Brian Kelly hoped this game would be different. Different from the last time Notre Dame was on a big postseason stage.
But seven minutes into the Fiesta Bowl, it looked like the Irish had suffered another first-round knockout. Ohio State’s offense was running through the Irish. Notre Dame’s defensive star Jaylon Smith was carted to the locker room with a major knee injury. And for a moment it looked like Ohio State would do to the Irish what Alabama did at the end of the 2012 season.
Yet the Irish battled back. And while a score of 44-28 certainly didn’t achieve what Notre Dame set out to do, the Irish offense managed to keep things interesting even if the defense had no answer for Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett and the rest of the Ohio State offense.
Undermanned, overpowered and out-dueled, Notre Dame lost the Fiesta Bowl. They were beat in the trenches on both sides of the football, even with the Buckeyes short some frontline players, including Joey Bosa, who was ejected late in the first quarter. But the Irish never quit, even as the bodycount piled up on a roster already ravaged by season-ending injuries.
Another season is in the books, the Buckeyes hanging a third-loss on the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. Let’s find out what we learned during Ohio State’s dominant 44-28 win over Notre Dame.
Jaylon Smith’s knee injury is a heartbreaking start to 2016.
When Jaylon Smith’s leg bent unnaturally after a shove from Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, Notre Dame’s most impressive football player saw his season end in nightmarish fashion. The Butkus Award-winner was carted off the field with what Kelly called “a significant knee injury,” putting his football career and skyward trajectory into a holding pattern.
On the field, the loss of Smith all but ended any hopes the Irish defense had for slowing down Ohio State’s offense. Notre Dame’s star linebacker is the rare athlete who can stuff the run while also covering receivers, and after true freshman Te’von Coney went down in Smith’s place, we saw Jarrett Grace struggle as he was forced to play Will linebacker next to Joe Schmidt.
Smith’s injury was more than just a fatal blow to the Irish defense. It also clouds a future that looked destined for an early first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. That still could be the case—medical advancements have turned even ACL surgery into something fairly routine. But Smith’s status, whether as one of the country’s best returning college football players if he chooses to come back to South Bend or as one of the draft’s bluechip talents, is on hold until more is learned about his injury and his timeline for recovery.
Smith deserved a better end to an incredible All-American season.
Decimated by injuries, suspensions and scheme, it should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s defense.
Notre Dame’s defense appeared to be dead on arrival at University of Phoenix Stadium. Brian VanGorder’s defensive personnel was decimated, a toxic combination of injuries, embarrassing suspensions and ill-fitting scheme.
Putting aside the much-discussed schematic problems, injuries continued to wreak havoc. We already talked about the crippling loss of Smith and his understudy Coney. But a game-week injury to Sheldon Day was revealed in the hours leading up to kickoff. Kelly said in his postgame comments that he thought Day broke his foot on Wednesday. Add to that was an illness that forced the senior to take an IV before the game.
Sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage badly sprained his ankle earlier in bowl prep, limiting his abilities to contribute in the trenches. Throw in Devin Butler’s broken foot suffered after the Irish arrived in Arizona and the natural grass at Scottsdale Community College may as well have been a minefield.
Now to the self-inflicted wounds:
Max Redfield may not have helped the Irish beat Ohio State. But a veteran starter sent home for rule violations is inexcusable. Likewise, Jerry Tillery may not have faired much better in the trenches against Ezekiel Elliott and company, but Tillery was a rare healthy body for an Irish defense that badly needed him. That type of immaturity wasn’t expected from a young player who had been carrying himself like a veteran.
Players will get healthy. Suspensions will inevitably be served. But for Notre Dame to challenge for a national championship, the defense has to get better.
That starts at the top. Brian Kelly tapped Brian VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco. He promised that VanGorder would bring an exotic, NFL scheme with him to South Bend. We’ve seen the complexities of an NFL defense. Yet all too often, we’ve seen the challenges of young football players trying to absorb those nuances.
Diaco turned this defense into one of college football’s most fundamentally sound and impressive units. VanGorder’s scheme has done the opposite, creating a group capable of dominance at times and self-destruction at others.
No coordinator could’ve dug the Irish out of the shorthanded hole they were in on Friday afternoon. But Kelly and VanGorder need to take a long look at the way they do things. Because asking college athletes to absorb game-specific, NFL schemes on top of a challenging academic course load isn’t working.
Even without Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, Ohio State’s defense won the battle in the trenches.
Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled with Ohio State’s front seven. That might have been the true surprise of the Fiesta Bowl, especially considering the loss of Washington, senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt and the early-game ejection of Joey Bosa.
Notre Dame’s running game was held to just 121 yards, with C.J. Prosise pulled early after struggling with his balky ankle. That left Josh Adams to do the dirty work against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. While the rookie broke Darius Walker’s freshman rushing record, he was held mostly in check with just 14 carries for 78 yards, a large chunk of that coming late.
Ohio State’s pass rush also troubled Notre Dame. DeShone Kizer was sacked four times, pressured constantly by an athletic group of Buckeye pass rusher that took dead aim at the young Irish quarterback. Linebacker Darron Lee had two sacks, including one that forced a fumble. Former Notre Dame lacrosse commit Sam Hubbard had another. The pressure wore on Kizer, who hardly looked comfortable in the pocket, missing some easy throws, mostly the result of the chaos surrounding him and its impact on his fundamentals.
Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin have played their final games for Notre Dame. Returning in 2016 are starters Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, with Alex Bars likely sliding in at left tackle. There are bright days ahead for Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. But the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t one of them.
In a game filled with future NFL stars, Will Fuller still managed to make the game’s biggest play.
What a fitting end to Will Fuller’s season. The junior receiver, who has yet to make an official decision on whether or not to enter the upcoming NFL Draft, sprinted past Ohio State’s defense for an 81-yard touchdown, his 14th of the season and his 10th score of at least 30 yards on the season.
Fuller’s ability to make big plays continues to be unmatched. That’s his third 70-plus yard touchdown catch from Kizer, matching deep scores against USC and Stanford. It’s his 29th touchdown of the past two seasons, the best number in college football.
For Brian Kelly, bringing back Fuller might be the most important job of the next month for a coaching staff that’s still trying to finalize its 2016 recruiting class. The Philadelphia native made a public statement earlier in the season that he’d return for his senior season though has backed away from that stance, deciding to make a final decision after the season. Fuller didn’t reveal his NFL advisory board evaluation, though inconsistency with his hands and a lack of elite size could push him into a second or third round pick.
Notre Dame’s staff found the right recipe to bring back Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, with both seniors helping their draft stock in 2015. Manti Te’o did the same en route to the most decorated defensive season of any player in college football.
But Kelly might want to tell Fuller about how he helped Michael Floyd use his final season in South Bend to boost his draft stock. Floyd worked to become a more complete receiver and turned into the 13th overall pick after a record-setting senior year. Expect Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and receivers coach Mike Denbrock to make their case very soon, with the deadline for a decision coming in mid-January.
But if this is it for Fuller in an Irish uniform, that blur of blue you saw streaking down the sideline towards the end zone is a fitting finish.
While they finished short of their objective, there’s no way to call this season a failure.
Notre Dame came up short three times this season. But after dealing with a head-shaking amount of injuries and adversity this season, Brian Kelly didn’t find it hard to praise his football team.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the football team. An honor to coach them, honor to be around them,” Kelly said postgame. “The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing.”
With losses to undefeated Clemson, two-loss Stanford and one-loss Ohio State, Notre Dame certainly has the most impressive three-loss resume in the country. And for years to come we’ll likely play the “what if” game when it comes to wondering about what a full strength Irish team could’ve done had it had a chance to go through the 2015 season even moderately healthy.
That type of wondering won’t help the Irish move forward. So even if Team 127’s legacy isn’t one of a national champion, the foundation built by this football team is certainly significant.
Veteran leaders like Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt have left their mark. And the injuries suffered created opportunities that’ll pay off in the years to come. We saw it during the Fiesta Bowl loss, with cornerback Nick Watkins competing with a talented group of Buckeye receivers and Josh Adams continuing his evolution from unknown freshman to record-setting back, replacing a converted wide receiver who managed to run for over 1,000 yards as well.
There are obvious areas to improve, with the team’s defensive identity certainly being first on the list. But any wonder if a tough Fiesta Bowl loss would derail the program’s momentum moving into 2016 was erased when Kelly talked openly about where he sees his program as it moves forward into his seventh season.
“We’re going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don’t want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them,” Kelly said.
“We’ve made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We’ll get there. Hopefully we won’t have as many injuries. We’ll get back here again. We’ll win them. I had a similar process in my career earlier when I was in Division II. Took us about six years to win a playoff game. Then we won three national championships.
“I’m not saying we’re ready to win three national championships. But stay the course, keep doing what we’re doing, keep recruiting, keep bringing in great guys like this, and we’ll get there.”