With Ohio State leading 21-13 and facing a 3rd-and-12 at the Notre Dame 23, Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith lofted a pass over the middle to flanker Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez appeared to catch the ball, then bobbled it and lost it to the ground. Zbikowski picked up the loose ball and scampered down the sidelines for an apparent touchdown to cut the lead to 21-19. A block in the back by Leo Ferrine forced the Irish to take the points off the board but got the ball inside Ohio State territory.
Video replays officials would have the last say. After reviewing the play, they ruled that Gonzalez never fully possessed the ball and called it an incomplete pass. Ohio State kicker Josh Huston then came onto the field and kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes a comfortable 24-13. In a game that was being controlled by Ohio State, Notre Dame did not get the break they were looking for.
"The only thing I said to the officials was that, ‘You better be right,'" Weis said. "I hoped that guy is right. Who am I to sit there and say something when they have all the TV copies. I'm going by just what I saw up on the game board. I disagreed with it but I'm prejudiced."
Tressel had a different take on the big play.
"That was a hard one to see," Tressel said. "The game is so fast. I wasn't sure if it was an incompletion or one of those questions if the ground caused the fumble. It looked like to me it was an incompletion. I suppose that was a 70 or 80 yard play. I'm looking down at the stat sheet and we had 617 yards. There were some other important plays."
*Most people did not think the Notre Dame defense would completely shut down Smith. Few would have predicted that Smith would outplay Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn.
That's just what he did. Smith finished the night 19-of-28 for 342 yards and two touchdowns. The junior's performance made him the Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP and earned some high praise from Weis.
"That was my biggest fear going into the game," Weis said of Smith's scrambling ability. "I told my defensive staff that very same thing. Sure enough, the first 3rd down of the game, he pulls the ball down and runs for the first down. That's one of the biggest problems in the first half is that we couldn't get off the field. That was my biggest fear coming into the game and he didn't disappoint. He's on the rise."
Smith played a large part in exposing the single biggest weakness of the Notre Dame team: the failure to stop the big play. An explosive offense made up for a lot of mistakes the defense made this season. Tonight, against one of the best defenses in the nation and the offense stalling, the Irish group was exposed by the speed of Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes.
"I was disappointed in the number of big plays we gave up," Weis said. "That was the critical factor. The fade ball up the sideline, we weren't even close in coverage. There are a number of big plays. If they are nickel and diming you, you can live with that. But when you give up that number of big plays, it's disappointing. One of our big goals coming into the game was limiting the big plays and that was disappointing."
"The scheme was set up for us to make big plays," Smith said. "We really set out to not overthrow the deep ball. I was fortunate to connect with Teddy and Santonio on a couple of deep passes."
*The career of Brandon Hoyte did not have the glorious ending many Irish fans would have wanted to see. The senior captain finished his time in a Notre Dame uniform with 10 tackles, including one for a loss. The leadership and experience of Hoyte will definitely be something missed in next year's Irish team.
"The fact of the matter is, I learned a lot," Hoyte said of his time at Notre Dame. "The bottom line is that this coaching staff came in and taught me a lot about the game of football. I'll take those memories with me and also of my teammates."
*The Irish will have to live with this game until next year's opener at Georgia Tech. Notre Dame fans can start the second guessing of what went wrong in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
One instance could have been Weis's decision to go for a fourth-and-short in the first quarter deep in Buckeye territory. With the score tied at 7 and Notre Dame facing a fourth-and-two at Ohio State's six-yard line, the head coach gambled and decided to go for the first down. The move backfired as Buckeye linebacker A.J. Hawk chased down Brady Quinn for an eight-yard sack, giving the ball back to Ohio State. The Buckeyes made the Irish pay even more as six plays later, Ginn took a reverse pitch from a Smith and rumbled 68 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 Ohio State lead.
"In hindsight, I'm not big on second guessing myself," Weis said. "I thought the call through. We ran the ball on third down and came up with nothing. We had a play that we practiced that we thought would work either. You can sit there and second guess and say, ‘You should have taken the three.' It's easy in hindsight to take the points. We came into the game planning on taking a lot of chances."