There is the creativity of the offensive attack. A wide array of philosophies that incorporate the best of spread offense football fill the playbook. It’s a cutting edge offensive approach that’s always been one step ahead with this head coach.
But when Brian Kelly and his players think of Ohio State football – Notre Dame’s opponent in the Jan. 1, 2016 Fiesta Bowl – finesse is not at the forefront of the images left in their wake.
“Well-coached, very good athletes on both sides of the ball, physical style of football, running the football…” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, listing off his impressions of Urban Meyer’s program, which is a phenomenal 49-4 under his direction in four seasons.
“Those are the things that stand out with an Ohio State football team. The demeanor, physical, and then well-coached in all areas, including special teams.”
The Buckeyes will bring an 11-1 record into the Fiesta Bowl, still stinging from a 17-14 loss to Michigan State a couple of weeks ago, which derailed the Buckeyes’ shot at defending their 2014 national championship.
Notre Dame’s wounds are even fresher with last weekend’s two-point loss at Stanford.
“Another traditional program,” were the first words used by Irish center Nick Martin to describe Ohio State.
“Always good, always solid, always on TV. Even if you’re not a fan, you watch. That’s why it’s going to be a great matchup. These programs have a lot in common.”
For Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, the impact of matching up with Ohio State runs a bit deeper. A Toledo native, he was on the Buckeyes’ radar when Luke Fickell began running the show in place of Jim Tressel.
When Meyer took over for Fickell at Ohio State, his recruiting plans did not include Kizer. That, along with a lifetime of fending off Buckeye fans growing up, put Ohio State’s program down a ways on Kizer’s list.
“I’ve never been a fan of Ohio State,” Kizer said. “It is my home state, big school, and I do believe they play really good football and the tradition there is very strong. But they’re our opponent coming up and it’s going to be an opportunity for me as an Ohioan and them as a school from Ohio to represent our state.
“I’ve been around the Scarlett and Gray for quite a bit of time,” added Kizer, searching for diplomacy. “There have been some ups and downs with that team. I had some good experiences early in my recruiting process when the other coach was there. Things change and continue to move forward in that way.”
Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt was a 13-year-old attending the 2006 Fiesta Bowl with his family as his sister and future brother-in-law were in their final years at Notre Dame.
“With Urban Meyer, the recent memories are of a great football team that has won a lot of games, last year’s national title, and they’re one game away from that this year,” Schmidt said. “They’ve got it going in Columbus. They’ve got a great fan base.”
Like his head coach and teammates, the last thing Schmidt imagines is a finesse-based game against the Buckeyes.
“I don’t foresee that,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I know they have a lot of talent. Big backs, big quarterbacks, they like to run the football…I’m looking forward to a game like that.”
Added Martin: “It’s going to be old fashioned, fun football. Hopefully, we run the ball.”
Kelly and Meyer go back to Kelly’s days as head coach at Cincinnati, which is Meyer’s alma mater. During Meyer’s hiatus from coaching – in between Florida and Ohio State – he was a spring guest of Kelly’s. They share similar offensive philosophies, favoring spread principles.
Kelly knows the Irish will have to use every bit of their time wisely to properly prepare for the Buckeyes, who are 12th in the country in rushing offense (led by Ezekiel Elliott with 1,672 yards), second in scoring defense and 10th in total defense.
“Whether it’s Ohio State or Stanford or USC or Clemson, any of the good football teams we’ve played, you have to play a complete game,” Kelly said.
“You have to understand that if one area is not strong, you’re going to be compromised. Ohio State will compromise you if you’re not strong in all three phases.”