PHOENIX – In a postseason defined by COVID testing, coaching changes, transfer portals and general upheaval, the Notre Dame and Oklahoma State football teams welcome a familiar site: the 51st edition of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
The game, scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at State Farm Stadium, pits a coach – Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman – hired just four weeks ago against one – Mike Gundy – who has logged 17 seasons in Stillwater.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be back down here. … What a beautiful city, what a beautiful environment,” said Freeman, who competed in this bowl three times as a Fighting Irish player, including the 2007 title game loss to Florida. “We’re an excited football team for this opportunity to play a really, really good Oklahoma State team.”
The game may not contain a local program but the Arizona ties are evident.
Notre Dame features freshman offensive lineman Tosh Baker, who played football and basketball at Pinnacle High School.
The Cowboys have a combined five players and coaches who have roots to the state.
Wide receiver Matt Polk played at Saguaro High School, and offensive lineman Cade Bennett competed at Notre Dame Prep. Both are redshirt freshmen.
On the coaching side, offensive line coach Charlie Dickey played at Saguaro High and then went on to the University of Arizona.
“I know we started off the year a little bit rocky, but there towards the end, I think we ended up being one of the best O lines in the Big 12. … I think that speaks volumes for everyone on the offensive line, of just coming to work, rising to the challenge of Coach Dickey every week,” guard Josh Sills said.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay played at Desert Vista and Scottsdale Community College and defensive quality control coach Brent Zdebski’s dad, Mike, is the head coach at Hamilton High.
Both teams have strong alumni bases in the state. The Notre Dame Club of Phoenix reports its membership exceeds 6,000.
Saturday’s matchup features teams that were in contention for the playoffs.
The No. 5 Fighting Irish started the year with promise after an overtime win against Florida State and double-digit victories over Purdue and Wisconsin.
They also fell to eventual playoff team Cincinnati.
Notre Dame finished strong with a win over Virginia Tech and six double-digit victories and became a national story when its coach, Brian Kelly, announced he was leaving for LSU.
The No. 9 Cowboys took a different path to the Fiesta Bowl. They started off the year hot with six straight victories, three of those wins over Top 25 programs at the time.
The hot streak came to a disappointing end. They fell to Iowa State 24-21 after they were inches away from converting a fourth and two on the Cyclones’ side of the field.
They were down but not out, rattling off five victories to end the regular season, including upsetting then-No. 10 Oklahoma by four and earning a trip to the Big 12 Championship, where they lost to Baylor.
“You definitely bond (over the adversity) and I wouldn’t say it’s something you just kind of get over,” Sills said. “It’s something you just look past. We have a new week, a new opportunity, a great challenge in front of us with Notre Dame.”
Both programs see the game as an opportunity to honor their seniors.
“I think the biggest goal for us is sending our seniors home the right way,” Notre Dame offensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “There’s a lot of guys in here that have helped build this program to put it in the place where it is right now.”
All signs point to this game being played, despite five other bowl cancellations because of spiking COVID numbers.
“We are going to play this game, unless we can’t find 11 players,” Gundy said. “We are masked up in meetings. We are masked on buses. Our team meetings are outside. They are not in the facility. We moved them out to the tennis courts to spread everybody out. We’re doing the best we can.”
The Cowboys did attend a Phoenix Suns game Monday but otherwise both teams have limited their free time excursions.
Kickoff is near. A bowl victory awaits.