Hansen: No siesta in the Fiesta Bowl as Notre Dame has a chance to evolve as a program

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Baylor's Jairon McVea stops Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson just short of the goal line in the final seconds of Baylor's 21-16 victory over the Cowboys Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington, Texas.

What feels packaged as a consolation prize, and a deserved one, really is an opportunity for evolution for the Notre Dame football program.

One spot short of its third College Football Playoff appearance in a four-year span, No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) instead will make its 40th-ever postseason appearance in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST; ESPN), against ninth-ranked Oklahoma State (11-2).

It’ll be the first time the two programs have ever met in football.

Marcus Freeman, whose introductory press conference finally unfolds Monday at 2 p.m., will become the third Irish head coach ever to make his coaching debut against a top 10 team. Lou Holtz’s 1986 Irish fell 24-23 to No. 3 Michigan, and Terry Brenan’s 1954 Irish — ranked No. 2 — took down No. 4 Texas, 21-0.

In all likelihood, Freeman will become the first to face back-to-back top 10 teams out of the gate, with the Irish set to open the 2022 season at his alma mater, Ohio State, on Sept. 3. 

► Related:No. 5 Notre Dame will play against No. 9 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl

► Analysis:Hansen: ND promoting Marcus Freeman is a gamble; not hiring him was more of one

The most significant piece of big-picture unfinished business Brian Kelly left behind in his surprise defection to LSU last Monday was the ability for the Irish to be competitive on the biggest stages.

Just one of his school-record 113 victories in 12 seasons came against a top 5 team (in eight tries). That was the 47-40 double-overtime ambush of No. 1 Clemson in 2020. Lou Holtz, by comparison was 13-8 vs. the top five in his 11 seasons (1986-96).

Kelly finished 3-10 while at ND against the top 10, with seven of those losses by 14 points or more.

The most recent one was a 27-13 defeat at the hands of Cincinnati on Oct. 2, the game that ultimately kept the Irish on the outside looking in on the 2021 playoff and put the unbeaten Bearcats in the field in the No. 4 spot.

The Irish, by most accounts, are much improved since that loss, but Oklahoma State is the perfect opponent to gauge how much, particularly where Notre Dame’s offensive line play is concerned.

The Cowboys are No. 1 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, No. 3 in total defense and No. 5 in rushing defense.

"This is a barometer game," said Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, Freeman's stand-in Sunday evening during the Fiesta Bowl coaches Zoom meeting with the media.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is introduced during the Notre Dame vs. Ohio State NCAA hockey game Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

The Irish have already faced the nation’s No. 1 team in total defense — Wisconsin (8-4) back on Sept. 25 — and won by four touchdowns (41-13), but the ND defense generated a lot of those points. The Notre Dame offense amassed 242 total yards, the fifth-lowest total of the Kelly Era, including a Kelly Era-worst three rushing yards.

ND-Oklahoma State Tale of the Tape.

The Irish defense, though, has been surging, even without All-America safety Kyle Hamilton since the first quarter of a 31-16 win over USC on Oct 23. The Irish, with Freeman as the defensive coordinator, are sixth in sacks themselves, 15th in pass-efficiency defense, 30th in rush defense and total defense, and ninth in scoring defense.

In the past 40 years, the only two times ND finished higher nationally in scoring defense it played for the national championship (second in 2012) and won the national title (3rd in 1988).

Rees said Freeman will address Hamilton's availability for the game at Monday's press conference. But he wasn't shy about illuminating how galvanizing the hiring of Freeman has been on the program.

"I have not been around the team a whole lot since we've been traveling, recruiting," Rees said. "But you see the videos. You see the reaction.

"Certainly, I've had plenty of conversations with guys on the team just about the excitement and the energy and, hey, we haven't felt this in the program before, this excitement and support for one another. They talk about their workouts this week with (strength) coach (Matt) Balis and just how much energy and drive there was through that.

"I think you're going to get a team that's extremely hungry. I think you're getting a team that's going to be extremely motivated to go out there and play their best football. Look, the other thing about bowl games is it's another opportunity to continue to improve.

"We get bonus practices here, so you can continue to develop a lot of young guys. I think we're going to get a lot of really competitive practices. I'm really looking forward to the energy that this entire week has brought the program and continuing to build off of that."

Oklahoma State is coached by Mike “I’m a Man. I’m 40” Gundy, who’s actually now 54.The former Oklahoma State quarterback has been the head coach at his alma mater since 2005, promoted from offensive coordinator when Les Miles left to take the LSU job.

He’s 10-5 in bowl games.  

Notre Dame’s exclusion from the playoff will rile up the Irish-need-to-join-a-conference crowd. But the only conference the Irish can contractually join right now if they decided to shun independence is the ACC.

And it’s doubtful a win over Pitt or Wake Forest Saturday night would have been enough to lift the Irish above an unbeaten team they lost to head to head. As it is, the ACC champ — No. 12 Pitt (11-2), will play No. 10 Michigan State (10-2) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30.

One thing that might have helped the Irish have a better playoff argument was a stronger November schedule. The Irish won their four games last month — over Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford — by an impressive combined score of 162-23.

But the combined record of those teams stands at 15-32 with the Army-Navy game still to play.

The lack of playoff-worthy schedule octane in the season’s final month, though, is a decided outlier. The last and only time in the Kelly Era that Notre Dame played a November schedule devoid of any ranked teams was 2012, but the Irish had a late-October road win at Oklahoma that year which gave them the credibility they needed in the polls and the data point they needed from the computers back in the BCS Era.

Jan. 1 will mark Notre Dame’s sixth Fiesta Bowl appearance, with its only victory there its 34-21 conquest of No. 3 West Virginia to capture the 1988 national championship.

"We went in order of the way that they were ranked, so Notre Dame was at 5, Oklahoma State was at 9, so those two were paired together," CFP selection xommittee chair Gary Barta explained of how the Irish ended up in the Fiesta Bowl.

"And then Michigan State was 10 and Pittsburgh was 12, so those two were paired together.

"Then we considered geography for which bowl to send each of those pairings to, and we sort of moved the West and the Midwest to the Phoenix area and then moved those teams that were a little bit further east to the ACC country and to the East Coast. That's how we went about it."

Final CFP Rankings.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI