One word perfectly sums up the past few weeks for OSU.
Aside from the crushing loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship game, OSU lost top defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State, four talented players transferred out, coach Mike Gundy’s buyout increased and players had to avoid COVID-19 during the holidays.
Put simply, there’s a lot of distractions going into the Fiesta Bowl vs. Notre Dame. But is Gundy worried about it? Apparently not at all.
“These guys practice hard every day,” Gundy said. “And they go on two and they’re off one, and they go back and they practice hard again. Between the small distraction we had with coach Knowles and what would be out of school, I don’t really see an issue.”
As the distractions continue to surge, OSU needs to stay focused on their opponent if they want New Year’s Day success. While the Irish are without longtime coach Brian Kelly––who left for the LSU gig while his team was still in the playoff hunt––and standout players Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams, they still possess many weapons that can sting the Cowboys.
At 11-1, the No. 5 Irish were the first team left out of the playoff this season. Like OSU, they own a top 10 scoring defense, limiting teams to 18.3 points per game. They also have two very talented pass catchers in wide receiver Kevin Austin (783 yards and six touchdowns) and tight end Michael Mayer (768 yards and five touchdowns). The offense is led by quarterback Jack Coan, who threw 2,641 passing yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
Because Kelly left, former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is now the head coach. Despite his first game being a New Year’s Six bowl game against a talented OSU team, Freeman is highly motivated to beat the Cowboys.
“We have a lot that we want to accomplish here, without a doubt. Trust me — this is Notre Dame,” Freeman wrote in an article for The Players Tribune. “We have big goals. But it’s the process it takes to get to those goals that’s going to set us apart. It’s the way we’re going to win, that’s going to set these young men up to achieve what it is they ultimately want out of this game.
“And I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to lead them.”
But Freeman has respect for OSU––especially the defense Knowles built. Gundy still hasn’t decided who will call plays for the game, but Freeman credits the defense’s longevity to its success.
“It’s going to be complicated,” Freeman said. “It’s a very sophisticated system and a system that has been built over years. The players know the ins and outs of it. It’s not just running around and creating havoc. You can tell these kids know what they’re doing.”
Gundy respects the Irish too, even stating that this game will bring the Cowboys “a lot of national recognition.” In fact, this game is so important to Gundy that he’s actively avoiding people to stay safe from COVID-19. The NCAA announced that if an outbreak happens ahead of the Fiesta Bowl, they will try to reschedule an alternate date within one week of the original date. If none can be found, it will be a no contest.
“I’m trying to stay away from people,” Gundy said. “We’re talking to (the players) about it with our staff. There’s a certain percentage now that have already had a shot and already had a booster. We just do the best we can.”