Either of these teams could fit in to the Playoff just fine. The Ohio State Buckeyes, the defending 2014 national champ, struggled to maintain their footing in 2015. They stumbled only once, but it was enough, and Michigan State went to the Big Ten title game instead. Two or three more Ezekiel Elliott carries and they’re probably in for a chance to repeat.
Meanwhile Notre Dame battled attrition across the board, losing players to transfer and suspension and injury and all manner in other methods. Somehow the Fighting Irish survived to make it to 10-2, with only a desperation Stanford field goal keeping Notre Dame out.
Despite not carrying playoff billing, this rematch of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl (a 34-20 Ohio State victory) carries all the trappings of a great matchup.
BUCKEYE O HAS ONE LAST CHANCE TO GET IT RIGHT
It’s been an interesting 2015 campaign for the Ohio State offense, whose quarterback woes have been thoroughly fleshed out. What’s more is that the Braxton Miller experiment seemed to have peaked in week one and no Buckeye receiver has stepped in to replace Devin Smith‘s lost 2014 production.
Twice this season, however, the Buckeyes have looked like their old selves: during a 38-10 blasting of Penn State and the 42-13 pantsing of Michigan. The common denominator, of course, was Elliott, who rushed for 1,600+ yards and 19 touchdowns this season but went curiously silent against Sparty.
The question is, obviously, whether the Buckeye team that struggled to move the ball against Northern Illinois or Michigan State creeps back. Having J.T. Barrett, whose effort against Penn State earned him the starting job for good, installed as quarterback helps. His mobility gives the defense something else to consider and he’s got the arm to punish an overly aggressive secondary . . . but if we’re being honest, it all comes down to Elliott. He’s got the goods to carry the team and if the much-maligned Buckeye OCs feed him the ball, things get opened up for Michael Thomas and tight end Nick Vannett.
I wrote off Notre Dame when Malik Zaire went down, but they proved me wrong. DeShone Kizer was more than adequate to operate the Irish’s pro-style/spread hybrid offense. Kizer’s mobility and brawn (he’s a slight 6’4″/230) draws in opposing secondaries before punishing them with deep-threat receiver (and Kizer’s favorite target) Will Fuller (1,145 yards, and an astonishing 20.5 yards per catch).
And therein lies my favorite matchup of this game: Notre Dame’s eighth-ranked Passing S&P+ offense against Ohio State’s fourth-ranked Passing S&P+ defense. Stanford repeatedly defend one-on-one against Fuller and got burned again and again. Ohio State’s defensive front, lacking tackles Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, will have to figure out how to lock down Notre Dame backs C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams (not to mention Kizer) while keeping enough men back to blanket Fuller.
EFFICIENCY VS. BIG PLAYS
Ohio State should be able to sustain drives if Elliott is involved. Notre Dame should be able to grab chunks of yards if Fuller can get favorable matchups. With the Buckeyes’ depleted defensive line, Kizer should find time to throw.
So which team is more excited to be there? Ohio State is settling for a mere Fiesta Bowl appearance after having designs on a second national title, but I can’t imagine they’ll be hurting for enthusiasm. The Michigan State loss seemed to motivate Ohio State against Michigan and they’ll be out to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Notre Dame might have thought they were destined for Pinstripe Bowl mediocrity when attrition set in, but here they are in a New Year’s Six bowl with a very promising offseason and 2016 ahead of them. They can establish that foundation now.
But for now we get to enjoy an amalgam of NFL-ready talent, elite offenses and mean defenses. Happy New Year.