Keys to victory: What every Irish position group must do against Oklahoma State
Aidan Thomas | Friday, December 31, 2021
On Saturday, Notre Dame gets an opportunity to accomplish a feat they haven’t done in 27 years. After four straight Fiesta Bowl losses, the Irish have a chance to start the Marcus Freeman era off with a bang in Glendale, Arizona.
“This is the new beginning of a new era — the Freeman era,” junior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey said. “Everything is on us to change everything.”
So, how can Notre Dame accomplish the task at hand? It involves scoring on the Oklahoma State Cowboy’s defense, one of the best defenses in the country. They’ll need to do this without star running back Kyren Williams, but the Irish have alternative options in the backfield. And defensively, Notre Dame needs to limit the Cowboys, in order to ease the pressure on their offense. So, what are the keys to doing this? Let’s take a look at what each position group needs to do to lead Notre Dame onward to victory.
This is pretty simple. When Jack Coan is in the game, it’s about being able to trust his first read. Throughout the year, Coan has operated best in a tempo-style offense. He is certain to face pressure on Saturday, and he needs to make quick decisions. If that involves throwing up a 50-50 ball for his receivers, Coan needs to be willing to pull the trigger. And for Tyler Buchner, it’s about avoiding critical mistakes. Buchner can be explosive as a runner, and he is a definite threat as a passer. However, the reality is he has three touchdowns and three interceptions through the air. Notre Dame can’t afford to give Oklahoma State short fields — it’s what lost the Irish their game against Cincinnati.
Being patient. Oklahoma State film reveals a very aggressive defensive line, but one that is suspect. Despite overall success against the run, Oklahoma’s aggressiveness can cost them. Against Oklahoma, the Cowboys surrendered 139 yards to Kennedy Brooks. Much of Brooks’ success came on runs where the Oklahoma State D-line crashed too hard, and Brooks was able to bounce outside. This suits the style of Logan Diggs quite well, from what he’s shown. Diggs features a similar running style to Kyren Williams, being willing to wait for a block and then make his cut and go. The offensive line needs to be sharp, but Diggs needs to visualize the field well. The same goes for Chris Tyree, who should get some burn running outside the tackles and Audric Estime.
Elite tackle play. Much of Oklahoma State’s pressure comes from their elite defensive ends, and Notre Dame must combat it. This is going to be interesting, as the Irish are starting two freshmen tackles in the Fiesta Bowl. Can left tackle Joe Alt, who elevated the overall play of the line this season, and freshman Blake Fisher — making his return after missing 11 games — be impact contributors? The Irish need to seal the outside for their run game and prevent free runs on Jack Coan, and that starts with Fisher and Alt. Also, look for the two freshmen to get utilized in pull plays to bring additional blockers to one side of the field.
Combining these two groups for their similar objectives. And that is winning battles at the line of scrimmage. In relation to Coan making quick decisions, he needs decisive routes from his targets. Against Wisconsin, a team who profiles similarly in run defense to Oklahoma State, Notre Dame fed sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and senior receiver Kevin Austin. Senior receiver Braden Lenzy has proven capable in 50-50 situations, and freshman Lorenzo Styles has game-changing speed on the perimeter. However, with a pocket passer facing a tough pass rush, the Irish must be winning at the line of scrimmage, and that includes in the passing game.
The Irish should be at an advantage here. The defensive line has been a strength all season for Notre Dame. Stalwarts Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa are playing their final game for the blue and gold and anchor this unit. They need to get early contact against Cowboys’ running back Jaylen Warren and make Oklahoma State one-dimensional. Warren is exceptional at bouncing outside and generates a lot of his big runs going to his left. Based on this, the biggest responsibility likely falls to defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola and Tagovailoa-Amosa. If they can force Warren back to his right, look to Hinish and Foskey to finish the job.
Following the trend of making the Cowboys one-dimensional, the linebackers bear a very important responsibility, and that is in limiting Spencer Sanders as a running threat. Sanders averaged around 45 rushing yards per game, and the Irish sometimes struggle with dual-threat signal-callers. That being said, after Sam Howell gashed Notre Dame in late October, the Irish improved drastically. Against Navy, Virginia and Georgia Tech, The Irish faced three straight dual-threats. In those games, they gave up 43 rushing yards on 35 efforts by opposing quarterbacks. While Warren is one running threat, Notre Dame must also limit Sanders to truly make Oklahoma State reliant on their suspect passing attack.
The tackling and physicality must be at their best for Notre Dame. In the passing game, Spencer Sanders tries to find success through screens and slants. Even in his best game of the year, a 344-yard effort against Kansas State, Sanders didn’t fling it downfield frequently. Rather, he found running backs in the flats or on screens, soft spots between linebackers and safeties, or poor man coverage. The Irish need cornerbacks Clarence Lewis, Cam Hart and Tariq Bracy to be aggressive and not give free 15-yard throws. And they have to break and make solid open-field tackles. And on the same note, safeties DJ Brown, Ramon Henderson, Xavier Watt and Houston Griffith need to cut down on that free space in the middle to minimize the effectiveness of the passing game.
Field position could be key in this one, as well as maximizing offensive opportunities. So, for the Irish, a clean game from punter Jay Bramblett is a must. And Jonathan Doerer must continue to be automatic, particularly in midrange distance where he’s struggled. The Irish can’t afford empty red-zone trips, and Doerer is key to at least manufacturing three points on successful drives.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.