Fiesta Bowl: No surprise that Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer will be a marked man Saturday

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87) celebrates after picking up a first down during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Whether they know him by name or number, Oklahoma State’s defenders are well aware of Michael Mayer. 

No. 5 Notre Dame’s star tight end has been front of mind as the No. 9 Cowboys (11-2) prepare for Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST on ESPN). 

“He's been a major focus,” said Oklahoma State defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements, who may be calling defensive plays on Saturday with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles already leaving the program for Ohio State.  

“Our players had better know where No. 87 is on the field. Notre Dame is going to do a good job of moving him around and getting him involved. He's had 100-plus targets on the season. So, we know when they need to make a play, the quarterback is probably going to be looking in that direction, and we need to be looking towards him.” 

► More:How does Notre Dame beat Oklahoma State? By following these four keys to the Fiesta Bowl.

► Noie: Four players to watch come New Year's Day and PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

Twenty-seven days after the Fiesta Bowl pairing was announced, Oklahoma State will put its game plan for slowing down Mayer to the test. Not many individual players have found overwhelming success against Oklahoma State’s stout defense this season. But a few tight ends have played critical roles against the Cowboys. 

Oklahoma, the only team to score more than 24 points against Oklahoma State this season, relied on a trio of tight ends to lead its passing attack in a 37-33 loss to the Cowboys. Jeremiah Hall, who also plays an H-back role, led the Sooners with four receptions for 76 yards. Austin Stogner caught three passes for 61 yards and one touchdown. Brayden Willis also caught three passes for 29 yards and one touchdown. 

Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87) runs for a touchdown during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Comparing Mayer to a trio doesn’t necessarily work, but Oklahoma State defensive end Collin Oliver likened Mayer to Iowa State’s three-time All-American tight end Charlie Kolar. Linebacker Devin Harper said he would need to combine a couple tight ends to compare to Mayer. 

“He can both do good run blocking and he's good in the passing game,” Harper said. “You don't see that very often with tight ends in any conference. He has it all, kind of. It's a good thing he has it, but we'll have a plan for him.” 

The plan for stopping Kolar included double-team looks on third downs. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will have to come up for a counter to whatever the Cowboys throw at Mayer. 

“Clearly, third down, critical downs, maybe red zone, that will be part of what they want to do,” Rees said of Oklahoma State’s potential plan to double-team Mayer. “There's a lot of unknowns right now with their defense, obviously with the change in coordinator and extra time to prepare and what they want to do.  

“We have to be multiple in how we use Michael and make sure that we don't become stagnant with where we want to play him and find ways to create opportunities.  

“Look, if they want to double him, that usually means we have a favorable matchup somewhere else. So, we have to make sure that we're seeing that and adjusting to it.” 

► More:Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer working to eliminate drops from his game

► More:Why RB Logan Diggs isn't second-guessing his decision to leave Louisiana for Notre Dame

Kolar still managed to catch six passes for 69 yards in Iowa State’s 24-21 victory over Oklahoma State. The attention on Kolar also allowed wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson to have a monster game with 12 catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. 

Mayer will be satisfied as the go-to target or a decoy. 

“Going into the game my mindset never changes even if I know they are going to double-team me,” Mayer said. “I'm always still going to try to get open. (Quarterback) Jack (Coan) is still kind of always trying to find me with the ball. But if they are going to double-team me, that's one less person that's going to be on somebody else.  

“So, if it opens some other people up, then that's perfect. It's all about winning at this point. One more game left to the season. If they want to double me, that's fine. I will still try to get open, I will still try to get the ball, but it will open some other people up too.” 

Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87) celebrates during the Notre Dame vs. Purdue NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

It’s hard to imagine a Fiesta Bowl victory for the Irish (11-1) without Mayer playing a significant role in the outcome. As Notre Dame’s leading receiver with 64 catches for 768 yards and five touchdowns, he’s been the most consistent part of the Irish offense.  

Mayer caught at least seven passes in five of the 11 games in which he played. The third-team AP All-American recorded fewer than four receptions in only two games: Purdue (one for five yards) and Georgia Tech (three for 86 yards and one touchdown). 

Mayer made major improvements as a blocker in his sophomore season too. That makes him even tougher to defend. 

“When you add that element of a tight end that can catch passes well as well,” said Oklahoma State safety Kolby Harvell-Peel, “they are just versatile and it makes you have to always know where he's at and always account for him on the field.” 

Notre Dame’s offensive consistency didn’t necessarily mirror Mayer’s. The Irish needed to evolve along the offensive line to establish a better running attack. Coan needed to play with more urgency in getting rid of the football. That created a successful formula in the second half of the season. 

But those strides came against subpar defenses. Only one of Notre Dame’s last six opponents finished the regular season ranked better than No. 89 in the FBS in total defense: Navy at No. 37. 

The Irish will have to prove Saturday that the improvement was more than just the product of the opponents. And do so without star running back Kyren Williams, who skipped the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. 

“I wouldn't call it a test at all,” Mayer said. “I would just call it doing what we know we can do, doing what we have been doing all season long. More importantly, it's just kind of coming out and showing that the second half of the season is what we can do all the time.” 

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl 

Who:  No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) 

Kickoff: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. EST 

Where: State Farm Stadium; Glendale, Ariz. 

TV: ESPN 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 2 

Mayer doesn’t have to call it a test, but it should be quite the measuring stick. 

“We know what we have when we're playing Oklahoma State,” Mayer said. “They have a great defense this year. They have some great players. They had a great DC. 

“That's kind of the first thing that comes to mind, but we will be prepared. We will have a full week of preparation this week, and we will be ready.”

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.