The No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys scored 30 unanswered points, overcame a 21-point deficit and spoiled Marcus Freeman's debut as Notre Dame's head coach Saturday, beating the No. 5 Fighting Irish 37-35 in the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Everything went wrong for OK State for much of the first half, but quarterback Spencer Sanders hit his stride and threw three consecutive touchdown passes to Tay Martin to tie the game in the second half.
All told, Sanders finished with 371 passing yards, 125 rushing yards and four passing touchdowns.
Playing in his final collegiate contest, Notre Dame senior quarterback Jack Coan turned in a great performance in his own right with a Fiesta Bowl record 509 passing yards to go along with five touchdowns and one interception.
It was a less-than-ideal start to Freeman's career as a head coach after he took the reins from Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame for LSU.
With the win, Oklahoma State finished the season 12-2, which was its best record since going 12-1 in 2011. The Irish fell to 11-2 in defeat.
Spencer Sanders, QB, OSU: 34/51 for 371 YDS, 4 TD, 0 INT; 17 CAR for 125 YDS
Jack Coan, QB, ND: 38/68 for 509 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT
Tay Martin, WR, OSU: 10 REC for 104 YDS, 3 TD
Lorenzo Styles Jr., WR, ND: 8 REC for 136 YDS, 1 TD
Brennan Presley, WR, OSU: 10 REC for 137 YDS
Chris Tyree, RB, ND: 6 CAR for 18 YDS; 6 REC for 115 YDS, 1 TD
Jaylen Warren, RB, OSU: 19 CAR for 83 YDS; 6 REC for 34 YDS
Kevin Austin Jr., WR, ND: 6 REC for 105 YDS, 1 TD
Michael Mayer, TE, ND: 7 REC for 72 YDS, 2 TD
Sanders Atones for Poor Big 12 Title Game Performance
Sanders had a ton to prove after throwing four interceptions in Oklahoma State's Big 12 Championship Game loss to Baylor, and he righted the ship in the Fiesta Bowl.
Things initially looked bleak for Sanders and the Cowboys, as they trailed 28-7 late in the first half, but the momentum of the game changed after Coan's seven-yard touchdown pass to Mayer with 1:16 remaining in the second quarter.
It would have been easy for Sanders and Oklahoma State to go into the locker room with their tails tucked between their legs, but they showed a sense of urgency instead and staged a four-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Sanders to wide receiver Tay Martin to cut the deficit to 28-14:
The Sanders-to-Martin connection was just getting started at that point, as the first drive of the second half ended with a five-yard scoring strike from Sanders to Martin:
That touchdown ended a 12-play, 87-yard drive, with Sanders accounting for all but four of those yards.
Oklahoma State seemed destined to tie the game at that point, and it finally happened with 2:47 remaining in the third quarter, as Sanders hit Martin again for an eight-yard score:
OSU Cowboy Football @CowboyFB
this man <a href="https://twitter.com/_Taymartin1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@_Taymartin1</a> is a walking cheat code. 😲<br><br>📺 <a href="https://twitter.com/espn?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@espn</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsRide?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LetsRide</a> I <a href="https://twitter.com/Fiesta_Bowl?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Fiesta_Bowl</a> <a href="https://t.co/uJkL7ichg2">pic.twitter.com/uJkL7ichg2</a>
Patrick Hayslip of the Gainesville Daily Register, Jacob Unruh of The Oklahoman and Curtis Fitzpatrick of WWLS all marveled at Sanders' resurgent performance:
The comeback truly came full circle on the Cowboys' next drive when Tanner Brown hit a 38-yard field goal to give them their first lead of the game at 31-28.
All signs pointed toward Coan being the story of the game, but Sanders finished with 496 total yards.
That seemed like a farfetched scenario in the first half, but once Sanders and the Oklahoma State offense went up-tempo, Notre Dame had no answers.
Saturday marked the breakout performance Cowboys fans have been waiting for out of Sanders, and if he can carry that momentum into the offseason, the junior has a chance to make OK State a national title contender again next season.
Coan Ends College Career with Huge Showing
Notre Dame's success was built largely on its running game and defense this season, but with star running back Kyren Williams opting out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, Coan took center stage Saturday.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees crafted a masterful first-half gameplan that saw Coan throw early and often, usually taking advantage of Oklahoma State's lax coverage.
Coan's dissection of the Pokes defense started on the first drive of the game, as he needed less than two minutes to march 75 yards and find wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. on a 29-yard touchdown pass:
The Irish made it 14-0 later in the quarter when Coan smartly beat an all-out blitz with a lob pass to running back Chris Tyree, who took it 53 yards to the house:
Based on that play, Patrick Engel of BlueandGold.com pointed how well-prepared Coan and the Irish offense appeared to be:
Oklahoma State managed to answer with a short touchdown pass by Sanders, but Coan's hot start continued over the course of the entire first half.
A 16-yard touchdown pass from Coan to tight end Michael Mayer restored Notre Dame's 14-point lead:
Coan later hit Mayer on a seven-yard touchdown pass late in the first half to give the Irish their biggest lead of 21 points.
Cayden McFarland of KJRH noted that it marked the first time all season Oklahoma State allowed more than three offensive touchdowns in a game:
With Coan enjoying his best game of the season and perhaps of his entire collegiate career, Keith Arnold of WGAw suggested he could potentially play on Sundays:
WGR's Nate Geary was highly complimentary of Coan as well, especially in comparison to former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book:
As great as Coan played in the first half, things went downhill for the Irish after going up 28-7.
The Cowboys scored a touchdown late in the first half and would go on to score 27 unanswered points to take a 34-28 lead in the fourth quarter.
Everything that worked for Coan and the offense in the first half was shut down by the Oklahoma State defense for much of the second half, as the Cowboys' unit looked far more representative of what it had been all season long before the Fiesta Bowl.
Even with so much going wrong, the Irish were driving for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, but Coan made his first big mistake of the game with 6:35 left when he was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez.
Notre Dame did get another opportunity a bit later, but a turnover on downs essentially put the game out of reach and squandered what was a red-hot start for Coan and the Irish.
Oklahoma State will look to build on one of its biggest wins of the Mike Gundy era as it enters the offseason and prepares for 2022.
Meanwhile, the Irish will look to regroup after letting a winnable game slip away in Freeman's first outing as head coach.