BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl Preview

BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl: no. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1) vs. no. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-2)

Date: January 1, 1 p.m.

Location: University Of Pheonix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

Line:  OSU -6 O/U: 56.5

Exactly a decade after Notre Dame and Ohio State last met, the two college football powerhouses will do battle in the same city and in the same game on new year’s day. This coincidence is by no means the only connection between the two schools heading into what is perhaps the most anticipated non-playoff bowl game this season. The Fiesta Bowl is the site of Notre Dame’s last national championship, a 1989 victory over West Virginia, as well as the last venue Urban Meyer entered as Notre Dame’s wide receiver coach in 2001.

The programs don’t stop intertwining there – Meyer currently has three former Brian Kelly assistants on his coaching staff: offensive line coach Ed Warinner (2010-11), tight ends coach Tim Hinton (2010-11), and running backs coach Tony Alford (2010-14). Meyer also reportedly offered current Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford the same position in Columbus this past offseason, but Sanford decided to stay put. Fans of both schools might also remember Laura Hawk’s (formerly Quinn) half Notre Dame – half Ohio State jersey, which drew quite a bit of attention during the aforementioned 2006 Fiesta Bowl, which was a 34-20 Buckeye victory.

With so many associations between the two schools, these Midwest football juggernauts are bound to recruit many of the same players. Ohio State’s All-American senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker, a one-time Notre Dame commit, is one these players. He, along with a star-studded Buckeye offensive line, will be tasked with containing a Notre Dame defensive line that has an All-American of its own, tackle Sheldon Day. The Irish figure to get nose tackle Jarron Jones back for the bowl after he missed the entire season with a torn MCL. Jones had 40 tackles in 2014 (7.5 tfl). While his return adds depth and bolsters an already tough Notre Dame front seven, the Irish secondary took a significant blow earlier this week when cornerback Devin Butler broke his foot. Sophomore Nick Watkins will likely fill the role in place of Butler. The offense will be thankful to get star running back C.J. Prosise back, who missed the heartbreaking Stanford loss, and tight end Durham Smythe, who has been out since mid-September. Notre Dame was forced to suspend a defensive player heading into the bowl, however, as was Ohio State.

On Tuesday, December 29, just three days before the clash with Ohio State, Notre Dame announced that starting safety Max Redfield had been sent home from Glendale for a “violation of team rules.” The junior safety played a large role in Notre Dame’s 2015 defense, amassing 64 tackles. Senior Mathias Farley looks to get the start, replacing Redfield. Farley has played in all twelve games this year and was voted special teams MVP.

There’s certainly no shortage of headlines being made on the opposite sideline. On December 11, Ohio State announced that standout defensive tackle Adolphus Washington had been suspended for the bowl due to a solicitation charge. Washington had been the beneficiary of increased attention on Buckeye end Joey Bosa, gathering 49 total tackles (7 tfl), and 4 sacks.

Just when Ohio State’s depth at the position couldn’t get any thinner, starting defensive tackle Tommy Schutt broke his foot, leaving Meyer to mention that he is considering moving Bosa inside for the bowl. Schutt recorded 25 tackles this season. Redshirt sophomores Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle will likely see the field in place of the two starting interior lineman.

This handful of significant injuries and suspensions for both teams will no doubt have a large impact on the game plans of both teams as both coaching staffs will likely attack these holes. All of these changes, most specifically the loss of Redfield and Butler for Notre Dame, affect who has the edge on both sides of the ball. With that, let’s diagnose who has the advantage when both teams have the ball, and what the keys will be for each team.

When Notre Dame Has The Ball

When Notre Dame lost running back Tarean Folston for the season in week one, many Irish fans feared the worst. When Kelly announced that former wide receiver C.J. Prosise would become the starter, most Notre Dame fans were excited about his speed, but many questions remained. Prosise exceeded expectations, rushing for 1,032 yards, 16 touchdowns, and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Prosise’s success will be the key for Notre Dame to move the ball consistently against Ohio State. Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer, who you’ve surely heard by now was the third-string quarterback heading into spring practice, has proven to be a clutch thrower, but his success hinges on the offensive line’s ability to open holes for Prosise.

The war in the trenches will determine how much pressure Kizer feels throughout the game, considering that Ohio State’s secondary has been outstanding at covering the pass, allowing just 176.2 passing yards per game, and surrendering just 12 passing touchdowns all season. Meyer and his staff likely won’t hold back on blitzing Kizer on such a big stage, which could leave Notre Dame’s All-American receiver Will Fuller in single coverage. Ohio State has faced just two power-five opponents ranked in the top fifty in passing offense, so count on Fuller breaking free at least once.

Against Ohio State’s talented front seven, establishing a ground game won’t be an easy task, even without the two missing linemen. The Buckeyes are allowing their opponents just 127.3 rushing yards per game, and only 3.4 yards per carry. That being said, Ohio State has faced just two power-five teams in the top fifty for rushing attacks.

Who Has the Advantage?

Notre Dame rushing offense vs. Ohio State rushing defense – Notre Dame

With Washington and Schutt out for OSU, the Irish shouldn’t have trouble running the ball behind future first-round pick left tackle Ronnie Stanley.

Notre Dame passing offense vs. Ohio State passing defense – Notre Dame

Don’t underestimate the loss of Washington and the effect he had on the Buckeye’s pass rush. OSU allowed an average of 230 passing yards in their final four games, despite holding Michigan State, who was missing Connor Cook, to just 91 yards.

When Ohio State Has The Ball

Ohio State needed  half of their season to decide on a quarterback, and the one Meyer chose, J.T. Barrett, is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. Behind Barrett is the running back with the fifth most rushing yards this season (1,672), Ezekiel Elliott. Expect Elliott to pace the Ohio State offense, and to receive much more than the twelve carries he was granted in the team’s only loss, a 17-14 collapse to Michigan State. Throw Barrett’s talents into the mix, and you have one of the deadliest rushing attacks in college football, when used correctly.

Elliott’s public criticism of his coaches earned him a larger role in the following game against Michigan when he ran for 214 yards and two scores. The same day he called out his coaches, Elliott announced that he would be leaving for the NFL at the end of the season, which surely gave him the motivation to perform well in his last games as a Buckeye. Expect Elliott to run with a purpose in the Fiesta Bowl.

Though they have been susceptible to the big play this season, allowing 24 runs of 20 yards or more, Notre Dame’s defense has been impressive this season, shutting down two Heisman finalists – Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey ran for just 94 yards, and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson went 8-of-21 for a mere 97 yards. With the addition of Jones to the defensive line, the Notre Dame defensive front becomes quite an intimating force. We all said the same thing about Alabama’s defense last season, though, and look how that turned out.

The Irish are hopeful that Jones will make an impact in the pass rush, which has been inconsistent for Notre Dame this season. With the loss of Redfield and Butler, Notre Dame will need to fluster Barrett and force him to get rid of the ball quickly and for short gains, leaving linebacker Jaylon Smith with easy prey. As previously mentioned, the Irish defense struggles with giving up chunk plays, and playmakers on the edge like Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas, and Jalin Marshall will likely have a few between them.

Who Has the Advantage?

Ohio State rushing offense vs. Notre Dame rushing defense – Notre Dame

The addition of Jones to the defensive line along with All-Americans Day and Smith should be quick enough to contain Elliott and Barrett, but there is no guarantee – once the Buckeyes get into a rhythm using the read option, it’s nearly impossible to stop.

Ohio State passing offense vs. Notre Dame passing defense – Ohio State

The loss of Redfield and Butler forces Notre Dame to start Watkins at cornerback in what will be his first time playing anything other than special teams. Barrett’s arm in combination with the speed of Ohio State’s receivers will simply be too much for Notre Dame to defend.

Deciding Factor

What will ultimately decide the Fiesta Bowl is not a position group or individual matchup, but rather which version of Ohio State shows up. Will we see a group lacking motivation after falling three points short of a chance to defend their title, or will we see a team motivated to quiet the critics who say the Buckeyes have seen no real competition, and that the team is full of players who care more about their draft stock than winning? I find it hard to believe that an Urban Meyer coached team will not be eager to defeat a storied program in Notre Dame, but as we have seen once this season, if the game is close in the end, the Buckeyes might just unravel.

Final Verdict

Although I gave the advantage in most categories to Notre Dame, the Irish defense is too vulnerable to the big play, and being forced to start Watkins in his first ever game certainly won’t do any help. Look for Notre Dame to sell out on stopping Elliott, which they might not even be able to do if he shows up motivated, and suffer by giving up too many big plays through the air. Notre Dame is explosive enough on offense to keep up, but just as they did against Stanford, the Irish defense will lose the game on the final possession – Ohio State 41, Notre Dame 34

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