This will be the Irish's toughest test to date. The Buckeyes are only giving up 275 yards of total offense per game, including a sparse 74 on the ground. It looks as if Ohio State will be a man short as starting linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who broke an ankle on the first play of the Michigan game, doesn't figure to see a whole lot of playing time if any at all. Expect Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis to have a few plays in the game plan to exploit Carpenter's backup. Irish quarterback Brady Quinn has been lights out this season and another fantastic game in the Fiesta Bowl would do a lot in helping the program break the 11-year bowl losing streak. Will Weis try to run the ball and eat some clock or throw it all over the field like the game plan called for against Purdue and BYU earlier in the season? I don't see Notre Dame completely abandoning the running game but Quinn should have plenty of opportunities to find his two 6-5 receivers, Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija, for big plays. Putting a hat on Lombardi Award winner A.J. Hawk will be a tough test. The Irish will score on this vaunted Buckeye defense but don't count on the 38 points per game they were averaging throughout the year.
Weis is concerned the most with Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. Are you?
Smith's ability to beat a team with either his legs or arm presents a dual threat that is hard to contain. Add that to the fact that Smith appears to be getting more comfortable throwing the ball (300 passing yards in regular season finale vs. Michigan), the Irish defense will have their hands full trying to contain his big-play ability. The Notre Dame defensive ends must stay home and not get sucked into the middle of the line of scrimmage. The threat I'm most concerned with on the Buckeyes offense is Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn, Jr. getting behind the Notre Dame secondary. The Irish safeties have had a tendency to sneak up close to the line of scrimmage to support the run defense, thus leaving the secondary vulnerable to a deep ball down the middle of the field. If 1,200-yard back Antonio Pittman gets rolling on the ground, Holmes and Ginn have the speed to take advantage off of some play-action fakes.
Can Notre Dame win the special teams game?
The Irish have faced some electric playmakers in the return game and faired well against them. Michigan speedster Steve Breaston had six punt returns for only 31 yards and two kickoff returns for just 30 yards. Notre Dame also bottled up Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush on special teams and did not allow him running room. But the inconsistencies have been these. Despite playing great against Breaston and Bush, the Irish allowed Stanford's T.J. Rushing to take a kickoff 87 yards for a score in the regular season finale. In what looks like two evenly matched teams, a big play from Ginn or Holmes could turn the momentum towards the Buckeyes. How healthy is Notre Dame kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick? The senior has had ample time to recover from an injury sustained in the Syracuse game and expect him to rebound from a poor performance in the Stanford contest. Ohio State's kicker Josh Huston has not missed a field goal inside 45 yards and 49 of his 70 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.
The hype and anticipation for the Fiesta Bowl is almost over as kickoff is less than nine hours away. That's a good thing because one more story or question on the Laura Quinn-A.J. Hawk relationship would have sent me over the edge. Two storied football programs will do battle in Sun Devil Stadium and all signs point to a close contest. How effective can Notre Dame be against the Buckeye defense? The Irish will move the ball and score points. Notre Dame is just too talented to be completely shut down. As usual, Quinn will be the primary focus. A big game by him tips the balance of power over to the Irish. An average outing could give Ohio State the advantage. Weis has put the ball in his quarterback's hands before with smashing success. Defensively for Notre Dame, the target is Smith but don't overlook Pittman. If the sophomore gets moving on the ground, that opens up a lot for the Buckeyes. Smith can then play action deep to Holmes or Ginn or bootleg around end. Will the time off hurt this Ohio State offense that was gaining more confidence with each passing week at the end of the year? For Weis, it's a chance to finish his first season at 10-2 and notch the school's first ever BCS win. Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel is looking for his third Fiesta Bowl win in four years. It has all the makings of a last-minute thriller.