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

Tyler James
ND Insider
Stanford's Kendall Williamson (21) takes down Notre Dame’s Jack Coan (17) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

These keys to the game will likely decide if AP/CFP No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) can beat No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) on Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl (1 p.m. EST on ESPN).

Over-protect Coan 

Even an improved Notre Dame offensive line likely wasn’t going to be able to keep quarterback Jack Coan upright for very long. Oklahoma State finished its 13-game slate ranked No. 1 in the FBS in sacks per game (4.23) and tackles for a loss per game (8.5). With starting right tackle Josh Lugg sidelined with a knee injury, Notre Dame will be asking a pair of true freshman tackles to keep Coan clean: Joe Alt (left) and Blake Fisher (right). 

► More:Freshman Blake Fisher set to start Fiesta Bowl at right tackle

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Alt proved how reliable he can be in the latter half of the season. Fisher beat out everyone to start at left tackle in the season opener at Florida State, but he hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury in that game. Facing Oklahoma State’s pass rush will be an abrupt welcome back for Fisher. Notre Dame needs to draw up extra help in its protection schemes and ask Coan to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid disaster plays. 

Find Baylor’s defensive formula 

Oklahoma State's Spencer Sanders (3) walks off the field as Baylor celebrates in the final minute of the fourth quarter during the Big 12 Championship football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas,  Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders can provide firepower for the Cowboys, but he can fuel opposing defenses too. Sanders has thrown nearly as many interceptions this season (12) as touchdown passes (16). Six of those interceptions came in the last two games of the season — two in 37-33 win over Oklahoma and four in a 21-16 loss to Baylor. Three more interceptions came in a 24-14 victory over Baylor in October. 

Baylor didn’t need to overwhelm Sanders with consistent pressure. In the two games, the Bears totaled three sacks and eight quarterback hurries. What Baylor managed to do was make plays at every level of the defense to take advantage of ill-advised throws and missed opportunities. Notre Dame’s linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties alike need to challenge everything and be prepared for Sanders to throw off the mark. 

Combine to replicate Williams 

No individual running back on Notre Dame’s roster is likely to match the production level of Kyren Williams, the junior who opted out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft. But the Irish have a rotation of backs who together can mimic the output that Notre Dame’s offense so often relied on from Williams. 

Notre Dame’s Logan Diggs (22) during Notre Dame’s 32-29 win over Virginia Tech in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Blacksburg, Va.

Notre Dame needs sophomore Chris Tyree to play closer to his potential than the version that was slowed this season with a turf toe injury. The Irish will likely count on freshman Logan Diggs to become a greater version of the well-rounded back he showed in flashes throughout the second half of the season. Even freshman Audric Estime will be asked to bring his physical running style. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees shouldn’t be afraid to use freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner to augment the rushing attack too. 

Be careful on kickoffs 

Oklahoma State has executed its kickoff returns so well that two different players returned kickoff for touchdowns: LD Brown and Brennan Presley. Brown’s 98-yard touchdown came against Tulsa on Sept. 11, but he has been sidelined with an injury since the following week against Boise State. Presley replaced Brown and broke free for his 100-yard return against Oklahoma on Nov. 27.  

Oklahoma State's Brennan Presley (80) returns a kickoff for a touchdown during a Bedlam college football game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Oklahoma State won 37-33.

Those big plays have allowed Oklahoma State to enter the bowl season ranked No. 2 in the FBS in kickoff returns with an average of 30.63 yards per return. The Cowboys are choosy with when the decide to return kickoffs with only 19 returns in 13 games, but the Irish, who will be playing their first game without special teams coordinator Brian Polian, will have to be aware that any kickoff could be the one that haunts them. 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.