When Notre Dame takes on Ohio State in the Jan. 1, 2016 Fiesta Bowl, what’s at stake for the Irish is obvious.
No, a win won’t advance either the Irish or the Buckeyes to the national championship game as the Dec. 31 clashes determine who makes the final cut in the four-team playoff.
But with Notre Dame failing to secure a major bowl victory since the 1993 season when the Irish knocked off Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl – a year in which only current seniors and fifth-year seniors had been born – the motivation is as high as it’s been in three years.
“This is the Fiesta Bowl! We’re playing Ohio State!” said always-motivated Irish captain Joe Schmidt. “For the greater part of the year, they were the No. 1 team in the nation. If you watch the game tape, they’re obviously a great football team.
“To go in there and play a solid game and show the country and the world what we’ve accomplished this season is important to us.”
One year ago, however, the 7-5 Irish were preparing for a much different game and setting in late-December. In Nashville for the Christmas holidays for its first-ever appearance in the Music City Bowl, Notre Dame was preparing to take on 8-4 LSU, which was installed as an 8 ½-point favorite over the reeling Irish, who went from 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country to losses in five of their last six games, including all four in November.
Bragging rights were hardly at stake in the Music City Bowl. Pride was about the extent of it.
“Each year requires a different touch on your team,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Last year required us to rebuild so the confidence in our guys. They had to know that we believed in them and that we trusted them and that we believed that they could be successful.
“It was a lot of, ‘We believe in you. We have great confidence in you. You can do this. We’re with you.’”
The Irish were among the few believers at Nashville’s LP Field (now called Nissan Stadium) on Dec. 30, 2014 when the Irish took the field against the Tigers. Injuries had decimated the Irish in November. Belief that the Irish would suddenly rise up and defeat a good-but-not-great LSU team was limited outside the Notre Dame camp.
But the Irish quickly established themselves as a legitimate threat to win the Music City Bowl as Kelly and his offensive staff unleashed a two-pronged quarterback attack with starter Malik Zaire and former starter Everett Golson, as well as a rushing attack seldom seen in the Kelly era.
In a game in which the score was knotted at 7, 14, 21 and 28 – with the Irish rushing for 263 yards – Notre Dame eventually prevailed over Les Miles’ Tigers, 31-28, on a last-second field goal by Kyle Brindza as the Irish overcame a 75-yard touchdown pass, a 100-yard kickoff return by Leonard Fournette, and an 89-yard run by Fournette.
“I thought we were a better football team than how we played down the end, other than not having enough troops against USC defensively,” Kelly recalled.
“When we got some guys back, I felt we had enough to control the football offensively and find a way to win if they believed that they could win. Then it became mind over matter and making them believe they could win.”
Notre Dame controlled the football for 37:00 – 14 more than LSU – and the improbable had become reality.
“Last year was all about getting respect,” said fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace, who missed the ’14 campaign recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered midway through ’13.
“Our season had fallen apart. That was about making a statement, having pride, being tough, and representing Notre Dame in a way that we felt we should have done all year long.
“Although everyone was counting us out, we knew in our hearts that we were totally confident going into that game.”
Despite the tough finish to the 2014 regular season, there remained enough pride in Team 126 to fight for a victory in a bowl game in which the outcome had little-to-no bearing on the big picture of the college football season.
For the players returning in 2015, the focus was on the future as well as the present.
“At the end of last season, we knew we wanted to build on something for next year,” Schmidt said. “We were very upset with the way we played in November and we wanted to make sure it ended with a quality effort. We wanted to end the season on the right foot.”
Regaining confidence is not an issue one year later, despite a hard-to-swallow three-point loss at Stanford in the 2015 regular-season finale.
“This group, we don’t have to do much (confidence building),” Kelly said.
“Last year was a lot about building confidence and putting them in positions to be successful in practice and vocally telling them that we trusted them and believed in them. This group is about keeping great morale and trusting that they’ll put in the time necessary without having to grind them.”
Added Schmidt: “How can you not be thrilled about the opportunity to play Ohio State? It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Whereas last year’s win over LSU was a whisper amidst the glut of bowls that come and go, a victory over 11-1 and defending national champion Ohio State would be a roar.
“It’s a statement game because Notre Dame, in the past, hasn’t necessarily played the best in these big-time games,” Grace said.
“Our motivation now is to put Notre Dame back on the map and say, ‘We’re going to be contending at the top of the polls each and every year.’”