No. 5 Notre Dame will play against No. 9 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl
Not enough outcomes fell in Notre Dame’s favor Saturday to give the Irish a path into the College Football Playoff. As a result, AP/CFP No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) was selected to play in the Fiesta Bowl against Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma State (11-2).
The AP/CFP No. 9 Cowboys lost to Baylor, 21-16, in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship. Oklahoma State fell just short when running back Dezmon Jackson dove short of the pylon on fourth-and-goal with 24 seconds remaining in the loss.
Notre Dame will make its first trip back to the Fiesta Bowl, which will be played at 1 p.m. EST on ESPN on Jan. 1, 2022 in State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., for the first time since losing to Ohio State, 44-28, on Jan. 1, 2016.
The Irish have lost four straight Fiesta Bowls with previous losses to Ohio State (2006), Oregon State (2001) and Colorado (1995). Notre Dame’s lone victory in the Fiesta Bowl came in its first appearance, a 34-21 win over West Virginia on Jan. 2, 1989, to secure the 1988 national championship.
The 2021 Irish earned a trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl by winning their last seven games against unranked teams following a 24-13 home loss to Cincinnati, which was awarded Sunday the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff. The Bearcats (13-0) will play No. 1 Alabama (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. No. 2 Michigan (12-1) and No. 3 Georgia (12-1) will meet in the Orange Bowl.
Notre Dame will play without head coach Brian Kelly leading the program for the first time since 2009. He ditched the Irish last week to coach at LSU. Notre Dame has since promoted former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach. The rest of Notre Dame’s assistant coaching staff remained in place as of Sunday.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am as the head coach of this football program and as we will be as a football team to go take on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl,” Freeman said in an interview on ESPN. “It’s a great opportunity to win 12 games, to kind of right some of the wrongs of the past that we haven’t been so successful in these New Year’s Day bowls. It will be a motivated team, a motivated coaching staff.”
Notre Dame hasn’t won a New Year’s Six bowl game since the 1993 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. That losing streak has been extended to nine games, which includes one loss in the BCS National Championship and two losses in the College Football Playoff.
Freeman didn't meet with reporters during the Zoom press conference for both teams' head coaches held by the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday evening. Instead, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees handled questions for the Irish. It's only fitting given that Rees will have his hands full against a tough Oklahoma State defense.
The Cowboys, who have never played against Notre Dame, finished the week ranked No. 3 in the FBS in total defense (278.4 yards per game), No. 5 in rushing defense (91.2 yard per game), No. 8 in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and No. 12 in passing yards allowed (187.2 per game).
"(Saturday) was really my first opportunity to sit down and watch them play," Rees said. "I’ve gotten a little bit ahead (Sunday) on some film. Just looking at them early on. They present a lot of challenges.
"They do a lot of different things defensively. They’re very multiple in their front and their coverages. They definitely present a great challenge for us – one that we’re going to have to prepare for especially given the time they’re going to have to prepare. We’re going to have to really dive into who they are, what they do and how we want to answer some of those issues that they present.”
Notre Dame’s improved offensive line will certainly be challenged as Oklahoma State leads the country in sacks (4.23 per game) and tackles for a loss (8.5 per game). Since Notre Dame debuted its current starting offensive line against USC, the Irish have allowed 1.5 sacks per game and five tackles for a loss per game. The statistics in those six games also include garbage time with the backups playing in Notre Dame’s blowout wins.
Notre Dame's offense has looked much better than it did earlier in the season against better defense like Wisconsin's
"We felt the steady improvement throughout the year," Rees said. "Now we get to go against a great defense and see how much we’ve improved. You mentioned Wisconsin and Cincinnati, those were a couple of games early on where, to be quite frank, we weren’t playing our best football offensively. As we’ve gotten 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.”
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked No. 55 in total offense (415.8), No. 73 in rushing offense (152.2), No. 21 in scoring offense (35.2) and tied for No. 33 in passing offense (263.6).
Now that the Irish have received their next assignment, Freeman and Rees can truly move beyond the Kelly Era, which unceremoniously ended Tuesday morning when he spoke to the team.
“I’m excited to get to work," Rees said. "I’m excited to get to work with Marcus. You said it’s only been a week. It’s felt about a month in the last seven days. As an entire program, we’re very eager for this opportunity and very eager to get back into football mode here."
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.