Notre Dame’s defense has consistently succeeded in limiting the “game-wreckers,” to borrow coach Brian Kelly’s term, possessed by opposing offenses. But against Ohio State, on which game-wrecker do Brian VanGorder & Co. train their focus: quarterback J.T. Barrett or running back Ezekiel Elliott?
Kelly identified six players this fall as game-wreckers: UMass receiver Tajae Sharpe, Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, USC receiver/cornerback/returner Adoree’ Jackson, Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. None of those players wrecked Notre Dame’s chances of winning, but it came at a cost.
Sharpe caught eight passes for 83 yards against Notre Dame, but that showing was sandwiched between four games in which he totaled 50 receptions for 609 yards. But Minutemen freshman running back Marquis Young ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run in the first half, and it wasn’t until C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown that Notre Dame began to pull away against its worst opponent of the season.
Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, was held to 10 completions on 21 attempts for 84 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and he also rushed for 93 yards and 16 carries with a score. It was by far Watson’s worst statistical game of the season — he completed at least 62 percent of his passes in every other game and threw for over 275 yards seven times — though Notre Dame was done in by dropped passes and a curious two-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter in that Death Valley defeat.
Reynolds was banged up against Notre Dame and rushed 15 times for 110 yards, but didn’t get in the end zone. Fullback Quentin Ezell, though, gouged the Irish defense for 75 yards on six carries with two touchdowns.
Notre Dame did well to keep the ball out of Jackson’s hands on kick returns, and he only caught one pass — which, of course, was an 83-yarder that exposed the significant secondary flaws that were a constant feature of the Irish defense. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 139 yards and a score, though KeiVarae Russell’s diving interception of a deep ball intended for him was one of the highlights of the season.
Boyd didn’t do much of anything as Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman flailed away in the first half, though defensive back-turned-running-back Jordan Whitehead scored twice. It wasn’t until garbage time that Boyd did anything, when another secondary breakdown allowed him to reel in a wide open 51-yard touchdown.
And lastly, there’s McCaffrey, the Heisman finalist, who was limited to 94 yards on 27 carries and 19 yards on three receptions, and was entirely taken out of the kick return game. But the expense of keeping McCaffrey from beating the Irish was quarterback Kevin Hogan’s final stat line: 17 completions in 21 attempts for 269 yards and four touchdowns. Hogan also set up Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning field goal with a 27-yard strike to receiver Devon Cajuste in the dying embers of the night.
In a vacuum, Notre Dame’s success in muting the production of two Heisman finalists, one guy who maybe should’ve gone to New York (Reynolds) and three dominant/explosive receivers was a good thing. The downside was the success those second-best players had, especially Hogan, who picked apart Notre Dame’s defense and probably is the biggest reason why the Irish are 10-2 instead of 11-1.
So that brings us back to the Fiesta Bowl: Who does Notre Dame decide to focus on between Barrett and Elliott? Based on the numbers, the answer should be Elliott, who ranks sixth among FBS players backs with an average of 139.3 rushing yards per game and third with 19 touchdowns. Barrett hasn’t been able to reach his Heisman-contending form of 2014 thanks to slipping behind Cardale Jones and being suspended for a game in November, but flashed his game-wrecking skill against Michigan with 139 yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns.
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It’s a difficult dilemma for VanGorder and the Irish defense, because they haven’t shown they can stop more than one good-to-great offensive weapon this season.
“The one thing we’ve done all year consistently is we have taken away the one player that can wreck a game,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And whether it be Keenan Reynolds or Christian McCaffrey or any of the individual players all year, we’ve done a really good job there. It’s been some of the other guys that we should be able to defend with our guys, we haven’t done a very good job. We’re going to have to do that again with a Barrett and Ezekiel and do a better job against the other guys.”