Our first two installments in the Closer Look series examined in detail both Notre Dame and Ohio State’s efforts at scrimmage – offensively and defensively – against the three best teams they faced.
For Part 3, it’s The Playmakers – the best skill position players for both the Irish and the Buckeyes and their efforts against their respective top five foes faced.
NOTRE DAME VS. THEIR BEST
Included in the sample are #1 Clemson, #6 Stanford, #21 Navy, #24 Temple, and #25 USC.
WR Will Fuller: Famously stymied by Mackensie Alexander and the Clemson defense (2 receptions on 5 targets, 37 yards) but lit up the remaining four ranked foes the Irish faced, collecting 393 receiving yards on 19 receptions with four touchdowns (one vs. each among Navy, USC, Temple, and Stanford).
Fuller recorded a combined 16 first downs vs. the quarter (just one vs. Clemson) including three drawn pass interference penalties. He was targeted 6 times vs. USC, 9 apiece against Navy and Temple and 8 times vs. Stanford.
QB DeShone Kizer: Rose to the occasion vs. Notre Dame’s six toughest opponents (I’ve added Pittsburgh for a larger sample size), compiling a remarkable 1,624 passing yards (270 per game) with 12 touchdowns vs. four interceptions (and a fumble lost).
Kizer dented defenses for a combined 377 rushing yards (63 per game) with another six scores. Only USC held him out of the end zone via the rush.
He passed for more than 300 yards at Clemson and for 299 at Temple (defenses ranked #7 and #18, respectively) and rushed for 143 vs. the Owls and 128 at Stanford. Kizer rushed for an aggregate 25 first downs vs. those top six Irish foes.
RB C.J. Prosise: The senior didn’t play in Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to Stanford but he produced consistently against the remaining top four foes. Although held in check on the ground vs. Clemson (15 carries/50 yards) and Temple (14 carries/25 yards), Prosise dented both top tier defenses in the passing game, hitting for 100 yards including a 55-yard touchdown at Clemson and another 43 yards on five receptions vs. the Owls.
Prosise destroyed Navy for 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns plus another 56 yards on four receptions though among this quartet, Navy represents the worst defensive comparison to the Buckeyes. He gained a combined 26 first downs in matchups vs. Clemson, Navy, USC, and Temple.
WR Chris Brown: Only 18 of Brown’s 56 receptions came against Notre Dame’s top five foes. He did not score a touchdown in any of the contests though the senior leader hit Clemson for 83 yards and three first downs, Navy for 56 yards and a pair of first downs, USC for 38 yards and two first downs, and Temple for 72 yards and another pair of chain-moving catches.
Brown was not effective at Stanford, catching just one pass for 7 yards (a first down gain). In total he was targeted 30 times against Notre Dame’s best five opponents (42 targets in the remaining seven games) and dropped only one pass on the season, though he committed a game-changing fumble at the goal line in a comeback attempt late at Clemson.
WR Torii Hunter: Not a huge part of the game plan vs. USC (1 catch, 9 yards) or Navy (1-28), Hunter fared well against Clemson, Temple and Stanford, recording 12 receptions for 147 combined yards and what could have been the game-tying score at Clemson save for the need for a two-point conversion thereafter.
He was targeted an aggregate 17 times against the Tigers, Owls, and Cardinal; just once apiece vs. the Mid’s and Trojans. Hunter dropped just one pass in 2015 – in the rain at Clemson, albeit uncontested with room to roam.
Backup RB Josh Adams: Served in a backup role against Clemson (2 rushes, 2 yards), USC (1-26), Navy (8-38) and Temple (DNP) but when Adams was featured, he shined, compiling 196 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches (18 rushes, 168 yards) at Stanford plus another 147 on 20 carries at Pittsburgh in relief. The Panthers possess the nation’s No. 27 ranked total defense.
Adams produced a remarkable 10 first downs at Stanford and another six at Pittsburgh.
OHIO STATE VS. THEIR BEST
Examining the Buckeyes top skill position players against the best teams, or defenses, they faced.
Included are #3 Michigan State, #14 Michigan, and to make up for the lack of overall schedule strength, the defenses of Penn State (#14 nationally), Virginia Tech (#34), and Minnesota (#35).
RB Ezekiel Elliott: With the now infamous exception of a 17-14 loss to Michigan State, Elliott was a consistent producer against Ohio State’s top foes, finishing with 122 yards vs. Va. Tech, 153 against Penn State, 114 vs. Minnesota, and a whopping 214 on 30 carries vs. Michigan. Elliott scored touchdowns vs. each of the five (two vs. Michigan) but was limited to just 33 yards on a curious 12 carries against the Spartans.
Elliott wasn’t heavily involved in the passing game, collecting nine receptions against their top five opponents for just 53 yards. His long catch-and-run of the season was 19 yards against Maryland. Of note, Elliott ripped off a 75-yard touchdown against Va. Tech and a 66-yarder at Michigan but was held in check by Penn State (long of 17=9) and Minnesota (long of 15).
His longest rush against the Spartans in defeat was just 7 yards.
QB J.T. Barrett: Did not play against Minnesota (suspended) and did not start against Virginia Tech but threw one pass (it was a touchdown) and rushed once…for 40 yards against the Hokies. So there’s that.
Against the defenses of Penn State (played the final 25 minutes in relief of Cardale Jones), Michigan State, and Michigan, Barrett compiled 285 yards on 55 carries (5.1 per rush) scoring five touchdowns (three against Michigan) while passing for only 189 yards but for four scores, hitting on 22 of 35 attempts. Barrett was intercepted just once as a starter this season.
WR Michael Thomas: Totaled 49 receptions for 709 yards and 8 scores on the season though Thomas didn’t produce consistently vs. top foes. He hit Va. Tech (Jones at QB), Penn State (both QB) and Minnesota (Jones) for a combined nine receptions, 119 yards, and three scores (one in each contest) and was taken out of the game completely by Michigan State, gaining eight yards on two receptions.
Thomas hit Michigan for 50 yards and a touchdown on two catches for the run-first Buckeyes offense. His best effort this season with Barrett under center came against Illinois (six receptions, 76 yards, TD).
WR Braxston Miller: The former dual-threat quarterback turned dual-threat athlete dominated the season opener against the Hokies finishing with 140 combined rushing/receiving yards while scoring highlight reel touchdowns of 53 and 54 yards. Miller was heavily involved vs. Penn State as well, accruing 63 total yards on eight touches with a touchdown.
Miller’s production waned late as he was limited to 11 yards on 5 carries vs. Minnesota (one reception for 45 yards was key) and a combined seven touches for just 24 yards in the season’s final two games vs. the Spartans and Wolverines.
He ended the season with 64 scrimmage touches, four touchdowns, and 563 yards.
WR/RB Jalin Marshall: Concluded the regular season with 31 receptions and 5 touchdowns, compiling 448 receiving yards with long gains of 48, 44, 37, and 34 yards. Just one of those long gains came against a solid defense, Marshall’s 44-yarder vs. Minnesota.
The converted running back (1 rush, 15 yards on the season) finished strong with a combined four catches and 53 yards with a touchdown against both Michigan State and Michigan.
Backup RB Curtis Samuel: Combined for just two rushes and 21 yards (Samuel logged 17 carries for 132 yards on the season) while catching seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore from Brooklyn finished with 20 receptions and 262 receiving yards in a backup role.
The most damage done by an opposing running back in the passing game (at least during competitive game action) vs. the Irish was by USC’s Tre Madden, six receptions for 47 yards.