It's remarkable that, arguably, the two greatest collegiate football programs of all time, Ohio State and Notre Dame, have only met on the field of battle four times. Some of the greatest coaches and players to suit up on Saturday afternoons have represented these two storied programs – who will collide in Monday's Fiesta Bowl (5 p.m., ABC) -- with pride and performance.
Coaching legends like Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian are synonymous with the storied tradition of Notre Dame. Likewise, Wilce, Brown, Fesler and of course Woody Hayes were equal contributors to the legacy of the Buckeye program.
And yet when the two schools met in 1935 and ‘36 it was two less historic names that faced off. For the Buckeyes, it was coach Francis Schmidt. Schmidt was a head coach that had made an early splash in Columbus by beating Michigan in his first four seasons and even shutting them out all four times (it would later be three straight losses to the same team that would seal his fate as Ohio State head coach). For the Fighting Irish, it would be one of the famed "Four Horsemen," Elmer Layden. Even though neither would really end up as coaching legends, they were the two that represented their respective institutions those two historic afternoons in 1935 and ‘36.
As we know the Fighting Irish would win both the '35 and '36 contest. It would be almost 60 years before the Buckeyes had a chance to even the score. And even it they did, a 1995 trouncing of Notre Dame 45-26 in Columbus followed by a 29-16 victory in South Bend in 1996.
The coaching match-up in the 1990's renewal of this rivalry was between two of the most successful head coaches of the day. Both John Cooper of Ohio State and Lou Holtz of Notre Dame, even though completely different in coaching style and philosophy, had proven track records as winners. Cooper would end up as the second winningest coach in Ohio State history with 111 wins, behind Woody Hayes who tallied 205 in his glorious career. Likewise, Lou Holtz would end his reign as the second winningest coach in Notre Dame history with 100 victories. Only the great Knute Rockne had more than Holtz at 105.
It will be Jan. 2, 2006, when the two proud and accomplished programs meet yet again. And again, an intriguing coaching encounter. One man that has made his mark in the pro ranks, a guy that didn't even play football in college, and a man who had to wait until he was nearly 50 years old to become a head coach. But in one year, Charlie Weis has brought new life to a program that Notre Dame fans thought was on the brink of disaster or at least mediocrity. He has been able to win with another coach's talent. He has been able to fit his system around a quarterback that paid his dues the last two seasons and, remarkably, has developed into, arguably, the best passing quarterback in the country. Weis has also been able to bring his team back in the fourth quarter. He has instilled a pride and confidence which has been lacking in South Bend in the last decade.
On the other sideline will be a coach with a completely different heritage. He is a man that grew up in a football environment. His dad was a successful high school coach, who then decided to settle down at a Division III college, Baldwin-Wallace, even though he could have moved to a much higher level. Jim Tressel would not only grow up a coach's son, but even play for him at Baldwin-Wallace. Tressel would move up the coaching ranks typical of today's breed. He would advance from graduate assistant, to position coach, to head coach at Division I- AA, then to head coach of a Division I-A program. He would identify the keys to success as such things as putting in long hours and an emphasis on the disciplines of life -- values his father had instilled in him. Tressel has been able to win by emphasizing fundamentals and stressing defense and special teams above all else.
Tressel's mantra seems to be, "Don't beat yourself and be good in the latter part of the season." His philosophy truly embodies the cliché, "It's not how you start, but how you finish." If you beat Michigan and play well in the bowl games, you can last a long time in Columbus, Ohio.
Can a Notre Dame team that ranks tenth, nationally, in total offense move the ball against an aggressive, hard hitting Ohio State defense that is ranked fourth nationally? Can the Fighting Irish offensive line protect their golden armed quarterback against the defensive front seven of the Buckeyes?
To me, this may be the key match-up of the Fiesta Bowl. With all the success Brady Quinn has had in 2005, he has yet to see the speed and athleticism of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State has the ability to disguise coverages, bluff the blitz, and "bring the house" with precision and expert timing.
Even though the Fighting Irish have outstanding receivers, their speed doesn't compare to the secondary of Ohio State. A strong Buckeye pass rush should not allow the Irish to go deep very often. To beat the Buckeye defense, Notre Dame will need big plays. Few teams have put long drives against the nation's best defense against the rush.
A much improved Ohio State offense should be able to score points against a Notre Dame defense that is not nearly as talented as its offense. They give up 23 points and 377 yards per game. The balanced Buckeyes attack makes it difficult for opposing defense to slow down the "Buckeye Express." The most talented and dangerous receiving corps in the country will be hard for the Irish to defend. The athleticism of Troy Smith adds a dimension opponents have trouble handling. As long as the Buckeye offensive line can handle the ever moving and twisting Notre Dame defensive front and, as long as the Buckeyes don't turn the ball over, this part of the game should also belong to the Scarlet and Gray.
Lastly, special teams can be instrumental in all close games. And even though the Buckeyes have better overall talent and speed, the Fighting Irish are good enough to keep the game close. Ohio State is better in nearly every phase of the kicking game. Josh Huston has made over 83 percent of his field goals as compared to ND's DJ Fitzpatrick, who has made only 65 percent. The breakaway potential of Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes gives the Buckeyes an advantage in the return game. Again, ball security is crucial.
Offense, defense, and special teams all point to an Ohio State victory by anywhere from 10 points to higher. That's why speed, talent and past performance warrants a Buckeye victory. That's what should happen!
But remember, this game will also be one for the ages. One program has played football for 118 years, the other 115. Combined, the two storied programs have produced over a dozen national championships and Heismen trophy winners. Coaching legends have walked the sidelines of both Columbus and South Bend.
Each time, though not many in number, the two great programs meet, history is made. One of the teams will have bragging rights for a year, a decade, a century or somewhere in between. And maybe that's what makes the game so special.
By not playing on a regular basis, and by not being in the same league adds something extraordinary to the rivalry when it does occur. Maybe that's why there exists such a mutual respect between the coaches, the players, the traditions, and the programs. And that's why college football is special in itself.