Film Study: What January’s Fiesta Bowl Matchup Can Tell Us About Notre Dame’s Game Plan for Jim Knowles’ Defense

Saturday night’s matchup between Ohio State and Notre Dame features quite a few unknowns.

The visiting Irish will be led by a 36-year-old head coach in Marcus Freeman who has held that role on the sidelines just once prior to this contest in Ohio Stadium. Additionally, a true sophomore, Tyler Buchner, is Freeman’s choice to line up under center for the ND offense, making his first career start while having attempted just 35 career passes at the collegiate level.

Of course, their opponents have plenty of questions of their own left to be answered.

Jim Knowles was brought in with great fanfare, expected to instantly revive the moribund defense that kept the program from reaching its lofty goals the past two seasons. But there are many a Buckeye fan surely wondering just how quickly his presence will be felt.

In most instances, such a matchup in Week 1 would lead to many writers like this one giving a Bosa brother ¯_(ツ)_/¯ when asked to predict the outcome ahead of time. This time, however, there is a very clear blueprint for what we can expect when the Fighting Irish try to move the ball against Knowles’ defense, as we can simply turn on the tape from their last game.

While most readers of this site remember January 1st as Jaxon Smith-Njigba Day after his record-setting performance that evening in Pasadena, fans of a different OSU recall that day for a different reason. Oklahoma State’s win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl has been called the biggest win in program history, after the Cowboys came back from 21 points down to stun the Irish 37-35 in Freeman’s debut as head coach.

While the former Buckeye linebacker has made a number of changes to the coaching staff after formally taking over for Brian Kelly, the offensive brain trust remains largely intact with Tommy Rees calling plays for a third straight season. Although his opposing number, Knowles, had already left Stillwater for Columbus by the time the bowl preparations were underway, the rest of his staff remained in place, as did the players who earned their place as one of the best defenses in the nation last year .

“You just have to prepare for what you’ve seen on film,” Rees said of Knowles’ departure ahead of the Fiesta Bowl. “I can’t imagine 14 games into it they’re going to be deviating from what they’ve brought. They’ll probably have some wrinkles, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to prepare for what you see on film and get ready to handle whatever they throw at us.”

For those familiar with the Cowboy defense under Knowles, it looked largely the same without him against the Irish. Longtime defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements didn’t seem to change much after taking over coordinator duties on an interim basis, proving Rees to be correct in his prediction of what to expect.

“They have difference-making players on all three levels. They’re multiple in what they do,” Rees added when asked about his preparations for the Cowboys. “Three-down, four-down, three-high safety … You’ve got to be really prepared for the unknown. They have so much in their scheme that you have to make sure you’re preparing for the stuff they keep coming back to. Prepare for that and adjust.”

By all accounts, Rees’ assessment was spot on and the Irish seemed well-prepared for the system Knowles designed, at least early on. Taking the field without workhorse running back Kyren Williams, the Irish instead looked to attack OSU through the air, shattering Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan’s previous career high with 68 attempts that afternoon in the desert.

Coan struggled early in the season to find a rhythm after sitting out the 2020 campaign in Madison and transferring to South Bend for his final year. But by the time the Fiesta Bowl rolled around, he had clearly grown more comfortable in Rees’ system and the 30-year-old play-caller looked to attack the weak spots in the Cowboys’ system.

With the OSU safeties playing aggressively in the run game on early downs, the corners played very softly in their Quarters coverage, knowing they were effectively on islands should the Irish elect to throw the ball. Coan seemed more than happy to repeatedly hit quick outs and hitches near the sidelines, taking advantage of those generous cushions and moving the ball with ease throughout the first half.

In previous seasons under Kelly, the Irish could easily have been described as a “pro spread” offense, combining bigger base personnel (often using two tight ends instead of a more common three-receiver look) with common option concepts. With Ian Book providing a respectable run threat from the QB spot over the previous three seasons, those options were the typical zone-read concepts seen everywhere.

With the less-mobile Coan under center, however, the Irish turned into a solid RPO team, often packaging quick patterns like the hitches seen above with an inside run.

Against the Cowboys, Rees showed even more craftiness, running what were effectively triple-option plays in which All-American tight end Michael Mayer became the pitch-man with horizontal arrow routes into those unprotected flats.

Rees seemed more than happy to take what the OSU defense gave him. With the Cowboy secondary dropping seven or eight defenders into matchup-zones downfield while an aggressive pass rush was looking to break the pocket, the Irish easily picked up chunks of yardage via delayed running back screens.

Without Williams, backup Chris Tyree may have struggled to move the ball on the ground, registering just 18 yards on six carries. But as evidenced above, he was very involved in the Irish passing attack, hauling in six passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.

That touchdown is worth pointing out, as it came due to one of the weaknesses in Knowles’ approach. The veteran defensive coordinator is famous for sending all-out blitzes on third downs, and Clements followed suit on an early 3rd-and-7.

Trailing 14-0 and hoping to steal back momentum as the first quarter wound down, Clements sent seven defenders on an all-out blitz, leaving just four defensive backs alone in coverage. But that blitz assumed the back would stay in to help block the blitz, rather than leak out for one of the easiest 53-yard catch-and-runs we’ll ever see.

The Cowboys were hesitant to call such pressures after that long touchdown catch, but Rees continued to dial up pass concepts that favored his personnel. Mayer spent nearly unguardable in the red zone, proving capable of both running away from Cowboy safeties manned up on him in single coverage…

…as well as using his big frame and excellent hands to box out smaller defenders like McCalister while fighting for the ball near the goal line.

“We knew he was going to be a big part of their offensive scheme,” OSU safety Kolby Harvell-Peel said of Mayer following the game. “You don’t really realize how big he is until you get out there and you’re trying to cover him.”

But as the game wore on, those same Oklahoma State defenders that appeared so flat-footed early on started making more and more plays. Rees only had so many tricks up his sleeve and after the Cowboys saw something once, they proved capable of stopping it the second time around.

McCalister, who followed Knowles to Columbus and is expected to start in the same spot for the Buckeyes on Saturday night, stood out on multiple occasions throughout the second half, diagnosing pre-snap alignment and simply out-hustling his opponent to make plays.

More noticeably, the OSU corners stopped playing with such a big cushion, taking away those quick throws to the edges that not only helped ND move the ball but seemed to get Coan into a good rhythm.

“In the first half, they were doing a lot of quick access plays, a lot of quick game, and we were playing off coverage about seven, eight yards,” Cowboys cornerback Jabbar Muhammad said of his team’s halftime adjustments. “The emphasis at halftime was we have to get up in their faces; we have to be aggressive. And that’s what we did. And I felt like that’s what we should have done from the jump. That’s who we are.”

Despite the multitude of concepts available to them in Knowles’ vast playbook, the Cowboys turned things around in the second half by employing a great deal of simple man-free coverage (Cover 1), betting on their personnel against the more highly touted Irish. While Notre Dame may appear to have out-recruited Oklahoma State consistently, the veteran group of defenders that had long been tutored by Knowles spent more than capable of reading and reacting quickly.

No play better exemplified that than the interception by senior linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez late in the fourth quarter, effectively sealing the Cowboys’ comeback win while playing the Robber role in an otherwise man-to-man scheme.

“We knew that they were hitting a lot empty at the end and they were hitting for the hash marks,” Rodriguez said of his critical pick. “We were at a man free, and I kind of baited them to the one receiver side. And I knew that – like I said, they were hitting the hash marks. I kind of just sunk in the hash, and he ended up throwing it on the hash.”

A 5-foot-11 quarterback coming out of high school, Rodriguez was the 1,529th-rated recruit in the class of 2017. But the senior leader of the Cowboys made the biggest play in his school’s biggest win by keeping it simple.

“Joe Bob [Clements] and the defensive staff wanted to get more aggressive,” Rodriguez added when asked about his team’s turnaround in the second half. “We went to our base calls. It’s one of those things where we were throwing punches at the line of scrimmage. We pressed. We played off in the first half, and it wasn’t working. So we came in and adjusted and went at their face; we wanted to play aggressive, and it ended up working out.”

Perhaps because this focus on fundamentals and instinct proved to be the difference between his former team and his upcoming opponent, Knowles has downplayed the importance of the Fiesta Bowl matchup when preparing for Saturday’s contest with Notre Dame.

​”It’s a good game to have, to look at what Oklahoma State did and to look at what our opponents did, but it’s just another game,” Knowles said this week. “It’s just one in many games that you look at.”

Unlike the veteran crew Rees and the Irish saw in Glendale, Arizona eight months ago, Knowles has had mere months to drill his new charges. Talent-rich as the Buckeye defense may be on paper, it remains to be seen if they’re capable of responding the way the other OSU did when hit in the mouth by a well-designed game plan.

Luckily for them, Rees isn’t working with a proven veteran under center, meaning his play-sheet may be much shorter than the one he had with a 5th-year senior playing his final game, as was the case back in January. But this is still a coordinator who has proven capable of lighting up the very scheme Buckeye fans are so excited to see, as Coan tallied 509 yards passing that day in the desert, 202 yards sea than the previous high surrendered by the Cowboys all season.

Despite the massive yardage Rees’ team put up against the sane system just months ago, however, the young OC still has a great deal of respect for Knowles and can speak from experience when discussing the challenge ahead of the Irish on Saturday night.

“They do a really nice job of mixing up fronts and I think they do a really nice job of keeping it simple for their guys, but complicated for the offense,” explained Rees last week. “If we can get 11 guys on the same page, you can operate. Coach Knowles does a really good job of creating indecision for the offense.”

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