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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Keys to victory: Sun Bowl vs. Oregon State

Running back Jadarian Price (24) runs the ball to the end zone while Marcus Freeman and assistant coaches watch on during the game between Notre Dame and Southern California at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, October 14, 2023

The beauty of bowl games is that more often than not they mean as much as you want them to. If your team wins, it’s a statement of intent for the future and a sign that the program is moving in the right direction. If your team loses, it’s a glorified scrimmage where getting younger players experience is more important than actually winning. 

It’s little secret Notre Dame wants to win the Sun Bowl. It would be a tangible mark of progress under Marcus Freeman, a one-game increase in the team’s win-loss record from 2022. The perception difference between being a 10-win team and a 9-win team is, fair or not, greater than just one game. 

Here are the three keys the Irish need to capitalize on to take down the Beavers.

1. Lean on the defense

It doesn’t take any advanced metric to see the numbers for Friday favor a defensive game. Just look at both team's opt-outs on each side of the ball. Oregon State will be without quarterbacks No. 1 and 2 on their depth chart. Star sophomore running back Damien Martinez will also be unavailable for the Beavers. Leading receivers Anthony Gould and Jack Velling both won’t be playing either. There are absences on the offensive line to be mitigated as well. Oregon State’s offense, under the direction of interim (and first-time) head coach Kefense Hynson, will almost certainly be playing somewhat handicapped. They’ll be matched up against a Notre Dame defense that was among the nation’s best this year in both total yards allowed and turnovers generated. 

Notre Dame’s defense should play almost entirely intact. Linebacker Marist Liufau and defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper are the only consistent starters to opt out. Between shutdown sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison, playmaking senior safety Xavier Watts and an experienced front four of pass rushers, defensive coordinator Al Golden will have a lot of weapons at his disposal to create headaches for the Beaver offense. Look for the Irish to play aggressively for turnovers. Generating short fields for sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli and company on the other side of the ball could be critical to victory.

2. Keep things simple on offense

Speaking of shorthanded offenses, Notre Dame’s unit isn’t in a much better spot than Oregon State’s in terms of inexperience. Angeli will be making his first career start at quarterback, as will true freshman left tackle Charles Jagusah. Running backs freshman Jeremiyah Love, sophomore Gi’Bran Payne and sophomore Jadarian Price have seen plenty of game reps this year. But NFL draft-bound Audric Estimé was the star of the ground game this year for the Irish.

The receiver room has already received long-term personnel attention this offseason with transfer announcements from Kris Mitchell and Beaux Collins already confirmed for 2024. However, neither of those players will be available for Friday. Notre Dame will enter the Sun Bowl without their top-four leaders in receptions from this fall.

As such, the plan for interim offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli will likely include leaning on what the Irish already know works. Love, Payne and Price were all backups this season. But they thrived in that collective role and should be a formidable stable of options. Ahead of the game, Freeman stressed that his main directive for Angeli was to keep the ball safe. It stands to reason that Notre Dame will try to lean on their rushing attack to wear a stout Beaver defense down.

3. Let the young guns loose

Notre Dame should, and will, play to win. But it’s also not lost on anybody that a Sun Bowl victory is more valuable as a momentum booster for 2024 than it is a necessary conclusion to 2023. The Irish’s depth chart reflects this. As many as seven offensive starters could be underclassmen. Even a defensive unit low on opt-outs will likely see an uptick in snaps for the sophomore trio of linebacker Jaylen Sneed, cornerback Jaden Mickey and defensive lineman Joshua Burnham.

Winning will always be the top priority at Notre Dame. Friday offers a chance to do that. It's also a chance for Freeman to test and develop some of his less-proven players in a real game environment that can’t be simulated inside the Gug’s walls. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the staff get more generous with their snap distribution as they look to get a head start on figuring out their best squad for next season. Especially if the Irish at any point take control of the contest.

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