After the regular season ended and Ohio State was left out of the College Football Playoff, players were still adamant that the Buckeyes were one of the best four teams in the country.
Against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl they did their best to prove it.
Ohio State (12-1) gained 496 yards and used an up-tempo offense to run 85 plays on its way to a 44-28 win over Notre Dame (10-3) at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The victory moved Urban Meyer to 10-2 in bowl games in his coaching career and pushed the coach’s record to 50-4 at Ohio State.
Ezekiel Elliott rushed 27 times for 149 yards in the win, tying a Fiesta Bowl record with four touchdowns.
J.T. Barrett was named Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP after managing 96 yards on the ground, helping Ohio State to 285 rushing yards on the day. The Quarterback added 211 yards through the air, completing 19 of 31 passes with one touchdown and an interception in a balanced offensive showing for the Buckeyes.
Michael Thomas was Barrett’s favorite target, catching seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.
The defense, left without the services of Joey Bosa for much of the game after the end was tossed for targeting in the first quarter, was led by Darron Lee. The linebacker managed seven tackles, all solo, to tie for the team lead and added two sacks and a forced fumble.
Cornerback Eli Apple finished with five tackles and a pass breakup, earning defensive MVP honors for his day.
DeShone Kizer finished with 284 yards passing for Notre Dame with two touchdowns and an interception with 113 of those yards and one of the scores going to Will Fuller.
How It Happened
Following a three and out from Notre Dame to open the game, the Buckeyes offense went to work.
Ohio State got the ball at its own 20 and used an up-tempo attack to march 80 yards in nine plays, needing just 3:01 to find the end zone. Barrett completed all three passes on the drive, one to Thomas to open the drive and one each to Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall.
Miller also had a 27-yard rush on the drive, getting Ohio State to the Fighting Irish 29, getting the Buckeyes into Notre Dame territory for the first time in the game. After a seven-yard pass to Marshall moved the Buckeyes to the 22, Ohio State used four consecutive runs, two from Barrett and two from Elliott, who found the end zone from two yards out to open the scoring with 9:53 left in the first quarter.
The Buckeye defense responded by forcing another three and out from the Fighting Irish as Notre Dame gained just one yard on the ensuing drive before punting back to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes added to their lead on the ensuing possession, needing just three plays to travel 43 yards for the score. Barrett connected on his fourth consecutive pass, a 27-yard strike to tight end Marcus Baugh. Following a Barrett rush that saw Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith injure his left leg Barrett hit Thomas for a 15-yard touchdown to give Ohio State a 14-0 cushion.
Smith, a projected Top-10 pick in the NFL draft, did not return to the game.
The Notre Dame offense finally got going on the next drive, though the Fighting Irish still wouldn’t score. A pass from Kizer to Tori Hunter on the first play of the possession gave Notre Dame its first first down of the game 7:25 into the game.
After another first-down catch from Hunter and a four-yard rush from Josh Adams, it appeared that Tyvis Powell had the game’s first turnover. The safety’s interception, however, was negated by a targeting call on Bosa. The junior end was forced to leave the game after the penalty, ineligible for all but 9:34 of the Fiesta Bowl.
The Irish couldn’t capitalize on the 15-yard penalty that wiped out the interception. Notre Dame gained 27 yards on four plays, but again was forced to punt.
Ohio State followed with its first scoreless drive, gaining just 33 yards on 10 plays one that closed the first quarter and opened before Cameron Johnston punted for the first time.
Notre Dame responded with by far its best drive to that point, using 13 plays to travel 70 yards, a march capped by a three-yard touchdown by Adams. It appeared the fighting Irish were headed for another three and out, but a fourth-and-one conversion by Kizer kept the drive alive and allowed Notre Dame to get on the board.
Ohio State had the answer as the Buckeyes went to work on the ground. Barrett and Elliott accounted for 59 of the drive’s 62 yards with Elliott again finding the end zone, this time from just one yard out. Barrett rushed four times for 28 yards on the drive while Elliott had bursts of 14 and 16 yards on the drive to go with the score.
Another Irish three and out gave the Buckeyes the ball back with just 3:52 until the half, but it was plenty of time for Elliott and company to go to work. After a 13-yard completion to Curtis Samuel, Elliott rushed for two yards then caught a pass out of the back field and tip-toed down the sideline for a 30-yard gain. A 15-yard pass to Marshall got the Buckeyes down to the 3-yard line before a two-yard Barrett rush set up Elliott’s third touchdown of the first half.
Notre Dame, in jeopardy of going to half down 21 points and giving Ohio State the ball, reeled off an efficient 9 play, 75-yard drive that used just 1:19 of the 1:48 that was left on the clock when it started. Kizer found Corey Robinson on consecutive gains of 14, 12 and 15 yards before the quarterback finished the drive with a 14-yard run and a 1-yard score to bring the halftime score to 28-14.
It appeared the Buckeyes were marching for a potential knockout score on the first drive after halftime, but the game’s first turnover allowed Notre Dame to stay in the game. Ohio State relied on the ground game to move the ball to the Notre Dame 30 before Barrett dropped back to pass. The quarterback was hit as he threw and the ball was tipped and intercepted by Joe Schmidt at the 21-yard line and returned to the 42.
The Fighting Irish used a 7-play, 58-yard drive to capitalize on the turnover with a 4-yard completion from Kizer to Chris Brown to pull Notre Dame within one score at 28-21 with 8:58 left in the third quarter.
Again, Ohio State was able to respond and again it was Elliott who found the end zone. The Buckeyes used five plays to cross midfield as a 6-yard completion to Marshall put the ball at Ohio State’s 47-yard line. Elliott finished the drive from there with a touchdown burst that allowed the junior to tie the Fiesta Bowl record for rushing touchdowns with four.
The next Irish drive saw Powell get an interception that would stand. Kizer never saw the Ohio State safety, who was playing zone coverage, and the junior hauled in the ball at the Ohio State 37 and returned it four yards.
The Buckeyes couldn’t make Notre Dame pay for the turnover, however, as they posted their first three and out of the day. The Fighting Irish punted on the ensuing possession and set up another Buckeye scoring drive.
This one was finished by Sean Nuernberger as the sophomore connected on a 37-yard field goal with 12:10 left in the game to give the Buckeyes a 38-21 lead. The scoring drive, which covered 44 yards in 10 plays, featured a pair of 7-yard rushes from Barrett as well as a 9-yard completion to Thomas.
Notre Dame followed with the quick strike it desperately needed, an 81-yard pass from Kizer to Fuller on the second play of the drive. The standout wide receiver beat Gareon Conley deep and was able to find the end zone before Vonn Bell could close on him, cutting the Ohio State lead to 10, 38-28.
Another Nuernberger field goal followed, this one from 38 yards out. The Buckeyes burned 5:10 off the clock with 13 plays covering 52 yards, all but 14 of which were gained on the ground.
C.J. Sanders tried to make something happen on the ensuing kickoff, but was downed at the 10-yard line, and the Buckeyes were able to force a three-and-out.
Jalin Marshall returned the the sixth punt of the night from Tyler Newsome 19 yards to give Ohio State great field position at the Notre Dame 23 with just 4:18 left. The Buckeyes were able to run some clock, rushing the ball three times before Nuernberger made it three-for-three on field goals, this one from 35 yards out to make it 44-28 with just 2:42 left.
Lee recorded his second sack of the day on the following possession, forcing a fumble from Kizer that was recovered by Tracy Sprinkle at the Ohio State 44-yard line, allowing the Buckeyes to run the clock down to 28 seconds before kicking back to Notre Dame.