#8 Notre Dame v. #7 Ohio State
University of Phoenix Stadium — Glendale, AZ
January 1, 2016 — 1:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
The Fiesta Bowl blossomed quickly from a guaranteed venue for WAC champions to play in a bowl game into one of the preeminent postseason contests in the country. It was selected ahead of older bowl games like the Cotton Bowl when the Bowl Championship Series was consolidated for the 1999 season, and prior to that point it had already been part of the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance, and had hosted an earlier de facto national championship game between top-two teams Miami and Penn State in 1986. While it has moved from the Arizona State campus to the University of Phoenix Stadium, the oddly-named home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
This year’s edition is one of just two bowl games outside the College Football Playoff semifinals that Nine years ago, blueblood programs Notre Dame and Ohio State met in this very same game, playing out the last edition to be hosted at Sun Devil Stadium in 2006. On that day the Buckeyes prevailed 34-20, and the two teams have not met since. Both teams would have preferred to be in the final four of the College Football Playoff, but late defeats knocked the Irish and the Buckeyes out of the running and relegated them to this worthy consolation prize. Two future Hall of Fame head coaches will match wits in Glendale, with one seeking his first-ever win in a New Year’s Six bowl game. There will be plenty to keep you interested when Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly lead their deep, talented rosters into their New Year’s duel.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Two losses by less than a field goal apiece to a pair of Power Five conference champions were all that separated Notre Dame from a perfect season in 2015. The Fighting Irish weathered the loss of starting quarterback Malik Zaire to a broken ankle suffered in the second game of the season, turning to sophomore DeShone Kizer in his absence. It helped having 1100-yard receiver Will Fuller to ease the quarterback transition. Starting tailback C.J. Prosise also suffered through a sprained ankle late in the season, though he will return for the bowl game. While their numbers were not elite, the Irish scored 40 or more points on four different occasions (all after Zaire’s injury) and have the ability to light up the scoreboard.
Just like the offense, the Notre Dame defense doesn’t look like one of the top units in the country… at least not at first glance. But the Irish D is a top-25 unit in terms of opponents’ success rates on first and third down as well as when they manage to reach the red zone. Linebacker Jaylon Smith leads the group, racking up 113 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Romeo Okwara led a solid front seven that was great at getting to the quarterback but less sturdy when faced by strong run games. Notre Dame was not great at nabbing turnovers in general, ranking 99th nationally in turnover margin.
C.J. Sanders averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return, helping Notre Dame gain great field position with a top-30 return unit. They struggled returning punts, though, averaging fewer than eight yards per return. Sophomore Tyler Newsome was good for over 44 yards per punt, finishing 25th in FBS, and the team finished 35th in net punting average. Freshman kicker Justin Yoon connected on 15 of his 17 field goal attempts, tying for fourth nationally in field goal percentage. With Brian Kelly hoping to earn his first major bowl victory, special teams success could make the difference.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State looked in disarray throughout the season, but they continued winning and looked like they were good to reach the playoff and have a shot at defending their national title. Then they ran into a Michigan State team that usurped their spot both in the Big Ten championship and in the College Football Playoff field. The offense seemed to desperately miss departed coordinator Tom Herman, who guided Houston to a New Year’s Six bowl in his first season as a head coach. Neither Cardale Jones nor J.T. Barrett claimed the quarterback position as their own, and workhorse back Ezekiel Elliott was haphazardly utilized at times. The most sobering statistics from when it all came crumbling down: 132 total yards of offense, five first downs, and three yards per play against Michigan State.
What allowed the Buckeyes to win 11 games was a defense that once again dominated opposing offenses, holding nine of their 12 competitors under 20 points per game. Though his numbers were down from last season, Joey Bosa managed to finish in the top 20 nationally with 16 tackles for loss. The increased attention that offensive lines gave Bosa allowed Tyquan Lewis to rack up seven sacks, and the Buckeyes finished the season with the sixth-best pass efficiency defense in the nation. None of the offenses that the OSU defense faced, though, presented the sort of challenge that the Irish offense could provide.
Ohio State had solid special teams production from all of its various units save the kickers. Jack Willoughby and Sean Neurnberger split time, connecting on all 57 extra-point attempts but just seven of 12 field goal tries. Cameron Johnston rated just ahead of Notre Dame’s Tyler Newsome in punting average, and the Buckeyes ranked 16th nationally in net punting. Both return units were top-35 crews, helping skew the field-position battle toward the Big Ten team. Urban Meyer has a solid team at every unit with plenty of talent, but it remains to be seen just how interest the Buckeyes will have in suiting up and competing in a non-championship bowl game.
What is Likely to Happen
Ohio State is a 6.5-point favorite against the Fighting Irish, and if they decide to show up and play hard they have the talent to blow that betting line out of the water. With players inevitably looking ahead to NFL futures and knowing that one more performance could raise or lower their draft stock, both teams should have plenty of incentive to play their hardest. Between the two rosters there are 15 senior starters, making this a contest that will linger (for better or worse) in their memories for a lifetime.
If both teams do decide to play the full 60, that probably doesn’t bode well for Brian Kelly’s dreams of succeeding in one of these big games. He lost the Orange Bowl at Cincinnati, the BCS national championship game in Miami in 2013, and will hope that the desert makes the third trip a charm. It is more likely, though, that Ezekiel Elliott will get fed the ball at least 30 times as he rumbles for 200 yards and at least two touchdowns. We’ll probably see both Buckeye quarterbacks at some point, and Urban Meyer will have a reason to smile after missing out on a second straight Big Ten championship.
Ohio State 31, Notre Dame 17
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