The Fiesta Bowl couldn’t have asked for a better or more interesting matchup, as Ohio State and Notre Dame are set to tangle in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes-Fighting Irish contest is one of the most intriguing bowl games on the postseason slate this year. Not only does this game feature two of the premier programs in college football, these two teams were just a couple of plays away from a different total in the win column and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Injuries hit Notre Dame hard in 2015, as starting running back Tarean Folston was lost for the year after the opener against Texas, and No. 1 quarterback Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 against Virginia. Injuries to Folston and Zaire weren’t the only ailments to hit coach Brian Kelly’s team, but those two were the biggest during the year that forced the coaching staff to shuffle things on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer stepped up in Zaire’s absence, while C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams successfully handled the workload for Folston on the ground. Despite the injuries, the Fighting Irish were just a couple of plays away from a perfect season. Notre Dame lost 24-22 in a monsoon against Clemson on Oct. 3 and fell on a last-second field goal at Stanford on Nov. 28.
Ohio State entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to repeat, but all of the pieces never fell into place for coach Urban Meyer. Despite an offense that never seemed to be firing on all cylinders, the Buckeyes started 10-0 but stumbled in a 17-14 defeat against Michigan State on Nov. 21. Ohio State rebounded from the loss against the Spartans with a 42-13 win over rival Michigan in the regular season finale. While it’s hard to consider an 11-1 record a disappointment, the Buckeyes expected to be in Arizona on Jan. 11 playing for the national championship – not playing on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl. Will motivation be a concern for Meyer’s team?
Ohio State and Notre Dame have met only five times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes hold a 3-2 edge over the Fighting Irish and have won three consecutive matchups in this series. The last meeting between these two teams took place in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, with Ohio State earning a 34-20 victory.
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame’s Secondary and Ohio State’s Defensive Line
It seems odd to mention the secondary for Notre Dame and defensive line for Ohio State in the same sentence, but the last month has not been kind for either position. Defensive tackle Adolphus Washington was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after an off-field incident, and fellow interior starter Tommy Schutt won’t play due to a foot injury. With Washington and Schutt sidelined, the Buckeyes will turn to sophomores Donovan Munger, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, along with senior Joel Hale to anchor the interior. End Joey Bosa may see some snaps on the interior to alleviate the losses of Washington and Schutt. The Notre Dame secondary is also dealing with its share of issues, as starter KeiVarae Russell suffered a season-ending leg injury against Boston College, safety Max Redfield was sent home from the Fiesta Bowl due to a rules violation, and Devin Butler (Russell’s replacement) suffered a foot injury in bowl practices and won’t play on Jan. 1. Which team will feel its recent injuries and suspensions the most on Friday?
2. The Quarterbacks
With a month to prepare for this matchup, will Ohio State’s passing attack take a step forward? The Buckeyes ranked sixth in the Big Ten (conference-only games) by averaging 198.5 yards per game and recorded only seven passing scores during league contests. J.T. Barrett replaced Cardale Jones as the starting quarterback in four out of the final five games, but the offense still struggled to generate big plays through the air. Barrett is facing a patchwork Notre Dame secondary, so this matchup should be a prime opportunity for the sophomore to test the Fighting Irish downfield. On the other sideline, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is facing the best statistical defense this offense has played in 2015. Kizer threw for 2,596 yards and 19 scores and added 499 rushing yards and nine touchdowns after taking over for Zaire. The redshirt freshman was efficient (63.3%) and will have his share of big-play opportunities with Will Fuller (13 TDs), Chris Brown (44 catches) and Amir Carlisle (29 catches) on the outside. Not only is Ohio State’s talented secondary a concern for Kizer, but the Buckeyes will test a stout Notre Dame offensive line with one of the nation’s top defensive players in end Joey Bosa. Will Kizer play a flawless game and find opportunities for big plays against the stingy Ohio State pass defense?
3. Notre Dame’s Front Seven Against Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
As mentioned above, Ohio State’s passing game had its share of ups and downs in 2015. And it’s no secret to Notre Dame’s defense what the Buckeyes want to do on offense – get the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott. The junior rushed for 1,672 yards and 19 scores this season, recording 100 yards in 11 out of Ohio State’s 12 contests. Notre Dame’s defense ranked 64th nationally against the run this season, but it’s noteworthy this unit played two option teams, slightly skewing the overall numbers. While the statistics aren’t necessarily in the Fighting Irish’s favor, the front seven has two All-Americans in linebacker Jaylon Smith and tackle Sheldon Day and could have additional help with the return of tackle Jarron Jones (missed all of 2015 due to a knee injury). Stopping Elliott and forcing Ohio State into third-and-long and obvious pass situations will be critical for Notre Dame’s defense.
These two teams weren’t far from securing a playoff spot, and if both are motivated, this could be one of the better matchups of the postseason. Considering the preseason expectations, it’s fair to wonder about Ohio State’s motivation in this game. However, even if the Buckeyes have some lingering disappointment, coach Urban Meyer will have his team ready to play. The formula for Ohio State is simple – establish Elliott and utilize Barrett’s mobility for plays on the ground and to create opportunities through the air. Will Notre Dame stack the box and contain Elliott? When the Fighting Irish have the ball, the return of C.J. Prosise will help the offense test an Ohio State defense without its starting defensive tackles. However, this game could come down to whether or not Kizer and Fuller can hook up for a few big plays against a tough secondary. Turnover margin is also critical. Notre Dame was minus-five in that department in 2015, while Ohio State was just plus-two. Barrett, Elliott and Bosa each contribute a big play in the fourth quarter, allowing the Buckeyes to cap the season with a close victory in the Fiesta Bowl.