Although Notre Dame’s 121 yards on 32 carries was about on pace yardage-wise to what Ohio State surrendered during the regular season, it was nearly 100 yards under Notre Dame’s per-game average and an insufficient ground game to keep pace with the Buckeyes, who put together five touchdown drives and three field goal drives for its second-highest scoring output (44 points) of the season.
Josh Adams rushed for 78 yards on 14 carries, including a short touchdown run and a long run of 19 yards late in the game. That’s a 5.6-yard average, but generally, it was relatively tough sledding for the Irish, especially for quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was credited with 15 carries (with four sacks) that gained 43 yards and netting just 21.
Like Adams, Kizer had a touchdown run against a defense that allowed just eight rushing scores on the season. He also had an important 4th-and-1, second-effort conversion run from the Irish 39 that kept alive what eventually would become a 13-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that got Notre Dame on the board after falling behind, 14-0
Amir Carlisle helped pad the rushing stats with a 20-yard run. But Notre Dame received no productivity from C.J. Prosise, who had one pass thrown his way that he dropped, and was not given the football in a rushing situation.
Although it wasn’t the anemic rushing attack the Irish had three years ago in their last major post-season game – the national championship clash with Alabama – it wasn’t enough to beat a team with as much as Ohio State has to offer.
DeShone Kizer completed 22-of-37 passes for 284 yards, a pair of touchdowns and one interception with four sacks putting a dent into the Irish passing game (and rushing statistics). Kizer’s big toss of the day – an 81-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Will Fuller – was aided once again by a tremendous individual effort by Notre Dame’s big-play receiver.
Kizer also connected with Chris Brown on three very significant plays. The first was a 3rd-and-1 conversion from the Ohio State nine that led to Josh Adams’ three-yard touchdown run. Even more significant was Brown’s touchdown grab with 8:58 remaining in the third quarter that brought Notre Dame to within a touchdown after trailing by 21. Earlier in that drive, Brown snagged a 19-yarder from Kizer.
Notre Dame’s second touchdown featured three straight passes to Corey Robinson that netted 41 yards after a 15-yarder to Fuller kick-started the drive. Torii Hunter, Jr. had four receptions for 52 yards. Notre Dame’s passing game obviously had its moments, although it’s big-play capabilities was limited to Fuller explosive 81-yarder. No other reception went for longer than 19 yards.
Trailing 35-21, Kizer thought he saw Fuller breaking open, only to have the errant pass picked off by safety Tyvis Powell. That’s when Notre Dame’s defense began to stiffen to keep the Irish in the game. But Kizer’s big play with Fuller proved to be the only points scored by the Irish in the final 23:58.
Fuller finished with 113 yards on six receptions, but beyond the big play, he netted just 32 yards on five other grabs.
The fear heading into this game was that Ohio State – averaging 241.9 yards rushing per game with the quarterback-running back duo of J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott – would run wild, dominate the clock and eventually wear Notre Dame down.
Huge credit to the Irish defense in the fourth quarter as Ohio State was forced to kick three field goals, but by that point, the damage had been done and all the Buckeyes needed was to keep the scoreboard moving in three-point increments.
Elliott carried 27 times for 149 yards (5.5-yard average) and four touchdowns, including a 47-yard scamper midway through the third quarter and three short touchdown bursts in the first half.
Barrett’s running success often helps dictate his throwing success, and the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder netted 96 yards on 23 carries. His seven-yard run on 3rd-and-6 helped forge a 21-7 Ohio State lead. He also converted a 3rd-and-3 early in the third quarter. Then there was the 3rd-and-2 early in the fourth quarter. His longest rush was just 11 yards, but the cumulative effect with Elliott – a combined 50 rushing attempts for 245 yards – led to a whopping 85 total snaps.
In other words, it was a typical Ohio State rushing attack chipping away at the defense. The only thing missing were the killer blows in the fourth quarter that turned into field goals. Ultimately, it was more than enough.
When you consider the loss of safety Max Redfield to suspension, the injury suffered by KeiVarae Russell against Boston College, the injury incurred by Devin Butler during bowl week, and the fact that Nick Watkins was not only making his first career start but his first significant contribution, the Irish pass defense held up very well.
One could argue that Ohio State didn’t need a significant passing game with a rushing attack that accounted for 285 yards, 5.3 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns. But the Irish clearly limited Ohio State’s big-play passing capabilities to containing J.T. Barrett to 19-of-31 for 211 yards, one touchdown, one interception and two sacks with a long connection of 30 yards and nothing beyond 15 to Michael Thomas and 10 to Jalin Marshall.
Watkins more than held his own against Thomas and Marshall with nary a significant play against him. Matthias Farley, filling in for Redfield, was not a liability despite his limited athleticism. Elijah Shumate finished with 13 tackles, including nine solo stops. Joe Schmidt snagged an interception while Andrew Trumbetti – who had a tough regular season -- finished with two sacks and two quarterback hurries. He collaborated on a sack with James Onwualu on a 3rd-and-7 from the Irish 16.
With a less-than-physically-fit Sheldon Day, Notre Dame was not as forceful up front. But the Irish did a pretty decent job against a quality offensive line. Jarron Jones played a limited role, but his pressure up the middle led to Schmidt’s interception.
Although nothing necessarily impacted the outcome of the game with any overwhelming significance, the advantage certainly goes to Ohio State, which benefitted from three fourth quarter field goals by Sean Nuernberger from 35, 37 and 38 yards and a woeful Notre Dame kick return game that saw a hesitant C.J. Sanders return five for just 60 yards with a long of 17. All five of Sanders’ returns led to drives starting inside the 20-yard line.
Including punts, Notre Dame’s average start to its drives was the 21-yard line with seven of 13 drives starting inside the 17-yard line, including six beginning inside the 13-yard line. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s average starting spot was its 31, including eight of 13 from at least its 35 and two in Notre Dame territory.
Special teams dictated field position throughout this game.
Notre Dame benefitted from two kickoffs that sailed out of bounds. But Ohio State’s Curtis Samuels and Jalin Marshall were able to flip field position with a 38-yard kickoff return by Samuels, a 36-yard kickoff return by Marshall and a 29-yard punt return by Marshall.
The star of Notre Dame’s special teams was punter Tyler Newsome, who averaged 48.2 yards on six punts. Justin Yoon did not attempt a field goal and converted all four of his extra points.
When you trail by double-digits for more than three-quarters of the game and fall behind by 10 points for the 14th time in six seasons, there’s obviously an issue with having your team prepared to play on a consistent basis from the opening whistle.
Brian Kelly doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that his team comes out “flat” for some games, but the fact is the Irish have done it about once every four-and-a-half games, which is killer against competition as competent was North Carolina, Arizona State, USC, Clemson and Ohio State, to name a few in the last season-and-a-half.
The other disturbing aspect of the Fiesta Bowl was the tentative, timid, reluctant kick return game that had a month to prepare and was overrun by Ohio State’s coverage units.
You’d also like to play a bowl game with a little more discipline than Max Redfield, who was sent home, and Jerry Tillery, who was suspended and remained with the team, showed in Scottsdale. Obviously, teams all over the country are dealing with players who aren’t abiding by the rules at bowl games, but when it hits home with your program, it’s disturbing.
Brian Kelly said Ohio State wasn’t more physical than Notre Dame, but the Buckeyes out-executed the Irish. That could be a reflection of the huge personnel turnover the Irish dealt with due to suspensions/injuries. But the fact is Urban Meyer’s team was ready to answer the bell, never trailed, and led by at least 10 points for 48:01.
As his team did all season, the Irish never let down and kept battling to the end. But at a certain point, strong effort is no longer an acceptable measuring stick. It’s a bit more valid this time with injuries to Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day added to the litany of physical ailments throughout the season.
At the end of the day, however, when you haven’t won a major bowl in 22 years, a moral victory in a 16-point Fiesta Bowl loss against a national power is a less than satisfactory performance by the leadership of the program.