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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame dominates Oregon State 40-8 to win Sun Bowl


Sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli looks on during Notre Dame’s 40-8 win over Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Oregon State knew it wasn’t going to move the ball on Notre Dame by regular means.

In a game defined by opt-outs, the Irish defense entered Friday’s Sun Bowl near full strength. A Beaver offense starting at least one replacement at every position group would have to tangle with a unit that ranked among the nation’s best in 2023. It was a mismatch that showed from the first kick. 

Oregon State didn’t gain more than twenty yards on each of their first four drives. They still hadn’t crossed into Notre Dame territory with five minutes remaining in the first half. 

So they tried to get creative. Facing a fourth-and-six a yard short of midfield, the Beavers punt team took the field for the third time on the afternoon. Except they weren’t there to punt. The ball was snapped directly to wide receiver Jesiah Irish, who tried to run for the first down.

Irish didn’t even get back to the line of scrimmage. He took all of three steps before being met by sophomore defensive lineman Joshua Burnham. Oregon State needed 6 yards. They lost 5.

Notre Dame’s offense, in need of a spark after consecutive stalled drives, got a short field to work with heading into halftime. Quarterback Steve Angeli, starting his first career game, led the Irish down the field before fellow second-year Jadarian Price punched in a one-yard score on the ground. Notre Dame entered halftime up two touchdowns.

Angeli’s methodical play set the tone for an efficient second half from the Irish. The offense moved the ball clinically and highly effectively. All told, Notre Dame ended the game with 236 yards on the ground and Angeli finished completing 79% of his passes.

It wasn’t always as easy as it looked for the Irish in the final 30 minutes, where interim offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli’s unit scored on four of their five drives. There were bumps and missed opportunities early on. Coming out of the break, Marcus Freeman encouraged his players and staff to take control of the game.

“I challenged [the players] and I challenged the coaches, I didn’t like the way we started,” Freeman said after the game. “We ended up scoring that first drive, but it was sloppy … this opportunity, it’s not just one half. It’s not a score. You get the chance for sixty minutes to play this game. I wanted our mindset to be relentless.”

While the offense found its rhythm, the defense kept burying the Beavers. Oregon State gained 9 total yards in the third quarter as the Irish amassed a 24-0 lead heading into the final frame. 

Even when Notre Dame’s offense did stall out for a turnover on downs on the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, it took just one play for the Irish defense to notch some points of their own. Burnham and freshman linebacker Drayk Bowen buried Beaver running back Isaiah Newell for a safety.

Oregon State didn’t get on the board until they notched a window-dressing touchdown to cut the Beaver deficit to 25 with six minutes remaining. Even that late tally was canceled out by a 6-yard run from former walk-on and program veteran Chase Ketterer to make the final score 40-8. 

In the grand scheme of Notre Dame’s illustrious football history, the 2023 Sun Bowl meant little more than a brief note in the record books. The 32-point margin of victory was the largest ever for the Irish in a bowl game. But for a team looking for spark heading into a long offseason, it meant quite a bit. The difference between a 10-win squad and a 9-win one is more than just a single win. 

Few people know that as much as the team’s leader, Marcus Freeman.

“10 looks better than 9,” quipped Freeman after the game. “To me it’s a reflection of the direction of this program. 9 wins last year, 10 wins this year, we just want to continue to improve … That’s the challenge of college football. How do you progress? How do you continue to take this group of football players and coaches to a place where we can win those close ones, win the ones we’re supposed to? I’m extremely pleased with our program, where it’s at now, and our direction in the future.”

Marcus Freeman’s second season as head coach in South Bend came with ups and downs. His squad came inches short of what could have been a tenure-defining victory over Ohio State. The Irish did earn a memorable rivalry win against USC. But tough road losses to Louisville and Clemson left many Notre Dame fans wondering what could have been.

No reasonable person is now expecting Notre Dame to win the 2024 national championship because of their Sun Bowl performance. Friday, though, was a chance for Freeman to showcase direction. The Irish took the field in El Paso and thoroughly outplayed a quality opponent wire-to-wire.

The offense got strong performances from true freshmen Jordan Faison and Charles Jagusah, as well as redshirt freshman Jadarian Price. The defense, returning most key contributors from this past fall, looked like a unit that’s set to hold its place as one of the best in the country next season. In a vacuum, these notes are merely data points for a comfortable end to the season. But in the context of next season, Notre Dame looked like a team that could head into 2024 on a high note, and a program can still take another step under Freeman.

Under the looming peaks of the Franklin Mountains, Notre Dame accomplished something more important than winning one of college football’s most historic bowl games. They continued the lengthy process of laying down the building blocks of the program’s future.