbacks 54 times on 389 pass attempts. They managed two sacks of Coan against 68 pass attempts, all while a pair of freshmen bookended the Irish offensive line. Notre Dame had not started two freshmen on the offensive line in the same game ever.

“The freshman tackles did an amazing job,” Coan said. “Those guys are unbelievably talented, and they work extremely hard. I have all the trust in the world in those guys. The fact that they’re going to be here the next few years is pretty scary for other teams.”

For that matter, left tackle Joe Alt and right tackle Blake Fisher provided that security without the safety net of pass-blocker extraordinaire running back Kyren Williams. In his place, Tyree and Diggs did their best against the best run defense in the country, resorting to catching passes in the flat nearly as often as taking carries, combining for a total of 183 yards from scrimmage on 27 touches. (That’s a 6.8 yards per touch average, which only falls to 5.8 if removing the below big play.)

Along with freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles — eight catches on 10 targets for 136 yards and one touchdown — the Irish showed some skill players even as a literal dearth of receivers led to utterly dead legs in the second half.

“[Styles is] a special player,” Coan said. “I’ve known him since day one. He’s been an extremely hard worker. He’s an amazing athlete. The fact that he’s going to be back, too, is scary for other defenses.”

Notre Dame lost to a top-10 team. That on its own would be understandable. The Irish crammed a New Year’s Eve party into the first half and demonstrated all the effects of a New Year’s Day hangover in the second half. That was less excusable.

But now Freeman knows what he needs to learn to lead Notre Dame in 2022.

“It’s not the outcome we wanted, and it’s hard, it’s bitter,” White said. “But it’s going to continue to move forward for the next season.

“I’m excited to watch Notre Dame football in 2022.”