Forgotten Match Up

SCOTTSDALE, AZ- The major storylines for the January 2nd Fiesta Bowl are crystal clear: A.J. Hawk and the Ohio State linebacking crew vs. the Notre Dame running game. Brady Quinn and his pair of 6-5 receivers against the Buckeye secondary. All the pre-game hype is centering on this juicy match up between the fourth-ranked Ohio State defense and an Irish offense that rewrote the school's record book during the 2005 season.

"All the talk about their defense versus our offense and the next thing that gets talked about is their offense; I don't think that leaves very much room for discussion about our defense," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.

The headlines might not be about the Irish defense vs. the Buckeye offense but it could very well determine the outcome of Monday's game. For the Irish defense, they have heard the talk all year. Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall and Darius Walker have got much of the attention and deservedly so. This is nothing new for this group.

"At this point of the season, with everyone talking about the Notre Dame offense versus whatever defense, we've heard it all season long," defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. "Being able to get to play in a big-time bowl game in front of a national audience where everyone will be watching us, we can show what type of defense we have."

The Irish defense will have their work cut out for them. Ohio State might be getting hot at just the right time. Quarterback Troy Smith, known more for his feet than his arm, passed for 200 yards or more five of the final six games, including 300 in a 25-21 win over archrival Michigan in Ann Arbor. He led the Big Ten in quarterback efficiency and threw only four interceptions in 209 attempts. The Notre Dame defenders believe they can't let Smith and company force the Irish into playing Buckeye ball.

"They have a lot of playmakers on offense and usually things center around the quarterback," linebacker Brandon Hoyte said. "For us, it's not a matter of worrying about what they do but more of how well we play. If you look at our schedule, we've played the best team in the nation. It's not the shock of talent that we are worried about but more of what we need to do and what we need to do to better ourselves."

The hard-hitting ability of the Irish defense has caught the attention of the Ohio State offense. Big hitters are everywhere on that side of the ball for Notre Dame. Hoyte, Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are just a few names that can make some opposing players woozy with bone-crushing hits. This is a defense that seriously roughed up one of the better quarterback in college football, USC's Matt Leinart. The group wears this toughness label as a badge of honor.

"It's something no stat can tell," Zbikowski said. "When the other team is looking at how fast we run around and how hard we hit, that's something in their mind."

"Notre Dame's defense is one of the more physical defenses that we'll play," Smith said. "They are overshadowed by their offense but they do great things. They are a pretty good defense. They are strong, athletic and fast. They have smart guys back there. It's going to be a great game because they are going to bring some things to the table that we're going to have to adjust to.

"Two athletic guys at the safety spot. One guy is the punt returner and the other is a smash mouth guy that'll hit you when he gets a chance. You have to be on edge at all times because they bring the wood."

Another group that brings the wood is the Ohio State linebacking core. Led by Hawk, who won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top linemen/linebacker, plenty of attention and praise has been showered on the talented trio. This has a built-in advantage for Notre Dame. The Irish linebacker unit, led by Hoyte and complimented by fifth-year senior Corey Mays and sophomore Maurice Crum, haven't had a bad year themselves. Hoyte was the team's leading tackler and racked up 15.5 tackles for loss. Mays was second in tackles with 68 while the youngster Crum has been praised by head coach Charlie Weis as being a "football player," one of the highest compliments an Irish player can receive from the man in charge. This group wants to rise to the competitive challenge in the Fiesta Bowl and make people talk about their group instead of the Ohio State unit.

"I was talking to Mo Crum about this," Hoyte said. "We were talking about when you play against a team that has great talent at the position you play, if you're worth anything, that should raise your level. That's motivation. It's all about competition. I look at it this way: all the hype coming into the game is about them but what's going to be the story after the game? How can we take our game to the next level?"

In time, the Notre Dame defense might be able to take their game to that next level. Hoyte and Mays will be missed next year but able backups, nine starters returning and a great recruiting class could help minimize the loss. This season, the Irish were 63rd in total defense but another year in Minter's system with help from defensive coaches Jappy Oliver and Bill Lewis could improve this number in 2006. For this week, the Irish have a chance to outshine a highly-rated Buckeye group and help Notre Dame break their 11-year bowl losing streak.

"Ohio State has a great defense and the numbers to back it up," Minter said. "We're not that kind of defense at this moment. But what we have been, more than anything, is an opportunistic defense. We give up a big play or two, rally and make up for our own sins. We've been a rallying defense and overcome some of our miscues."


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