GLENDALE, Ariz. – Jaylon Smith needed help.
Hobbling on crutches with his left leg immobilized by a cast, Notre Dame’s consensus All-American linebacker couldn’t navigate the ramp at the edge of University of Phoenix’s field to return to the locker room. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick braced the transcendental linebacker, giving Smith an assist after what may be his final game at Notre Dame.
Smith lasted 11 plays against Ohio State before a Taylor Decker shove led to an awkward fall and what Brian Kelly described as a significant knee injury. That pushed Notre Dame’s mantra of Next Man In beyond any logical limit, leaving the Irish ragged and threadbare.
Ohio State, a team now 50-4 under Urban Meyer, didn’t need an invitation to take advantage. And the Buckeyes did with the blunt force trauma of running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback J.T. Barrett, who combined for 50 carries, 245 yards and four touchdowns as Notre Dame fell 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl.
For Notre Dame the spirit was willing but the body was not able.
“Couldn't be more proud of the football team,” Kelly said. “An honor to coach them, honor to be around them. The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing.”
This marked Notre Dame’s seventh straight major bowl loss and fourth in his game, although the team fielded here was not the one that challenged for the College Football Playoff all season.
After Smith went down his back-up Te’Von Coney followed with a shoulder injury. That forced Jarrett Grace to Will linebacker for the first time in his career. And that meant a player who’d recovered from a career-altering broken leg was forced to tackle former Big 10 Player of the Year Braxton Miller in space.
“When Jarrett ran in at Will, I kind of laughed,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “He laughed at me. All right, let’s ball out.”
The Irish also went without cornerbacks Devin Butler and KeiVarae Russell. It went without Max Redfield and Jerry Tillery, both suspended for violations of team rules. C.J. Prosise couldn’t log a single carry. And Notre Dame almost soldiered on without Sheldon Day, who nearly endured a broken foot two days ago and picked up an illness last night that required an I.V. on game day morning.
“I felt terrible,” Day said. “I’m not gonna lie. The sickness took over, then the foot started to hurt.”
Despite on all that, Notre Dame traded blows with Ohio State after falling behind 14-0 almost immediately, which conjured demons of the BCS National Championship Game blowout by Alabama.
“(Smith) is the guy that makes us right,” Day said. “It was definitely a different feeling with him not being in there.”
After two series Ohio State had two touchdowns. Notre Dame had eight yards.
“Yeah, it was tough without a lot of those guys,” Schmidt said. “Yeah, we would have loved to have had a lot of those guys, Jaylon, Jerry, Te’Von, you name the guy all down the line, KeiVarae, Devin. I thought guys battled. If we executed we could have won the football game.”
Despite Notre Dame’s triage unit of a sideline, the Irish punched back at the Buckeyes, putting game pressure on Meyer when DeShone Kizer hit Will Fuller for an 81-yard touchdown to make it 38-28 with 11:19 remaining. It was the longest play sprung on the Buckeyes all year.
Ohio State kicked field goals on its next two possessions while Notre Dame managed only a three-and-out followed by DeShone Kizer’s second turnover, a lost fumble near mid-field in the final two minutes.
There would be no miracle comeback.
“I felt like this game would ultimately be decided on who was tougher and who was more physical,” Kelly said. “We didn't get out-toughed. They ran the ball effectively. I'm not taking anything away from their ability to do so.
“But we didn't flinch. That's the mark of this team this year, that they played hard and physical. Regardless of who was out there, they gave us everything they had.”
Ultimately, what Notre Dame had was a national title contender at full strength that never really was. By the final gun on Friday it had labored through stretches of this season down a dozen starters. While the Irish were wired to push back at that attrition, Ohio State was simply too talented to be resisted.
Even without Joey Bosa – ejected in the first quarter for targeting – the Buckeyes could still throw out Elliott, Barrett, Miller, safety Vonn Bell, plus linebackers Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillian.
The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.
The Irish punted on four of their first five.
Notre Dame went 5-of-13 on third down.
Ohio State went 10-of-18 in the same scenario.
“Obviously their first series was outstanding. They ran the ball effectively right down the field,” Kelly said. “So I just think that they executed very well early on. It was the difference in the game really, those 14 points early. We had to play catch-up from there.”
Notre Dame did, pushing Ohio State as far as it could.
For this team with this roster, there’s no shame in falling to the defending national champions on this stage. Notre Dame has come a long way from the last time it played in a major bowl. While the result might ultimately be the same, how it achieved it was not.
“I like where we are. We're going to keep banging at the door,” Kelly said. “Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games.
“Keep building your program, keep recruiting, keep doing it the way you're doing it, and we're going to win these games.
“We'll get back here again. We'll win 'em.”