The seventh-ranked Buckeyes raced out to leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-7 late in the second, having their way early with a depleted Irish defense that lost star Jaylon Smith to a first quarter knee injury and was hampered by injuries to linemen Sheldon Day and Daniel Cage, while receiving only limited action from purported returnee Jarron Jones.
Jones didn’t play until the third quarter and his initial replacement this season on the nose, freshman Jerry Tillery, was suspended Friday for a violation of team rules.
“I didn’t feel like we were outmanned. We were short-handed today but we weren’t outmanned,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly post-game, adding they thought Day had broken his foot when initially injured during the week.
Notre Dame responded to its 21-point hole with a late score before intermission, a one-yard run by quarterback DeShone Kizer to complete a 9-play, 75-yard drive that trimmed Ohio State’s lead to 28-14.
“I just think they executed very well early on,” said Kelly. “It was the difference in the game, those 14 points early and we had to play catch-up from there.
The Irish kept game pressure on the superior Buckeyes with a Joe Schmidt interception and subsequent touchdown pass from Kizer to Chris Brown to cut the lead back to seven, 28-21, but Ohio State answered with a 47-yard untouched sprint and score by running back Ezekiel Elliott, the junior’s fourth and final rushing touchdown on the afternoon.
“He’s a physical back and he definitely makes his presence known,” said Day of Elliott. “He did some special things with his feet today.”
Kicker Sean Nuernberger added a 37-yard field goat at the 12:10 mark of the fourth quarter to provide the Buckeyes breathing room and a 38-21 advantage but the game Irish offense struck back with an 81-yard catch-and-run by Will Fuller, cutting the lead to 10 at the 11:27 mark.
Ohio State extended to leads of 41-28 and 44-28 thereafter with a pair of Nuernberger field goals. The Buckeyes converted two third downs plus a fourth-and-10 due to a holding penalty by Irish cornerback Cole Luke to set up Nuernberger’s first offering, a momentum-killing play for a Notre Dame defense that struggled throughout the contest.
Notre Dame’s last chance at a comeback ended when Kizer was sacked twice inside his own 10-yard line and the Buckeyes took over after a short punt thereafter, later extending to the final 44-28 on Nuernberger’s second boot.
The Buckeyes ripped Notre Dame’s rush defense for 285 yards on 54 carries including 149 from Elliott with quarterback J.T. Barrett adding 96.
Kizer scuffled throughout the contest, finishing with 284 passing yards hitting 22 of 37 attempts for two scores and an interception. He was sacked four times including on the aforementioned game-clinching fumble.
Notre Dame converted just five of 13 third-down chances while Ohio State converted 10 of 18 third and fourth-down opportunities including 10 of their first 14.
“Couldn’t get off the field on third-down situations and had some opportunities offensively that we couldn’t capitalize on,” Kelly offered post-game.
Notre Dame concludes its season at 10-3, the second-best mark of the six-season Kelly era. Ohio State finished 12-1 and the Buckeyes senior class leaves Columbus with a remarkable 50-4 record under head coach Urban Meyer.
“Couldn’t be more proud of a football team,” said Kelly. “Honored to coach them; honored to be around them. Regardless of the circumstances they just kept playing.”
Kelly noted after the contest that Smith suffered, “a significant knee injury.”
“You lose a guy like that early on, it significantly effects what you do differently,” he added.