As for the Irish team, their preparations have yet to hit full stride. The Notre Dame players have final exams this week and do not practice again until next Monday. By that time, head coach Charlie Weis and his staff will surely have the game plan set to beat the Buckeyes.
The Notre Dame players are already familiar with what awaits them on January 2nd. The Buckeye defense is the most praised unit of the team and for good reasons. The group is 4th in the nation in total defense and 1st against the run, surrendering just 74 rushing yards per game. They are led by senior linebacker A.J. Hawk, who won the Lombardi Award last week as the nation's top lineman. Hawk has 109 tackles on the year, including 13.5 tackles for loss, and has caught the attention of the Irish offense.
"Their defense is outstanding" offensive lineman Dan Stevenson said. "Obviously they have some big-name guys like A.J. Hawk. You can't really single out one person because everyone on their defense is great. We think we have a great offense. They have a great defense. What better way to test yourself at the end then going up against the best.
"We have a lot of confidence in our team and a lot of confidence in our offense. We know that even though things have clicked this year, we have to bring our best game to play at the kind of level they do."
"Their linebackers jump out at me," running back Darius Walker said. "Players like A.J. Hawk, who has had an incredible year and an incredible career. We really haven't gotten a chance to see them on tape. We'll definitely do that in the near future. But just from watching them on TV, you can see that they have a dominant defense that keys in on stopping the run."
Notre Dame will also be facing an Ohio State offense that has scored 35 or more points in five of their last six games. The Buckeyes have balance between the run and the pass, averaging 189 yards on the ground and 215 through the air. Troy Smith is an athletic quarterback who has rushed for 11 touchdowns and passed for 14 more. Early in the season, especially in the loss to Texas, Ohio State elected to interchange Smith and Justin Zwick at the quarterback position and the results were not productive. Head coach Jim Tressel and his staff decided to go with Smith and it has paid off with a BCS bowl berth.
"It is interesting watching him evolve this year," Weis said. "Going from the running quarterback versus the throwing quarterback, now he is ‘The Guy.' Watching that evolve as the year went on and they did more and more and became more comfortable with what he can do. Now, you have to be concerned with both elements because you can't just worry about his feet. The guy can beat you with his arm pretty easily now.
"He is coming off one of his best games. I just watched again this morning, the Michigan game, where he threw for a career-high 300 yards and a touchdown. He was 27-37 in the game and rushed for 37 yards as well against their archrival. He played well in a big game."
Smith is the most athletic quarterback the Notre Dame defense will face this season. The scrambling ability can create extra time for the talented wide receiver tandem of Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn, Jr. to get open against an Irish secondary allowing 257 passing yards per game. It can also make the big Notre Dame defensive linemen winded by running sideline to sideline pursuing Smith.
"A scrambling quarterback is so difficult to defend," defensive tackle Trevor Laws said. "When you have a dual threat like that, you have to play contain. Pass rushers can't too aggressive. He's got the arm, too. There is a lot to worry about."
"Not only do they have a real athletic quarterback, they got a real big offensive line who get a lot credit in what they do," defensive tackle Derek Landri said. "They are all about 6-6, 330 pounds. They also have a pretty fast wide receiver, which helps a lot. They are real solid offensively. Anytime you get big guys blocking for athletic players, it could be trouble."
The gamebreaker is Ginn. The sophomore has scored a touchdown receiving, on a kickoff return and on a punt return. For the year, Ginn has 43 catches for 636 yards for a mark of 14.8 yards per reception, second only to Holmes's 17.8 average. The Notre Dame defense will have to account for the speedster at all times, who, like Smith, is coming off his best game of the season.
"Ginn steps up in the Michigan game with nine catches - the most he had this year," Weis said. "He will line up anywhere. He will line up in the backfield. He will be in the slot. He will be a flanker. He also has rushed the ball 10 times. He is a guy that can beat you a lot of ways."