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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

A 'tale of two halves': Irish drop 21-point lead to Cowboys, fall 37-35

The Fiesta Bowl was nothing short of a test for the Irish. It tested a defense, and more specifically a secondary, without Kyle Hamilton. It tested a Chris Tyree-led running back room. It tested Tommy Rees and his unbridled offensive play calling. And it set the tone as the Irish stepped into the Marcus Freeman era.

At the start, the Irish looked ready to fire on all four of those cylinders. But, with a second-half push from Oklahoma State, the game flipped, and the Irish fell 37-35.

Notre Dame dominates the first half

From the get-go, head coach Marcus Freeman was locked in.

"When the foot hits the ball, it’s time to be on. It’s time to lead. It’s time to be the head coach." Freeman said. That energy from the head coach quickly became evident on the field through his players.

The Irish received the opening kickoff and started the drive with a 25-yard reception for Tyree to the 50. This was immediately followed by a 15-yard reception by senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. Five plays in 1:39 made up the opening drive as the offense sealed it with a touchdown. Coan hit freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles for 29-yards and Styles’ first career touchdown to bring the Irish up 7-0.

To match that momentum the Irish played staunch defense against the Cowboy run game, holding Oklahoma State to one first down on their first drive. To cap it off, senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey sacked quarterback Spencer Sanders to force a Cowboy punt.

After exchanging three and outs, the Irish took the ball again, and Coan hit Tyree for a first down. On the day, Tyree stepped up to his new role as lead back with 133 yards and a touchdown. He began to extend his use into the passing game, much like junior running back Kyren Williams did all season.

"I just knew that there were a lot more opportunities to be made with Kyren not playing. My approach was to take advantage of the opportunities as best I could," Tyree said, especially when it came to his receiving role. "I think [receiving has] been an emphasis since I've been here."

Despite two false starts, Coan found Styles again for 14 yards. He then dumped a screen pass off to Tyree, who took it to the house with nothing but green in front of him for 53 yards. In four plays, the Irish went 66 yards to take a 14-0 within the first 8 minutes.

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman looks on from the sideline during a timeout in a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.

The defense ensured the game would stay that way through the next drive as Oklahoma State, again, could not pick up a first down. Tom Hutton completed a 47-yard punt for the Cowboys, placing the Irish at their own 29. After a 5-yard pass to senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy and two carries by true freshman running back Logan Diggs, the Irish couldn’t come up with a first down. While Tyree found success in the passing game, the running back trio couldn’t generate momentum in the rush game.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, began to find momentum on the ground with just over three minutes left in the first quarter. Sanders hit running back Jaylen Warren for 13 yards. Warren then ran again for 13 yards and a first down followed by a 16-yard first-down reception.

Here, the Irish defense began to lose their footing. On second and six from the Notre Dame nine, Sanders hit receiver Jaden Bray on the jet sweep. Senior safety D.J. Brown missed a tackle and Bray found the end-zone to put the Cowboys on the board, 14-7.

The Irish finished the quarter with another three and out, closed by a three-man rush from the Cowboys that sacked Coan. But the Irish defensive line forced a three and out from Oklahoma to start the second. Graduate student defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa pressured Sanders to force an incomplete pass. 

Coan opened the drive with two passes to Lenzy for a first down. After a pass to Styles, Coan hit Lenzy again for another first down. Tyree earned a first down behind a thundering pancake from junior offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic, bringing the Irish to the Oklahoma 24. On third down, Coan found sophomore tight end Michael Mayer headed to the corner of the field. Diving for the pylon, Mayer extended the Irish lead, 21-7.

From their own 25, the Cowboys put the Irish secondary to the test, opening up their passing game. Two passes for 26 combined yards brought the Cowboys into Notre Dame territory, but kicker Tanner Brown missed a 48-yard field goal attempt.

Two possession exchanges later Tyree took two carries for a first down, followed by a roughing the passer penalty bringing the Irish to the Oklahoma State 43. Then Coan hit Mayer for a first down. The drive almost died on 3rd and 9 as Coan found Kevin Austin short of the marker, but he broke a tackle to give the Irish another four. This allowed Coan to find Mayer for his second touchdown on the day and seventh on the season. With that, Mayer broke the Irish single-season tight end touchdown record, previously belonging to Cole Kmet. After an extra point from graduate student kicker Jonathan Doerer, the Irish led 28-7.

Through the first half, it looked as though the Irish checklist would remain intact, and well-checked-off.

"I thought the kids prepared tremendously," said head coach Marcus Freeman. "I thought the coaching staff did a great job." But he said the Irish just didn't execute where it mattered most.

Not ready to go down without a fight, the Cowboys sprinted downfield in response. In the last minute of the half, Sanders hit Brennan Presley for a 13-yard first down followed by a 41-yard first down. Sanders kept it for another 12 and then found Tay Martin in the back of the end zone to bring the score to 28-14 just before halftime. Ultimately it would be this touchdown that opened the floodgates for the Cowboys.

Oklahoma State takes over.

Oklahoma State opened the half with five first downs through the air. They spread the secondary thin and from the Irish five-yard line, Sanders hit Martin for a touchdown, 28-21. This second touchdown in a row would be the momentum shift the Cowboys needed. Freeman acknowledged the adjustments Oklahoma State made to affect this half.

“They did a good job at getting into some 10 personnel [1 running back, 0 tight ends], which they really hadn't shown much all year” Freeman said. “They made some good second-half adjustments offensively and defensively to stop what we were doing offensively and to kind of exploit some things defensively. And you've got to give them credit where credit's due," Freeman said. “We knew they were going to go fast, and they did, and we prepared for it but at the end of the day they still executed better than we did defensively.”

That became evident with the first Irish snap of the half.

On the first Irish drive of the half, Notre Dame couldn’t come up with anything, which quickly became a theme. Simultaneously, Sanders started to get comfortable.

From their own 10, Sanders hit Warren twice for a first down. Sanders then carried himself for 26 yards. After two more first downs from Pressley, the Irish defense allowed Sanders to find Martin for the Cowboys’ third straight touchdown. The Cowboys dominated the third quarter, tying the score at 28.

After the Cowboy kickoff, the Irish went three and out again. And, after two penalties, the Cowboys started at the Irish 30. Sanders then hit Martin for a first down to the 15, but the Irish defense found their red zone footing again just holding the Cowboys to a 38-yard field goal.

The Irish, after a 12-yard first down from Styles, started the fourth quarter on their own 37. On a run attempt to the Cowboys 44, Diggs fumbled to give the ball right back. Oklahoma State marched down to the red zone but also fumbled, with the Irish grabbing it in the endzone for a touchback. Coan overthrew Styles downfield by inches on the next play, and the Irish again, went three and out.

From his own 40, Sanders carried to the Irish 39. An offensive facemask ultimately stalled the drive in the red zone again and forced a Cowboy field goal to make it 34-28.

Tyree started the Irish off with 28 yards on the kick-off return, followed by a Coan-Austin connection that picked up another 21. Styles got open for another first down of 16 yards. Mayer picked up another first down. But just when the Irish seemed to be gaining the momentum back, Coan was sacked by defensive end Brock Martin and then threw into double coverage for an interception by Malcolm Rodriguez.

Warren then took the ball to the 50-yard line after several Irish players missed tackles. On fourth and one, Sanders carried for the third time in a row to convert. On third down, Sanders found Martin for a gain of 29. Sanders tried to carry again, but, wrapped up by Foskey, he fumbled on the Notre Dame 11 and senior linebacker Drew White was there to recover it.

Despite the defense’s work, the Irish turned it over on downs. The Cowboys took over at the Irish 15 and their 22-second drive ended with a field goal, 37-28 Cowboys.

On third down after the kickoff, Coan hit Braden Lenzy for a first down. This was followed by the longest Notre Dame rush of the game from Diggs for 14 yards. From the Oklahoma State 25, Coan found Austin for one final touchdown to bring the score to 37-35.

Although the Irish attempted an onside kick, Oklahoma State recovered it at the Notre Dame 44. And with two kneels from the Oklahoma State offense, Notre Dame's first game in the Freeman Era fell into the loss column.

"Again, it's the tale of two halves, in terms of the first half, you scored 28 points, I think, offensively. We're moving the ball. They're protecting the quarterback. And in the second half, obviously, things didn't go that way" Freeman said. "So we have to go back and timing and look and say, okay, what did the defense do second half schematically that gave us issues?"

Asking those kinds of questions, Freeman said the Irish will use this loss to move forward and make sure "this never happens again."

"I’m more motivated now to go go go in everything we do. In staff, in personnel, in recruiting, in everything we do."