Marking the first ever matchup between these two programs, the 2021-22 Fiesta Bowl will feature the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame enters this New Year’s Day game with an 11-1 record and ranked fifth in the nation, while the Cowboys come in ranked ninth with an 11-2 record. Will Notre Dame be able to do something that has escaped them since 1994 in winning a New Year’s Six bowl? The official start to the Freeman Era will determine that.
Oklahoma State, under head coach Mike Gundy, had an impressive season and were inches away from a potential College Football Playoff birth after they came up just short in the Big 12 Championship Game, losing to Baylor 21-16. The Cowboys offense is led by Junior quarterback Spencer Sanders. Sanders finished the regular season with over 2,400 passing yards, but was plagued by interceptions, throwing a total of 12. Seven of those 12 picks came in two games against the Baylor Bears, shedding light on the idea that pressure is his enemy. Oklahoma State didn’t have their lead running back, Jaylen Warren, for the Big 12 Championship Game, and Warren’s status for the Fiesta Bowl remains up in the air. Warren is a key element in the Cowboys offense and without him, they become very one-dimensional. In the receiving game, Oklahoma State’s biggest threat is senior receiver Tay Martin. Martin finished the regular season just shy of 1,000 receiving yards, averaging 13.5 yards per catch, and added in seven touchdowns. If Notre Dame’s defensive front can get pressure on Sanders, there’s a chance that this game could get ugly. It doesn’t help that the Irish will be without star safety Kyle Hamilton, but Hamilton’s absence has been mitigated throughout the second half of the Notre Dame season.
The key matchup comes on the other side of the ball – Oklahoma State’s defense versus Notre Dame’s offense. The Cowboys defense has been their cornerstone all season, giving up more than 24 points in only one game this year – a 37-33 loss to Oklahoma. This OSU defense is undoubtedly the best defense that the Irish will have faced all season long, giving up an average of 16.7 points per game. Now, the positive for the Irish is that the Cowboys will be without their Defensive Coordinator, Jim Knowles, who recently took the same position with Ohio State – Notre Dame’s first opponent of the 2022-23 season. For the Irish to have success, it will come down to the play of the offensive line. If this group can provide Coan (and potentially Buchner) the time to make their reads and get the ball out, I have full confidence that the Irish can be victorious. Going up against such a stout defense is no small feat, and the absence of Kyren Williams will be another key factor. Williams, after declaring for the NFL draft, will join Kyle Hamilton in not playing in the Fiesta Bowl and that’s another blow for the Irish. Not only was he Notre Dame’s leading rusher but was incredibly valuable in pass protection as well.
My “x-factors” for the game are twofold. On the offensive side of the ball for the Irish, if Coan is provided with protection from the line and we don’t see similar mistakes to those made in the Cincinnati game, Notre Dame has enough talent to outscore the Cowboys, even with their elite defense. On the defensive side of the ball, I will turn my focus to the linebackers. I think that Foskey, Hinish, Tagovailoa-Amosa, and the defensive line can cause some disruptions to the Oklahoma State offense, but the linebacking corps will need to step up in pass coverage. They cannot be out of place or shooting the wrong gaps; if so, this will lead to explosive plays and chunk yardage for the Cowboys.
Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy is 10-5 in bowl games and knows how to get his team prepared. Marcus Freeman is 0-0, not only in bowl games, but in any game as a collegiate head coach. After Brian Kelly’s sudden departure to LSU, this would be a storybook ending for the Irish to get the “New Year’s Six monkey” off their back with a signature win, and that is just what I am going to predict. Notre Dame, in my opinion, has more talent and I am very excited to see the motivation level from the Irish players after the rollercoaster of emotions from the coaching change. I think the Irish will come out fired up and determined to play their best for Freeman, Rees, and the entirety of the staff. I am going with a 27-20 Notre Dame victory to cap off this season and provide Marcus Freeman and the Irish some great momentum heading into next year. For the final time until next Fall…Go Irish, Beat Cowboys.