SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s no coincidence that the three games in which Will Fuller didn’t catch a touchdown were also Notre Dame’s worst offensive showings of the 2015 regular season (Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College). The surface-level takeaway for opposing defenses, then, is this: Shut down Fuller, and you'll shut down the Irish offense.
It’s not necessarily as simple as that, but for Ohio State, task No. 1 is figuring out how to keep Fuller from ripping off the kind of explosive plays that’ve propelled him to back-to-back seasons with 13 or more touchdowns and over 1,000 yards.
“He’s a great player, phenomenal player,” Buckeyes safety Vonn Bell said. “He’s their go-to guy, their home run hitter. We’ve got some answers for that. Our corners are going to be on high alert, our whole back end will be on high alert where he’s at and we’re going to make plays in the air.”
Ohio State’s secondary is talented, headlined by Bell and cornerback Eli Apple. But it’s a group that’s been surprisingly prone to allowing big receptions — 15 of 30 yards or more (38th among FBS teams) and six of 50 or more yards (90th).
Fuller and fellow receiver Chris Brown both complimented Ohio State’s ability to prevent big plays, though. Fuller pointed to Bell taking away post routes over the middle and funneling everything to the sideline, where Apple and Gaeron Conley have the speed and skill to play off coverage and run with any opposing receiver.
“They’re not going to beat you up on the line, they’re going to stay with you and shadow you,” Brown added. “They trust their corners.”
The key to unlocking Fuller’s game-breaking ability, then, is establishing the run and bringing Bell and safety Tyvis Powell closer to the line of scrimmage. If they bite on play-action, Fuller feels like he can get over the top for a big-chunk gain.
This is where Ohio State’s interior defensive line losses could hurt it on New Year's Day. Defensive tackle Adolphus Washington is suspended due to a solicitation of prostitution charge, and backup Tommy Schutt is injured. A handful of young players will rotate with star defensive end Joey Bosa, who is expected to slide inside in certain situations.
“They have four-star, five-star players up and down the roster,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. “It's not like they're going to be at a complete disadvantage with the next man in.”
Still, Washington was an elite talent who will be replaced by question marks like Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger. And Bosa admitted it’s been difficult to quickly become accustomed to playing over interior offensive linemen, where he’ll be double-teamed far more often than he ever would be at defensive tackle.
“On run (plays) it’s rough holding your own against two 300-pounders,” Bosa said.
While Notre Dame anticipates 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Prosise (high ankle sprain) will be available in the Fiesta Bowl, Josh Adams is the better between-the-tackles running back. The true freshman said earlier this month he’s focused on improving his inside zone runs — he’s already adept at gaining yards on those, but with Ohio State potentially deficient in the middle of its defensive line, it’ll take on added importance.
So if Prosise, Adams and/or DeShone Kizer can establish the run and draw Ohio State’s defensive focus into the backfield, it’ll open up opportunities for Fuller to beat Apple or Conley one-on-one. That worked against Pitt — Fuller thoroughly torched Pat Narduzzi’s stubborn cover-zero scheme — but didn’t against Clemson.
But Ohio State is going to scheme against Fuller, too. He’s no longer an under-the-radar threat, not with 29 touchdowns and just shy of 2,400 receiving yards in his three-year Irish career. If he’s able to beat the Buckeyes’ secondary, he’ll do so with a target on his back.
“We know wherever he’s at, the ball’s coming (there),” Bell said. “You gotta be heads up and alert where he’s at.”