It’s finally here! Time for the Irish to square off against Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl!
After a heartbreaking loss to Stanford in their final regular season game, all was quiet on the Notre Dame front as the Irish prepared to face Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl on New Years Day. At least it was, until early Tuesday morning, when it was revealed that the Irish would be without the services of two more starters in the secondary when they face the Buckeyes; Safety Max Redfield was sent home for violating team rules, and Devin Butler will miss the bowl game with a broken foot. The loss of starters and key players to injury has been a consistent theme for Team 127, but so too has the Next Man Up mindset for the Irish, and that mindset has served them well throughout the season. Now, facing the No. 7 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, Team 127 will get one more chance to make their mark on Notre Dame Football history, with a chance to become just the second squad in the last twenty years to notch an eleven win season.
Notre Dame finished the season with a record of 10-2, missing a chance at a College Football Playoff berth after a 38-36 loss to Stanford in their regular season finale. Notre Dame’s only other loss on the season, a 24-22 loss, came at the hands of No. 1 ranked Clemson in Week 5 of the season. On the strength of their 10-2 regular season record, the Irish were ranked No. 8 in both the final College Football Playoff standings and the end of season AP Top 25 rankings. Ohio State enters the match-up with an 11-1 record, with their only loss coming against the then No. 9 ranked Michigan State Spartans. Ohio State’s only win against an AP Top 25 opponent came in their last game of the regular season, a 42-13 victory over Michigan. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked No. 7 in both the final College Football Playoff standings, and the end of season AP Top 25 rankings.
This will be just the sixth meeting between the Fighting Irish and the Buckeyes, and the first meeting between the two teams since the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame won the first meeting between the two schools, in 1935, mounting a fourth quarter comeback to defeat the then undefeated Buckeyes in what many consider an early “game of the century” contender. The Irish would win the next meeting, as well, in 1936, but the Buckeyes would win all three of the modern era games against the Irish, in 1995 and 1996, and, then again, in 2006 when they defeated the Irish in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl by a score of 34-20.
Players To Watch
To say that it has been exciting to watch this kid grow and mature, both on the field, and off the field thanks to Showtime’s A Season with Notre Dame Football, would be an understatement. The third string quarterback during spring practice, Kizer was forced to assume the starting QB role with the departure of Everett Golson before the season started, and the early season injury to Malik Zaire. He’s had a few rough patches, particularly in the first half against Clemson, but overall he’s had a solid season for the Irish, and is a huge part of the success the Irish have had this season. Through 10 games this season, Kizer’s thrown for 2,600 yards with 19 TDs and 9 INTS, with another 9 TDs and 499 net yards on the ground.
Though he hasn’t made any announcement yet, the 2015 Butkus Award recipient may be playing in his last game as a Fighting Irish. On a defense racked with injury, and often inconsistent play, Smith has been the rock in Brian VanGorder’s complicated defense. Leading the Irish in tackles, by a large margin, Smith registered 113 total tackles (68 solo, 45 assisted), 9 TFL (3rd on the team), 1 Sack, 6 QBH (Tied – 3rd on the team), 1 Forced Fumble, and 2 Fumbles Recovered. He’s been asked to do it all this season, and has delivered, but he’ll face his toughest challenge yet slowing down the Buckeyes run game featuring the 5th ranked running back in the nation, Ezekiel Elliott.
Players To Watch
Ezekiel Elliott (RB)
Once considered the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Elliott wasn’t even selected as a “finalist” for the award when it was presented earlier this month, which isn’t to say that he didn’t have a solid season, at least on the field, anyway. Elliott figures to play heavily in the Buckeyes’ offensive game plan against the Irish, giving Elliott a huge opportunity to pad his stats on the season, 1,672 yards and 19 TDs on 262 carries, and give NFL scouts one last big game look at the potential 1st Round Draft Pick.
Joey Bosa (DE)
Like teammate Elliott, this will likely be Bosa’s last game as a Buckeye, though he hasn’t yet made that announcement. Considered the top edge rusher in this year’s draft class, Bosa followed up a 2014 season in which he led the Big Ten in TFL, with 21, with 16 TFL during the 2015 season, good for 4th most in the Big Ten. Bosa added another 47 total tackles (33 solo, 14 assisted), 5 sacks, 1 INT, and 14 QBH, to an already impressive college resume during the 2015 regular season.
Fighting Irish Keys To Victory
Establish The Run
Whether it’s Prosise or Adams in the backfield, the Irish have a golden opportunity to set the tone for the game with a strong run game. The Buckeyes enter the game ranked 22nd in the nation in run defense, giving up an average of just 127.3 yards on the ground per game, but the Buckeyes will now be without two of their starting defensive linemen, in the interior, where they’ve shown vulnerability at times this season. Both Prosise and Adams boast impressive YPC averages, Prosise with a 6.6 YPC average, and Adams an even better 7.3 YPC average. They can both also break off long runs, with Prosise taking the ball 91 yards for a touchdown, and Adams breaking off a 98 yard run for a touchdown against Wake Forest. If the Irish can attack the middle of the line and get Prosise or Adams into open space where they can use their speed, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to come up with yet another game changing play for the Irish.
Elliott hit the 100 yard rushing mark in all but one game this season, and put up 150+ rushing yards in four games (with two games over 200). The one game where he didn’t rush for at least 100 yards was against Michigan State, a game the Buckeyes lost. Ohio State’s offense is powered by Elliott, and he has the ability to put the team on his back and roll, especially in the fourth quarter. But, Elliott will be running into the strength of the Irish defense, led by Sheldon Day on the defensive line, and the best linebacker in college football, Jaylon Smith. If Smith and company are able to contain Elliott, the Buckeyes will be forced to rely on a less than impressive passing game, giving the Irish the advantage, even with a depleted secondary.
Both teams have exceptionally talented running backs, but I think Notre Dame has the edge with respect to defending the run, especially with the Buckeyes missing two of their best defensive lineman in this game, and Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day ready to make a statement for the Irish defense. It will be important for both teams to establish the run, but with both defenses expecting a heavy dose of the other’s run game, and stacking the box because of that, the team who’s able to pass the ball more effectively will have the advantage. And, again, I think that Notre Dame has the advantage there, as well. I know the Buckeyes are heavily favored here, but their hopes lie with one player (Elliott), an extremely talented player, to be sure, but the Irish have enough talent at the playmaker positions to spread the wealth around more so than do the Buckeyes. Have your drink of choice handy, because it’s going to be a back and forth battle, but in the end, the Irish will come out on top.
Final Score: Notre Dame 38 – Ohio State 35