OHIO STATE HEAD COACH
Urban Meyer (4th year at Ohio State) – Meyer, 51, is in the midst of posting legendary numbers in his 14th season as a head coach. He sports a 153-27 (.850) mark in four coaching stops at Bowling Green (17-6), Utah (22-2), Florida (65-15), and Ohio State (49-4) with two national titles at Florida (2006, 2008) and one at Ohio State (2014). Meyer is 9-2 in bowl/post-season games, including victories over Alabama and Oregon last year to claim the national title.
Meyer has the third-highest winning percentage all-time among FBS coaches, behind only Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. He is second in the history of college coaches with four 13-plus-victory seasons. He is the only coach in major college history to have four winnings streaks of at least 20 games. Meyer reached 100 wins faster than all but one coach in the last 57 years (Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson) and faster than all but five coaches all-time.
• DL-Joey Bosa (Jr.) – Burst onto the scene as a freshman in ’13 with 7 ½ sacks, and then exploded into a unanimous All-American and finalist for the Lombardi, Outland and Ted Hendricks Awards as a sophomore with 13 ½ sacks and 21 tackles for lost yardage in ’14. Hasn’t posted the same numbers this year (five sacks, 16 tackles for loss), but still far and away the team-leader in quarterback hurries with 14.
• RB-Ezekiel Elliott (Jr.) – Dynamic running back who helped lead the Buckeyes to the 2014 national title while rushing for the second highest total (1,878 yards) in Ohio State history. Enters the Fiesta Bowl with 39 career rushing touchdowns, including 18 last year and 19 this year. Has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of 12 games this season, topping it off with a 214-yard effort in the regular-season finale against rival Michigan. Five of Elliott’s 19 rushing touchdowns have come from at least 55 yards.
• QB-J.T. Barrett (Soph.) – Emerged as the starter over Cardale Jones down the stretch of the ’15 season to pass for 781 yards with 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions while completing 63.8 percent of his passes. Second-leading rusher behind Elliott with 586 yards and 11 TDs. Burst onto the scene last year in relief of injured starter Braxton Miller before suffering his own season-ending injury, but not before he threw for 2,834 yards and 34 TDs.
• OT-Taylor Decker (Sr.) – Towering left tackle for an offensive line that has paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged 241.9 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. A consensus All-American and team captain.
• S-Vonn Bell (Jr.) – Jim Thorpe Award finalist and consensus All-American with nine career interceptions, six of which came during Ohio State’s 2014 national championship run. Also had 92 tackles in ’14. A total of 23 passes defensed the last two seasons combined.
WHAT OHIO STATE DOES WELL
• Win under Urban Meyer: In four seasons, the Buckeyes have won 49 of 53 games, including a remarkable 31-1 mark against Big Ten competition. Ohio State has winning streaks under Meyer of 12 in 2012, 12 in 2013, 13 in 2014 -- including victories over Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs to claim the national title -- and 10 in 2015. Ohio State had won 23 games in a row before falling to Michigan State on Nov. 21.
• Run the football: Ohio State is, first and foremost, a power running football team, averaging 241.8 yards rushing per game in 2015. The Buckeyes rushed for 359 yards against Virginia Tech, 272 yards vs. Indiana, 315 yards against Penn State, 283 yards vs. Illinois, and a season-high 369 yards against Michigan.
• Stop the run: Ohio State ranks 22nd in the country in rush defense, allowing just 127.3 yards rushing per game and 3.4 yards per carry. The Buckeyes’ 12 regular-season opponents scored a collective eight rushing touchdowns. Ohio State held six of its 12 opponents to 110 yards rushing or less, including 33 to Minnesota, 20 to Illinois and 57 to Michigan.
• Wear down opponents: Over the final 45 minutes of games, the Buckeyes batter opponents, scoring 121 points in the second quarter, 118 in the third and 122 in the fourth. Ohio State opponents have scored just 20 points in the first quarter and 27 points in the third quarter. The Buckeyes have out-scored their opponents from the second quarter on by a 357-148 count.
WHERE OHIO STATE STRUGGLES
• Slow starts offensively: The Buckeyes have scored just 59 points in the first quarter (4.9-point average) this season, including a mere 28 points in the last eight first quarters.
• Third-down conversions: For as dominant as the Buckeyes can be with their ground game, they rank 71st in the country in third-down conversions at just 38.9 percent. Ohio State converted 2-of-13 third downs against Northern Illinois, 2-of-14 vs. Indiana, 4-of-13 against Illinois, and 4-of-14 vs. Michigan State.
• Time of possession: Ohio State’s ability to quick-strike defenses plays a role in this stat. Still, the Buckeyes won time of possession just five times this season, which is unusual for a team that runs the football as well as it does. This stat is tied to the third-down stat above.
• Allowing explosive plays: Ohio State is tied for 91st (with Notre Dame) in 50-yard-plus plays allowed with nine. Virginia Tech scored on a 51-yard pass. Western Michigan scored on a 55-yard pass. Indiana scored on a 79-yard run by quarterback Zander Diamont. Maryland scored on a 52-yard pass.
“Ohio State is on an incredible run over the last (few) years. I think it’s going to be a great matchup with Ohio State. (We’ll) get the same (Notre Dame) team. They’ll play hard. They’re excited about going out there and competing one last time together. It’s a close team. They really enjoy being around each other. Those dynamics haven’t changed. My feeling is in watching them prepare over the past two-and-a-half weeks that we’ll see the same team that we’ve seen all year.
“All we’ve talked about is that there are opportunities to do some things here that haven’t been done in a long time. They understand the history of (winning the ’88 national championship) in the Fiesta Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl sits there prominently because there’s a national championship next to it. They know what the Fiesta Bowl means.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Despite their geographic proximity to one another and their high level of play through the years, Notre Dame and Ohio State have squared off on the gridiron just five times with the Irish winning the first two in 1935-36 (18-13 in Columbus and 7-2 in South Bend) and the Buckeyes claiming the last three clashes in 1995-96 (45-26 in Columbus and 29-16 in South Bend) and in the Jan. 1, 2006 Fiesta Bowl (34-20)…Notre Dame has a winning record against every Big Ten team except Ohio State (2-3), Michigan (17-24-1), Nebraska (7-8-1) and Penn State (9-9-1)…Notre Dame enters the Fiesta Bowl with a 17-17 record in bowl games, evening its mark with wins over Rutgers in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl and LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl…
Jerome Bettis holds the Notre Dame single-game bowl rushing record with 150 yards (on just 16 carries) in the Jan. 1, 1992 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida. Jimmy Clausen set the standard for passing yards in a bowl game with 401 (on 22-of-26 passing and 5 TDs) in the Dec. 24, 2008 Hawaii Bowl victory over Hawaii. Golden Tate caught six passes for a Notre Dame bowl-record 177 yards in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl…Six Irish players have scored three touchdowns in a bowl game, including Bettis twice (1992 Sugar Bowl vs. Florida, 1993 Cotton Bowl vs. Texas A&M). The five others are: Elmer Layden (1925 Rose Bowl vs. Stanford), Vagas Ferguson (1978 Cotton Bowl vs. Texas), Autry Denson (1999 Gator Bowl vs. Georgia Tech), Darius Walker (2006 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State) and Golden Tate (2008 Hawaii Bowl vs. Hawaii)…Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer will square off for the first time in their coaching careers. Kelly is the 104th coach Meyer has coached again. Meyer is 88-15 in first-time coaching matchups.
When Brian Kelly revealed that the seniors on the 2015 Notre Dame football team came to him with the special request of not placing the players’ names on the backs of the Fiesta Bowl jerseys, it was yet another sign in a season filled with positive indicators that the Fighting Irish were on the right path to success.
Although it ultimately is just a symbolic gesture, it indicates just how important winning the Jan. 1, 2016 Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl over No. 8 Ohio State is to Team 127 and the Notre Dame football program.
It’s been a breakthrough year for the Fighting Irish three years after going 12-0 during the 2012 season and playing Alabama for the national championship. It didn’t go well against the Crimson Tide that night in Miami Gardens, and with a 17-9 record the last two seasons, which included a November collapse in ’14, Notre Dame’s spot amongst the nation’s elite has been on shaky ground.
Now a 10-2 Fighting Irish team with a pair of two-point losses on the road has a chance to notch their first major-bowl victory since the 1993 season/1994 Cotton Bowl when No. 4 Notre Dame defeated No. 7 Texas A&M, 24-21, on a 31-yard Kevin Pendergast field goal with 2:22 remaining.
The challenge is significant. Urban Meyer’s Ohio State senior class enters Friday’s game with a 49-4 record, although a majority of the standout players for the Buckeyes maintain eligibility beyond this game.
During Meyer’s four-year run in Columbus, the Buckeyes have won with defense and a power rushing attack. Although Ohio State isn’t as dominant defensively as it was during its 2014 national championship season, it’s still a formidable group dotted with top-level talent, led by defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Joshua Perry and safety Vonn Bell.
The foundation for Meyer’s cutting-edge offensive success remains the rushing attack. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Buckeyes have averaged 273.0 yards rushing per game, second best among Power 5 conference schools behind only Georgia Tech, which throws the football much less frequently. Ohio State’s 6.1 yards per carry during that time frame is tops among FBS schools.
Despite the return of Jarron Jones to the equation at nose tackle, which could play a very key role for the Irish, it’s a tall task for Notre Dame’s defensive front against running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback J.T. Barrett. Elliott has rushed for 3,550 yards and 37 touchdowns the last two years/27 games while Barrett – who threw for 2,834 yards as a freshman – is a significant threat on the ground as well.
The outcome of this game will be determined in the trenches – as it always is – as the Irish put their stout defensive front, led by Sheldon Day, up against Ohio State’s offensive line, which features left tackle Taylor Decker and right guard Pat Elflein.
The Buckeyes want to run it, but Barrett is capable if not pinpoint in the passing game with a balanced array of receivers led by Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and converted quarterback Braxton Miller. (Elliott also is a threat out of the backfield in the passing game with 54 receptions the last two seasons.)
Notre Dame’s concern is in the secondary where cornerback KeiVarae Russell was lost with a broken leg in the 11th game of the season, his replacement, Devin Butler, suffered a broken foot four days before the Fiesta Bowl, and safety Max Redfield was sent home following a violation of team rules.
Veteran safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley will serve as the steadying influences in a secondary that will offer a first-time starter – Nick Watkins – in Butler’s place. Not only has Watkins never started a game on the collegiate level, but his playing experience is minimal.
Notre Dame should enter this game with the confidence that it can make inroads offensively. The Irish boast their own veteran offensive line that has paved the way for a ground game averaging 214.8 yards rushing per game.
Josh Adams gets the nod at running back after an impressive rookie campaign, but fellow big-play threat C.J. Prosise is back after suffering a serious high ankle sprain in the 11th game of the season.
Red-shirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer has been nothing short of spectacularly clutch for the Irish with the game on the line, and now he walks to center stage against his home-state Buckeyes, who never offered him the opportunity Notre Dame did when he was coming out of the Toledo prep ranks.
It’s an excellent matchup between Notre Dame’s big-play wideout, Will Fuller, and Buckeye cornerback Eli Apple. Even with the whole world expecting Fuller to get the football, he’s still managed to excel virtually every time out, scoring 28 touchdowns in his 25 games as a full-time starter.
The Irish hope to make inroads up front where the Buckeyes are minus middle-of-the-line barrier Adolphus Washington, who was suspended by Meyer shortly after the conclusion of the regular season. That means Bosa will pop inside occasionally to help a group of youngsters, which was rendered even less experienced by the injury to senior tackle Tommy Schutt.
When Bosa slides inside, Ohio State will have a sophomore (Tyquan Lewis) and a freshman (Sam Hubbard) at end. Both talented, to be sure, but not as effective without Washington’s presence and Bosa playing a less natural tackle position.
The kicking-game edge goes to the Irish with freshman Justin Yoon, who hasn’t missed a field goal since Week 2 and enters the Fiesta Bowl with a streak of 12 in a row. Ohio State kicker Jack Willoughby – 7-for-11 on the season with a long of 39 yards – hasn’t converted a field goal since the seventh game of the season against Penn State.
If there’s a significant separator between the two programs, it’s the same thing that allowed Stanford to defeat Notre Dame in the regular-season finale – red-zone offense and red-zone defense.
Ohio State is a full 10 percent more efficient scoring touchdowns in the red zone than Notre Dame and a full 10 percent better in preventing red zone touchdowns than Notre Dame. In games as competitive as this one, that is perhaps the most significant stat of all.
If the Irish can somehow reverse this trend, they’re certainly capable of pulling off the upset. But since Barrett entered the starting lineup for the Buckeyes, they’ve been virtually unstoppable inside the opponents’ 20 (14 touchdowns on 18 entries) while the Irish offense continued to struggle in the red zone against the Cardinal and the defense maintained its negative trend right through the loss to Stanford.
Look for a highly-competitive battle between two “rivals” that haven’t played each other in 10 years. The rivalry mainly exists off the field where the 250-mile separation is erased on the recruiting trail. On Friday, it spills over to the football field.
With Meyer, the former Irish assistant, five assistant coaches that worked with Brian Kelly (four at Notre Dame), and a host of crossover connections between the two schools, expect plenty of emotion to permeate this clash in what shapes up to be one of the more attractive matchups amidst the glut of bowl games.
Pointspread: Ohio State by 6 ½; over-under 56 ½
Prediction: Ohio State 37, Notre Dame 27
2015 Season Record: 10-2 straight up; 3-9 vs. points; 7-5 over-under