GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oklahoma State was a step slow in the first half, appearing to be stuck in the desert sand while Notre Dame raced around the field.
A quick scoring drive just before halftime gave the No. 9 Cowboys a spark, and they rode it to one of the biggest victories in school history.
Led by Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State pulled off the biggest comeback in Fiesta Bowl history, overcoming a 21-point deficit to beat No. 5 Notre Dame 37-35 on Saturday.
Sanders accounted for 496 yards and threw three of his four touchdown passes to Tay Martin, including a nine-yarder to cap a four-play, 75-yard drive just before halftime.
“Us going down and scoring quickly just before the half, that gave us hope,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “That gave us a chance as coaches to say, ‘Guys, we’re fine.’ ’’
Oklahoma State (12-2) came up inches short of securing a College Football Playoff spot in a loss to No. 6 Baylor in the Big 12 title game and fell into a first-half hole against Notre Dame (11-2).
Jack Coan led Notre Dame’s early charge while throwing for a Fiesta Bowl-record 509 yards and five touchdowns.
Sanders and Martin brought the Cowboys back.
Sanders, who had a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jaden Bray in the first quarter, cut Notre Dame’s lead to 28-14 with the touchdown pass to Martin with 37 seconds left in the first half. The pair connected for two more touchdowns, from five and eight yards, to tie the game, and the Cowboys went up 37-28 on three field goals by Tanner Brown.
Sanders went 34-for-51 for 371 yards and ran for 125 yards after throwing four interceptions in the Big 12 title game. He’s the second player in FBS history with 350 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and four touchdown passes in a bowl game, joining Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in the 2014 Orange Bowl.
Coan threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Austin with 1:05 left to close Notre Dame’s deficit to two, but Oklahoma State recovered the onside kick to keep the Irish winless in major bowl games since the 1993 Cotton Bowl under Lou Holtz.
“In the first half, we scored 28 points, we’re moving the ball, we’re protecting the quarterback and obviously things didn’t go that way in the second half,” Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman said after his head-coaching debut. “We have to go back and see what the defense did schematically to give us some issues and try to find a way to make sure that never happens again.”
The Irish appeared to be headed toward a rousing start to the Freeman era, building a 28-7 lead behind Coan. A senior, Coan threw for 342 yards and four touchdowns, including two to tight end Michael Mayer, in the first half.
All the momentum came to a thudding halt in the second half.
Oklahoma State ramped up the pressure on Coan and shut down Notre Dame’s offense while its offense was revving up.
Notre Dame finally got something going midway through the fourth quarter, but Malcolm Rodriguez stepped in front of Austin for an interception at the Cowboys’ 18-yard line.
“It was a lot of yards, but all I really care about at the end of the day is winning,” said Coan, who finished 38-for-68. “I wish I could have done more to help the team.”
Notre Dame’s latest loss in a major bowl is going to sting for a while. The Irish’s argument to have been in the CFP appeared valid after a dominant first half, only to fall flat in the second.