The "Almost Rose Bowl"

This year's Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame is being viewed across the country as an appetizer for the granddaddy of them all -- the Rose Bowl showdown between Texas and USC. Oddly enough, these two teams weren't very far away from being the competitors in that game and not the Fiesta Bowl. The players for each side haven't forgotten, either.

Close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

That's more than a little unfortunate for the two teams playing in this year's Fiesta Bowl. Give either one 10 points this past season and they are unbeaten and instead of playing in Tempe would find themselves in Pasadena.

"It's kind of weird," admits Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija. "It's kind of like the battle of what-if's or however you want to put it. Both teams lost to the teams playing in the national championship right now by such small margins. If we had won those games we probably could have been playing each other for the national championship. It's weird looking back at that now, but that's not the reality so we have to deal with the situation we are in."

How close was it?

Down 38 to 17 with less than five minutes remaining in the game against Michigan State, the Irish turned on the jets. Brady Quinn tossed three touchdowns to three different receivers and the Notre Dame defense stiffened.

Anthony Fasano remembers, "We weren't playing well against Michigan State. We were down a couple of scores and came back late in the game to tie the game and put it into overtime. That's really when I saw our offense persevere over some troubling times."

Unfortunately for them, that perseverance didn't equate to a win. A field goal in overtime for the Notre Dame special teams was followed by a 19 yard touchdown run by Michigan State's Jason Teague. Game over, the Irish lost by three and were out of the national title race – at least it seemed like they were.

Meanwhile, Ohio State was still woozy from their titanic clash with the University of Texas. Played at night in Columbus, it seemed as though this early season match up on September 10 might at the very least help determine who met whom in Pasadena. It did, but it would not be the Buckeyes.

Ohio State led 19-13 late in the fourth quarter, but their defense bent and then buckled for a score at the hands of Vince Young. Young passed the ball over the Buckeyes' two most respected secondary players in Ashton Youboty and Nate Salley. The following drive, a fumble by Justin Zwick with only minutes remaining all but sealed the outcome; Texas tacked on a safety and Ohio State lost by three.

According to Mike Kudla, "That's kind of a sore spot. We fell short of our goal of being national champion, but we played hard. We learn from our losses. Texas was a team that came in with so many high powered athletes."

Three weeks later Ohio State again found themselves in another nail biter against another undefeated squad, the Penn State Nittany Lions. Their night game in Happy Valley set up as an ambush, and the Lions pounced. Tired of being the Big Ten's doormat Joe Paterno's squad led by fifth-year senior Michael Robinson was up 17-10 entering the fourth quarter. With just minutes remaining, Troy Smith and the Buckeyes took possession of the football and appeared to finally be shaking the offense out of its doldrums. That's when it happened: Smith was blindsided and lost the football. Just like with Texas, Ohio State's fate was sealed by a backside blow to their quarterback with less than two and a half minutes left on the clock. The Lions were officially back having handed Ohio State an acrid tasting 17-10 loss.

It would be the Buckeyes' last on the season.

Notre Dame's second loss would come one week later. In a punching match against USC the two offenses were driving almost at will against the respective defenses, which would have the ball last looked like it might determine the game. It did; USC's Matt Leinart hit Dwayne Jarrett on a 61 yard pass and catch on fourth and 9 at the Trojans' 26. The drive would culminate in a heartbreaking last second loss (literally) for the Irish when Leinart was illegally pushed into the end zone by his tailback Reggie Bush. The referees failed to call the penalty and the game was over.

Notre Dame hasn't forgotten how it ended, and Samardzija not too subtly said, "They know what really happened. They know how that game went…"

No matter how it went, it was a loss. It was a bitter, 34-31 loss.

Despite sitting at 9-2, give Ohio State and Notre Dame a combined 15 points on the season, and they are unbeaten and in the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

Darius Walker takes a philosophical approach to the question of ‘what if?'

"We and Ohio State are one or two plays away from being in the Rose Bowl," he said. "So, it's something we understand, but at the same time it's important for us to stay focused on the task at hand and winning the Fiesta Bowl more than thinking what we could have done to be in the Rose Bowl."

The Buckeyes' Kudla does the same: "We grew and each game we improved. Maybe we weren't at our best against Texas and weren't at our best against Penn State, but we learned from that. We were able to handle some adversity and grow. It got shady there for a minute; we were looking at 3-2 and a schedule – where do we go (from here)? But, we lost to two of the best teams in the country. We played well; it wasn't a situation where we were blown out. We fought. We did a lot of good things in those games, but obviously the ball didn't fall our way, but we learned a lot about ourselves from those."

Notre Dame's Defensive Coordinator Rick Minter has perhaps the best overall take on the situation. He knows that winning a championship is sometimes about being a little lucky, especially considering he was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats when they took the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes to the wire. His squad might have pulled the upset if the ball had bounced their way instead of the direction of their in-state rivals. Who knows but that kind of program win might have even saved his job, but he was eventually fired and replaced with Ohio State's defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio.

"Something good has to happen for a team to go 11-0," Minter explained. "You look at USC – they got off the hook. You look at Texas – they got off the hook. Ironically with both of these teams here. A cover two pass in the end zone by Vince Young knocked down is the difference in winning and losing and a fourth and 9 knocked down is the difference between us winning and losing. Before you know it the BCS is in a topsy turvy.

He continued, "That's the difference between winning and losing – fine lines. Fine lines. The better your team gets and the better your opponents are the fine lines are going to be one or two a game and you either make that play or you don't make that play. That separates you from the champion to the near champion."

And now the two near-championship teams will learn whether or not they are finally ready to step up and be Fiesta Champions or become one of the many also-rans in the history of the Bowls.

How much have these two squads really learned from their costly mistakes? How do they expect to win this time when in arguably their two contests against the best teams on their respective schedules they have fallen just short?

For Notre Dame's offensive players, their key is to focus at hand and not beat themselves. Walker opines, "I think the coaches do a good job of keeping us grounded. To play in something like the Fiesta Bowl it really is a big deal. I think the teams can somewhat overlook that because everyone's goal is to win a national championship. If you don't win a national championship it seems like your season is down the drain, and you didn't do what you wanted to do, but I think this is what – the second highest rated bowl or second biggest bowl other than the Rose Bowl. So, we're excited about it. I think the coaching staff has done a great job in keeping us grounded and helping us understand it really is a great honor to be here."

Tight end Anthony Fasano says the key "For us (is) not to beat ourselves. We have a good game plan going into the game. For us to execute it well will be the best thing for us. For Ohio State – I don't know. They have to do what they have to do."

On the opposite sideline, the Buckeyes too will be looking to make those one or two plays that determined a negative outcome for them.

"Everybody here wants to win," says senior safety Nate Salley. "That is the way we have always been. I believe that is what has made us as successful as we have been. We are staying hungry. This is a huge game. Everyone is going to be watching. Our family is going to be here. This is out last game as seniors. We don't want to go out with a loss by no means. I believe that is enough. Being here and being able to put on the uniform one last time. I believe that is enough to make you hungry."

Hungry, however, doesn't equal a win, and knowing that, Salley and the secondary are "Working on deep balls, trying to catch every ball that is up in the air in practice. If we drop something or don't make a play we should the coaches are on us hard. They should be. That's our main thing. We know it's a challenge, but we are embracing it. We're having fun with it. That's why we came here to have our last game against a throwing team and have a lot of opportunity to make a lot of plays in the defensive backfield."

In the end, both of these teams are more than happy to be in the Fiesta Bowl. They know it is their final shot in the 2005 season to make an impression and get a head start on success in 2006.

Minter (as did all of the other coaches and players) made it crystal clear he's glad to be in Tempe; "We are happy in the Fiesta Bowl and happy to be playing another team that again may have had a couple strokes here and there because they are good. They were beat by an 11-0 team and a 10-1 team and so they were knocking on the door of greatness, but it's a great match up because of the history and the heritage and the high profile of these two programs. The proximity of these two programs and winning of these two programs - They are teams that should and almost always be on the national stage and in the spotlight on a yearly basis. It's a great match up."

Indeed it is a great match up, and the Fiesta Bowl should be more than a little happy with their party on January 2.

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