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Oklahoma State uses furious second half rally to beat Notre Dame 37-35 in Fiesta Bowl

OSU caps off what is a top three season in school history with a win against a top five team in the desert.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma State at Notre Dame Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma State leaned on strong second half defense all season, and needed to do so once more.

The defense came through again.

Oklahoma State held Notre Dame scoreless for the first 28:55 of the second half before allowing a late score. The stellar defense allowed the OSU offense to score five times and take a double digit lead as the Pokes held on for a 37-35 win.

Jack Coan had a fantastic first half at quarterback for Notre Dame. The Irish signal caller tossed four touchdowns and 342 yards on an efficient 24-of-33 in the half as the Golden Domers went up 28-7 late in the half. But the rest of the day belonged to Spencer Sanders, who engineered a 75-yard touchdown drive in just 39 seconds to cut the halftime deficit to 28-14 in favor of the Irish. All of a sudden, the comeback was on.

The 21-point comeback totals the largest in school history. Since 2004, Notre Dame had been 79-0 in games it led by at least 21 points. Now it’s 79-1.

The Pokes received the ball to start the second half and did exactly what they needed to by driving 87 yards in 12 plays to make it a one-score game. Then after a few three-and-outs, Sanders marched OSU 89 yards in 10 plays to tie the game at 28 toward the end of the third. A Tanner Brown field goal gave OSU a 31-28 advantage heading to the fourth, where things got crazy.

Notre Dame moved the ball past midfield when Kolby Harvell-Peel stripped Irish running back Logan Diggs and recovered the fumble. Sanders would guide the Pokes inside the 10 before Brennan Presley fumbled into the end zone just before crossing the goal line. Instead of a 10-point lead, Notre Dame would get the ball at its own 20.

The OSU defense stood tall and forced a three-and-out and Tanner Brown converted another field goal on OSU’s next drive. Coan drove Notre Dame down to the OSU 30 yard line looking to take the lead before throwing an interception to Malcolm Rodriguez. Sanders then drove OSU 56 yards inside the red zone before fumbling himself, but the Pokes would get it back and tack on a third and final Tanner Brown field goal to take a two-score lead.

Perhaps the biggest story of the day: Oklahoma State got two huge turnovers from two ALl-American defenders. Not surprising in the context of the 2021 season but absolutely surprising in the context of the history of the program. Rodriguez finished with 11 total tackles, two passes defended, a quarterback hurry and this huge INT in his final game as a Cowboy. Rodriguez finishes his career as undoubtedly one of the best defenders in school history.

That field goal made it possible to surrender a final touchdown to Notre Dame on a 25-yard connection between Coan and Kevin Austin. The sure-handed Jason Taylor recovered the ensuing onside kick and Sanders went into a well-deserved victory formation to finish it out.

Sanders had what was possibly his best game as a Cowboy and won offensive MVP honors. Sanders completed 34-of-51 passes for 371 yards and all four OSU touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, no interceptions. Sanders also set a career high in rushing yards, carrying 17 times for 125 yards.

Sanders accounted for 496 yards, which set a Fiesta Bowl record for individual yards in a game before Notre Dame’s final drive. Coan’s 25-yard touchdown pass gave him that record. Coan completed 38-of-68 passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns against one INT. Crucially, Coan had just 167 passing yards in the second half after 342 in the first half.

He might not have the Fiesta Bowl yardage record, but Sanders did set an OSU bowl game record for yards accounted for, a total that also stands as tied for third in school history. His 496 yards trails only 2016 Mason Rudolph (522 yards), 2011 Brandon Weeden (502) and is tied with Taylor Cornelius’ 496 yards in Bedlam 2018. If that’s not enough, there’s this too:

The Irish finished with three 100-yard receivers: Lorenzo Styles, Chris Tyree and Kevin Austin. OSU finished with two 100-yard receivers with another vintage Brennan Presley bowl performance; 10 catches for 137 yards. After dropping two crucial passes in the first half, Tay Martin responded by having the game of his life. He tied the Fiesta Bowl record for touchdown receptions in a game, finishing with 10 catches for 104 yards and three scores.

The big difference came in the rushing total. Notre Dame ran 21 times for just 42 yards while the Pokes ran 44 times for 234 yards. In total, OSU out-gained Notre Dame 605-551. After the game, coach Mike Gundy called the win “clearly the biggest win in school history” and took a shot at the perceived “brand name” schools — Notre Dame being one of them — as well.

Likely the only game that could challenge Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl win in terms of “biggest” in program history would be the 41-38 overtime win against Stanford in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl following the 2011 season. A decade later, Gundy and the Pokes have done it again. The win caps off a 12-2 season, giving Gundy his seventh 10-win season in his 17 years as head coach.

The Fiesta Bowl win is perhaps even more important in the context of what the 2021 season was. It feels like forever ago at this point, but this season began shortly after Big 12 Media Days when Oklahoma and Texas announced they were leaving the conference. All the attention was on the Sooners and Longhorns.

Then, Oklahoma State nearly tripped all over itself, stumbling out of the gate in close wins against FCS Missouri State, Tulsa and Boise State. Some openly wondered if the bowl streak would end, or if the team could top six wins. A big comeback win against Texas in Austin a few weeks later gave the Pokes a 6-0 start. The defense morphed into perhaps the best in school history and the offense did enough when it needed to.

Oklahoma State won Bedlam for the first time in seven years and in Stillwater for the first time in 10 years. OSU was the only Big 12 team to finish the regular season with one loss or less in conference play, but came up half-a-yard short against Baylor in a thrilling Big 12 title game.

However, that loss wasn’t for nothing. OSU capped off the season with a signature win against a top-five Notre Dame squad in the desert. A 12-2 season and Fiesta Bowl Champions puts this OSU team among the top three in school history with 1945 and 2011. Not many could ever have dreamed that back in early September after meltdowns against Missouri State and Tulsa.

The defense will miss several key contributors next season and coordinator Jim Knowles. But there are obvious contributors to fill each position and several veterans back on the defense as well. The offense will miss Jaylen Warren — who finished with 82 yards on 19 carries in his final game with the Cowboys — but have no shortage of offensive weapons returning.

Sanders will likely be back. Nearly the entire wide receiver room returns as well, and the Pokes 2022 recruiting class could boast some key offensive contributors for next season as well, running back Ollie Gordon chief among the options.

It is hard to imagine the 2022 season being as memorable as 2021 has been, but the Pokes have more than enough reasons for hope. For now, it is nice to enjoy one of the best seasons in school history.