• If you were tuning into a Notre Dame game for the first time this year, saw that the Irish defense allowed four red-zone touchdowns in as many tries in the first half, and assumed the defense was decimated by injuries to Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith, you assumed wrong.
To be sure, losing Smith to a knee injury and Day playing hindered due to a foot injury suffered earlier in the week in Scottsdale certainly didn’t help the Irish as they tried to stop the Ohio State juggernaut inside the 20-yard line. But the fact of the matter is that with a healthy Day and Smith or without Day and Smith, the Irish weren’t able to stop anybody from scoring touchdowns once they entered the red zone this year.
Twenty-three of 34 red-zone entries during the regular season resulted in touchdowns. The combination of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott proved too much again for the Irish, who surrendered their 27th touchdown drive of at least 70 yards in the first half against the Buckeyes.
Notre Dame came into the game ranked 102nd in the country in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage and did nothing to improve those numbers in the first half by allowing their 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th touchdowns in 38 entries.
Then came the second half. Elliott’s 47-yard touchdown run helped the Irish avoid another red-zone miscue, but it nothing to assist Notre Dame in its battle to overcome a deficit that was in effect for 54:53 of the game.
The Irish finally forced a field goal at the end of the third quarter – temporarily putting a halt to a year-long trend of surrendering mammoth touchdown drives – which allowed the Irish to remain in the running, particularly when Will Fuller’s 81-yarder pulled the Irish to with 10 at 38-28.
But the Buckeyes would dominate the clock in the fourth quarter – eating up 10:49 of the 15 minutes – and the Irish never threatened again.
• An area where the Irish defense was thought to be able to make some inroads against the Buckeyes was on third down with Notre Dame ranking 18th nationally at 33.1 percent while Ohio State was a sub-par 71st at 38.9 percent.
Ultimately, it was the inability to stop the Buckeyes in the red zone in the first half that did the Irish in as Ohio State scored on all four of their red-zone entries by maximizing those third-down opportunities.
Ohio State converted seven of its first nine third-down chances, including a 3rd-and-1 from the Irish two as Ezekiel Elliott scored the first of his four touchdowns. That’s when the floodgates opened, and to no one’s surprise, it was directly correlated to the departure from the game by Jaylon Smith after he suffered a horrific-looking left knee injury midway through the first quarter that Brian Kelly would later call a serious setback.
Before Ohio State marched it deep into Irish territory, it was the inability of Notre Dame’s defense to get off the field on third down against an offense that had shown vulnerability against mediocre competition. That’s because Jaylon Smith – who didn’t make a difference in the red zone this year -- was hugely responsible for Notre Dame’s third-down defensive conversion rate throughout the regular season.
As the first half progressed, Smith’s absence was easily recognizable.
On 3rd-and-3 late in the first quarter, J.T. Barrett hit Jalin Marshall for 10 yards to kick-start the drive that started at the Ohio State five.
After Notre Dame made it a 14-7 Ohio State lead midway through the second quarter, Barrett hit Braxton Miller for a gain of three on 3rd-and-2. Barrett then ran for seven on a 3rd-and-6. Five plays later, the Buckeyes led, 21-7.
Ohio State scored its fourth touchdown without the need to convert a third-down play.
Ultimately, the Irish came up big on third down, limiting Ohio State to just 3-of-9 after a 7-of-9 start by the Buckeyes. That’s how Notre Dame was able to stay in a game that looked as if Ohio State might run away and hide.
Not having a playmaker on the field like Smith ultimately cost the Irish when the Buckeyes were building a 21-point lead by stringing together some third-down success.
• If you told someone that consensus All-Americans Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith wouldn’t play past the first quarter and that defensive tackle Sheldon Day would be a shell of himself throughout most of the game, the Fiesta Bowl might have been a hard sell for advertisers.
In a game billed with tremendous star power and as many as half-a-dozen first-round draft choices, several of the stars were falling instead of shining in Glendale.
Eventually, however, Will Fuller emerged once again for Notre Dame as he has for the last 26 games. Fuller scored his 29th touchdown in two seasons with another spectacular 81-yard catch and run, slipping the tackle attempt by cornerback Gareon Conley and then running away as he does frequently because of his amazing breakaway speed.
It was no surprise that quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott shined as well with Elliott rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns, including a 47-yard scoring scamper to add to his four 55-yard-plus touchdown runs from earlier in the year.
Perhaps a star of the future, or a returning star in the making – nose tackle Jarron Jones – flashed the first step in his return from injuries that prompted him to miss 15 straight games before returning in a limited role against the Buckeyes.
Jones said he played about 15 snaps, one of which showed the powerful penetration ability that Brian Kelly talked about during December that pressured Barrett into a throw that was picked off by Joe Schmidt, which ultimately brought the Irish to within a touchdown midway through the third quarter when DeShone Kizer hooked up with Chris Brown for a four-yard score.
• With his one-yard touchdown run late in the first half, DeShone Kizer broke the Notre Dame record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, originally set by Tony Rice and equaled by Rick Mirer.
Kizer’s 22-of-37 passing performance for 284 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, another that was negated by the Bosa targeting penalty, and four sacks was not one of the red-shirt freshman’s better games.
The sacks hurt his rushing total, and yet his 11 other carries gained just 43 yards. The Kizer-led offense ultimately would score just seven points over the final 23:58, which wasn’t nearly enough against an Ohio State team that was racking up 496 yards total offense on 85 snaps, including 285 rushing yards on 54 attempts.
But you’d have to be off your rocker to point a finger at Kizer, who was positively brilliant in his first-time role as a starter after taking the reins from an injured Malik Zaire in the second game of the year.
Much will be said about the “quarterback controversy” at Notre Dame this spring. In reality, however, there is no controversy.
As tough of a break as it was for Zaire to suffer such a catastrophic injury after waiting his turn to take over at quarterback, the fact is the Irish don’t need to look for alternatives at quarterback; they simply need to build on Kizer’s brilliant first year as the full-time starter.
And find some solutions to a defense much too generous.