SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ohio State against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl today is a match-up of two of the most successful programs in college football history.
But, as OSU coach Urban Meyer pointed out earlier this week, history for the guys playing in the game is the last 15 or 20 years.
Some people say Notre Dame against Ohio State will be a game decided by which team will be motivated. Who wants to be there and who doesn’t want to be there?
Both began the season with hopes of playing for a national championship. And both saw those dreams crushed with losses in the final seconds of games in November.
But Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says motivation shouldn’t be a problem for either team.
“All these kids have an immense amount of pride,” he said.
Both teams have several seniors headed for the NFL and some juniors who will join them by making themselves eligible for the NFL draft.
The mixture of talent, history and compelling story lines makes the Fiesta Bowl probably the most interesting postseason game overall except the two College Football Playoff games.
It sounds odd to say No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) have been resilient in the face of struggles this season, but it is true.
Most teams would say they wanted to sign up for that kind of struggles.
But Ohio State played with the pressure of trying to repeat its national championship. The Buckeyes didn’t settle on a starting quarterback until eight games into the season and their passing game rarely rose above the level of just adequate.
Just winning wasn’t enough. Ohio State was expected to win impressively and there were some close calls.
Many of Notre Dame’s struggles were the result of injuries. The Fighting Irish have had 38 starters in their 12 games, compared to 30 for Ohio State. Both their losses came by two points.
They lost their leading rusher Tarean Folston to a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Starting quarterback Malik Zaire went down for the season in the second game.
Notre Dame was damaged but not decimated by those injuries.
Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer, from Toledo Central Catholic High School, stepped up and threw for 2,600 yards and rushed for 499 more yards.
C.J Prosise (1,032 yards) and freshman Josh Adams (757 yards) have replaced Folston behind a veteran offensive line, led by All-American tackle Ronnie Stanley. Wide receiver Will Fuller (56 catches, 1,145 yards, 13 TDs) is a deep threat with seven catches of 45 yards or more.
Defensively, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jaylon Smith (114 tackles) has led the way.
Notre Dame’s running game could be a test for Ohio State’s defensive front four after it recently lost its two starting interior linemen when Tommy Schutt suffered a broken foot and Adolphus Washington was suspended after being arrested in a police prostitution sting.
Notre Dame’s most vulnerable area appears to be its defensive backfield after three of its starters there were lost to injuries and a suspension.
So, will Ohio State go to its underachieving passing game more or will it continue to ride Ezekiel Elliott (1,672 yards rushing) as it did in every game except a 17-14 loss to Michigan State?
Quarterback J.T. Barrett (781 yards passing, 10 TDs) says OSU is capable of throwing the ball much better than it has lately when it had only seven touchdown passes in eight Big Ten games.
“I feel like, honestly, at any time we’re able to do that, given the players we have and the plays we have in place,” Barrett said.
Elliott said he doesn’t expect Ohio State to change its style for Notre Dame.
“We’re going to go out there and play Ohio State football. That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re playing our style of ball. We’re going to come out there, play aggressive as always and be physical,” he said.