Even with the loss to Stanford to fall to 10-2, the Notre Dame players – well, at least some of them – still held out hope that they might be selected as one of the four teams participating in college football’s second go-round in the playoff era.
Denied that opportunity, the next best thing is a shot at the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.
“They want to play again,” said Brian Kelly of his team’s eagerness to get back on the field after the Nov. 28 loss to Stanford dropped Notre Dame out of the running for a spot in the four-team playoff.
“They’re disappointed they’re not in the playoffs. (But) they’re going to a great bowl and one that they’re honored to be part of and excited to be playing Ohio State. They want to play one more game.”
It should be quite of a “one more game.”
It took a last-second field goal by Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger to derail the Buckeye bandwagon, which has run roughshod over 25 of its last 27 opponents, including Alabama and Oregon last year to claim the 2014 national title.
With most of its team coming back in ’15, Ohio State wasn’t the dominant force many expected, defeating teams like Northern Illinois and Indiana by seven points, Minnesota by 14, and Illinois in a less-than-scintillating 28-3 decision.
Such are the standards of the Urban Meyer-led program, which has won an incredible 49 times out of 53 games.
“This is an opportunity that really helps us out,” said Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. “You get your hopes so high and you set your mission to get to the national championship.
“You start to feel a little disappointed, but this is an opportunity for us to play a national championship-caliber game. It’s another opportunity to prove who (Team) 127 is and how talented we are and that we truly deserve to be considered one of the best teams in the country.”
By matching up against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish have all the motivation they need.
“We want to honor the relationships that have been formed, honor the effort that’s been put forward for the last few years, and send Team 127 out on the right note,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt.
“It’s not about a legacy or people remembering people by something. It’s never really been about that for us. It’s been about the guys in this room, this University and everybody that supports us.”
Perhaps it’s not about legacy – at least not yet – but Notre Dame clearly looks at this as an opportunity to prove that it’s an 11-2 team, not a 10-3 team, which almost undoubtedly would give the Irish a top 5 finish to the 2015 season.
Their red zone offense and inability to convert short-yardage plays can be maddening. Even more frustrating is a defense that continues to give up big plays and long touchdown drives. Yet Kelly will put his team up against anybody’s because of the mindset that led the Irish to the brink of a playoff berth.
“What makes this team stand out to me is that nothing really has fazed them,” Kelly said. “They continue to move forward regardless of the circumstances, and I mean even within a game. Regardless of what injuries occurred, they played the same way, whether they were up or down.”
Within the game of football, there is much to be learned to apply to the next 50 years of life. In Kelly’s mind, this team epitomizes that notion.
“It’s a great lesson in life in the sense that they deal with what’s in front of them, they handle their business, and they keep moving forward,” Kelly said. “It’s an example of how this game teaches great lessons. This group taught me a great lesson of how to stay in the moment and keep moving forward.”
Staying in the moment will mean coming up with ways to deal with the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, No. 10 total defense, No. 22 rushing defense and No. 12 rushing offense.
“We need to play well and win the game to validate where we are as a football program,” said Kelly, who is finishing up his sixth season with the Irish sporting a 55-22 mark.
“We’ve shown that this year, but we’re going to get one more challenge against what could be the best team in the country. Who’s to say they’re not? I know the committee decided who the four are, but you could take one of eight teams and make a case for them.
“We’ve got one more challenge on our hands and that’s to play well against Ohio State. They’re the defending national champs. It’s a darn good football team. We know who we are. We’ve been tested by some very good football teams. This will be another stern test by another good football team.”