GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Ohio State that showed up to University of Phoenix Stadium looked like one of the best three teams in the country. A very good yet chronically-undermanned Notre Dame team wasn’t up to the challenge.
Ohio State beat Notre Dame, 44-28, in the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl on Friday, with running back Ezekiel Elliott plowing his way to four touchdowns as the Buckeyes’ offense didn’t meet much resistance from the Irish defense. But it’s a defense that was stretched to its limit by injuries and suspensions even more than it was during Notre Dame’s 10-win regular season.
Safety Max Redfield and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery were suspended for the game due to violations of team rules. Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered a significant knee injury in the first quarter, then his replacement, Te’Von Coney, suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the game. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day hurt his foot in practice this week, spent all day getting treatment on it, then got seriously ill the night before the game.
And then there’s the five members of the Irish secondary — already the defense's weak link — who missed the game due to injuries suffered earlier in the season: Cornerbacks Shaun Crawford, KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler, and safeties Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.
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“We certainly needed to execute better, but (I) didn't feel like we were out-manned,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We were shorthanded today, but we weren't out-manned.”
Ohio State jumped out to a roaring start, scoring touchdowns on four of its first five drives while forcing Notre Dame to punt on its first three drives. J.T. Barrett was dynamic, and Elliott looked unstoppable at times. Had this Ohio State team showed up to the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve, it would’ve given Alabama a game — and certainly been more competitive than Michigan State’s limp effort in Arlington.
But Notre Dame managed to wriggle its way back into the Fiesta Bowl, at least for a time. Joe Schmidt picked off Barrett early in the third quarter, which set up an Irish scoring drive that brought the score to 28-21 in favor of the Buckeyes. All of a sudden, Notre Dame just needed to get a stop.
Elliott, though, threw a haymaker with a 48-yard dash through the interior of Notre Dame’s defense, finding the end zone for a score that, at the time, looked like it would put things out of reach. But then Will Fuller ran by Ohio State cornerback Gaeron Conley for an 81-yard touchdown, and it wasn’t until DeShone Kizer was sacked on back-to-back plays late in the fourth quarter that the game got out of reach.
“We didn't flinch,” Kelly said. “That's the mark of this team this year, that they played hard and physical. Regardless of who was out there, they gave us everything they had. We were a little shorthanded, but they didn't make any excuses for it. They battled.”
So Notre Dame’s season ended with 10 wins, but three losses against three of college football’s best teams. Clemson, Ohio State and Stanford all should finish the season as top-five teams. There’s no shame in losing to them, especially given the two-point margins of defeat at Clemson and Stanford.
But it’s also clear that Notre Dame wasn’t on the same level as those three teams. It passed every other test this year, did exceedingly well to overcome an unprecedented string of injuries and deserves to be considered a top-10 team. But it wasn’t a top-four team.
Still, if the gap between Notre Dame and college football’s truly elite teams is only 20 points, that’s not a very wide one to close.
“I believe we’re one of the better teams in the country, and as long as we execute, we’re fine,” Kizer said. “There’s this kind of falsified wall that everyone’s creating right now that I don’t believe in. We’re a great team, we know we’re a great team, we get great recruits, we have a great coaching staff.
“We’re going to be able to win big games, we just have to make sure that individually we execute the way that we’re supposed to.”