Five things we learned: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28

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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.”

Jaylon Smith leaves Fiesta Bowl with potentially major injury

Jaylon Smith, Tyrone Swoopes
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Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame’s Butkus Award-winning linebacker, left the Fiesta Bowl in the first quarter with what looks to be a major knee injury. The junior All-American’s leg twisted unnaturally after a play in the Notre Dame red zone, with Smith crumpling to the field. He was helped off by trainers before leaving the field on a cart with a brace on his knee.

The Fiesta Bowl was likely Smith’s last game as a Notre Dame football player, though he hadn’t declared whether or not he was entering the NFL Draft. Smith is projected to be an early pick and received a first-round evaluation from the NFL advisory committee.

No word from Notre Dame on the severity of the injury yet, but all indications are that it is a significant injury. Head trainer Rob Hunt was testing Smith’s knee for ACL damage before the knee was braced and Smith was carted off.

 

Freshman Jerry Tillery suspended for Fiesta Bowl

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As Notre Dame takes the field to warm up for the Fiesta Bowl, they’ll go to battle without freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s sports information department announced that Tillery will not play against Ohio State because of a violation of team rules.

The Irish defensive front will be tested against one of the country’s best running attacks, led by Ezekiel Elliott. While Notre Dame expects to get a contribution from senior Jarron Jones, who is returning from an August knee injury, Daniel Cage battled a sprained ankle all bowl season and Tillery was expected to play a significant amount of snaps.

Expect sophomore Jonathan Bonner to take snaps in Tillery’s place or defensive end Isaac Rochell to slide inside.

Pregame Six Pack: More than a consolation prize

DeShoneKizer
AP
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Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup might not advance the Irish to their ultimate goal. But it will provide college football’s grandest day with a premier matchup between two of the sport’s proudest programs.

So while Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma wage battle with a haphazard workday and New Year’s Eve revelers, the Irish and the Buckeyes will kick of January 1 with the most intriguing bowl matchup of college football’s postseason.

Notre Dame’s 127th team didn’t reach their ultimate goal. But they will have the opportunity to be remembered among the school’s best teams, an eleventh win—against Urban Meyer and Ohio State, no less—up for grabs on Friday morning in Glendale, Arizona. That’s more than a consolation prize.

The storylines are numerous. The rosters stocked with NFL talent. So before Brian Kelly leads the Irish into a battle against Meyer’s Buckeye juggernaut, let’s enjoy our final pregame six pack before we ring in 2016 with the Fiesta Bowl.

 

After a nightmarish second half of the season, Brian Kelly thinks he sees the C.J. Prosise of old. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise’s first season at running back was a phenomenal one. Notre Dame’s winner of the Next Man In Award ran for 1,032 yards and averaged 6.6 yards, a big-play threat and home run hitter from Day One as he stepped into the starting role after Tarean Folston injured his knee three carries into the year.

Yet Prosise’s big season was short-circuited as his hit count grew. He was neutralized against Temple before injuring his shoulder and suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh, then held out against Wake Forest. Just a handful of carries into his return against Boston College, Prosise suffered a high-ankle sprain, keeping him out of contact until arriving in Arizona.

If the Irish are going to find a way to cut into the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, they need Prosise at full strength. And for the first time in a long time, it looked like Prosise had the explosiveness back that turned him into one of the nation’s most dangerous big-play running backs.

“I’d like to get a lot out of him, a lot of big plays in particular,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He looked pretty good yesterday. I think yesterday was his first day that he really showed, I think, the best way to put it is, ‘That looked like C.J.’ That was the first time yesterday when we saw him cut and look explosive.”

 

After 13 months, Jarron Jones returns to one of the toughest assignments in college football: Slowing down Ezekiel Elliott

Not even a car crash with a suspended drivers license could slow down the Big Ten’s top offensive weapon. Now we’ll see if Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense can do it.

The Irish have one thing going for them that the Columbus P.D. doesn’t. That’s the return of Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound run-stuffer who should help the middle of the Irish defense hold up against Ohio State’s veteran and outstanding offensive line.

How many snaps Notre Dame gets out of Jones will be interesting. Kelly has sounded optimistic. Brian VanGorder less so, pegging Jones’ contributions in the 10 play range. With sophomore Daniel Cage battling an ankle sprain and Jones getting on the field for the first time since he suffered a major foot injury, the Irish senior is one very large X factor.

“I think for him the biggest thing is gaining back the confidence,” Isaac Rochell told Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. “After not playing for two years, your ego is kind of down, you doubt yourself, but after he gets into the swing of things, gets into the game, makes some tackles, he’ll start to get his mojo back and feel a little bit better about his game.”

The Irish certainly hope so, especially as they take on a running game that requires an answer for not just Elliott, but quarterback J.T. Barrett.

 

There’s going to be a bullseye on cornerback Nick Watkins. At least Brian Kelly thinks so.

With KeiVarae Russell’s leg still healing and Devin Butler breaking his foot during practice this week, the next man in at cornerback is Nick Watkins. That pushes the seldom-used sophomore into a difficult situation, making his first start against one of the nation’s most talented teams.

Kelly expects Watkins to get tested early and often.

“He’s going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them,” Kelly said.

But Watkins isn’t your ordinary third-stringer. The Dallas native was one of Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruits, a talented coverman out of a high school powerhouse. Physically, his skills have always looked the part, though he struggled to put the mental together with the physical.

After a strong bowl season of practices, Notre Dame’s head coach is confident that Watkins can do the challenging job Brian VanGorder asks his cornerbacks to do.

“I think he’ll hold up. He’s a kid that will compete,” Kelly. He’s got a lot of pride. He’s got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

That Kelly is showing confidence in Watkins is interesting considering he wasn’t earlier in the season. After looking like he had pulled ahead of Butler during spring practice, Watkins ceded backup duties to the veteran Butler, behind him all season, including the start against Stanford and what would’ve been the Fiesta Bowl until the injury.

Sometimes it takes an opportunity for the lightbulb to go on. And after hearing Watkins talk this week, maybe that’ll be the silver lining of another difficult injury situation the Irish will have to overcome.

“You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When the chips are down, it’s how you respond,” Watkins said on Wednesday. “That’s still what I’m learning. To respond and be a great player for this team.”

 

When it comes to Notre Dame and Ohio State, there’s a lot of familiarity. 

This is just the sixth all-time meeting between two school separated by just 250 miles. But that doesn’t mean the connections don’t run deep.

Notre Dame has 12 players from the state of Ohio. Freshman C.J. Sanders‘ father played for the Buckeyes, while Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Urban Meyer in Columbus. Countless players on the Buckeyes count a Notre Dame scholarship offer and vice versa. Taylor Decker was an Irish commit before a late-game flip.

You might have heard that Urban Meyer coached at Notre Dame, working for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie before his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. Meyer has filled his staff with coaches with Notre Dame ties, including Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner from Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff. Tony Alford left last offseason to go to Columbus as well, named assistant head coach in addition to his running back duties. Meyer’s longtime strength coach Mickey Marotti was the head of ND’s strength program from 1998-2005.

Expect pregame warmup to be filled with some friendly hugs and handshakes before the festivities begin.

 

Nobody wants to talk about the NFL Draft yet. But the eyes of the NFL will be on the Fiesta Bowl Friday morning. 

Credit Ronnie Stanley for getting it out of the way. Notre Dame’s left tackle confirmed the news he all but announced when he decided to come back for 2015—he’ll be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet outside of Stanley, the rest of the game’s draft-eligible stars aren’t saying much.

Will Fuller isn’t talking about his NFL Advisory grade. Neither is Prosise. Ezekiel Elliott has made it known the Fiesta Bowl will be his final collegiate game, but Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith, two of the draft’s elite prospects, are keeping their plans to themselves until after the game.

How much talent will be on the field? Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has 15 of college football’s Top 100 players on these two teams alone.

Here’s the group:

No. 2: Jaylon Smith
No. 3: Joey Bosa
No. 5: Ronnie Stanley
No. 13: Ezekiel Elliott
No. 22: Michael Thomas
No. 33: Eli Apple
No. 37: Joshua Perry
No. 41: Taylor Decker
No. 47: Vonn Bell
No. 50: Adolphus Washington
No. 57: C.J. Prosise
No. 66: Braxton Miller
No. 67: Tyvis Powell
No. 73: Sheldon Day
No. 88: KeiVarae Russell

“There’s going to be a lot of guys playing football on Sundays,” Meyer said on Wednesday.

 

Like they’ve been asked all season, Notre Dame’s offense needs to win the game for the Irish. 

If the Irish are going to win the Fiesta Bowl, the offense is going to need to carry the day. That means better efficiency in the red zone from DeShone Kizer. That means a running game that takes what it wants from an undermanned Ohio State defensive front. And it means another big-time performance from Will Fuller.

The Irish are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. And even Ohio State’s biggest defensive star, defensive end Joey Bosa, knows the Buckeyes need to bring their best to the field on Friday to win the game.

“You look at them, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror,” Bosa said on Monday. “Athletes everywhere. Big, athletic offensive line. Quarterback that can run with the ball. Really talented receivers. There’s weapons everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge.”

For the Irish, the challenge will be cashing in their scoring opportunities. Having tight end Durham Smythe should help. So will C.J. Prosise, though expect Josh Adams to get the short-yardage opportunities.

Ultimately, this game will come down to Kizer. Much has been made this week about not receiving a scholarship offer from the hometown Buckeyes as they passed by him on their extended recruiting list at quarterback. But more will be made of a victory over a Buckeyes defense that’ll challenge Kizer with man coverage opportunities and an aggressive scheme.

Kizer has had a month to prepare for this defense. He’s drilled in the red zone, a place where his efficiency has struggled. Now he’ll have a final chance to prove no moment is too big for him.

Even the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

 

 

Kelly hoping to continue ascent with Fiesta Bowl win

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks during media day for the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Notre Dame plays Ohio State on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP
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Brian Kelly has already said that a Fiesta Bowl victory would be the team’s biggest win of the season. But on Wednesday, he put into context what a victory over Ohio State would mean to his program, three seasons removed from its BCS title game drubbing against Alabama.

I think every bowl game, it’s a playoff game now. Somebody is going to finish fifth in the final polls. That’s a springboard for next year,” Kelly said Wednesday morning. “These are important games, you’re also measuring yourself in this game. ‘Where are we?’

“We measured ourselves in 2012, found out we were a little short. Now we’re back here in ’15-’16 and get a chance to measure ourselves again.”

That challenge will come against an Ohio State team that’s playing for history. A victory on Friday would make 50 wins over four seasons—tying the FBS record for the most by any senior class.

The Buckeyes could also provide validation. While the Irish weren’t up to the challenge against mighty Alabama in Kelly’s third season, Ohio State managed to slay the dragon last year. Toss away a late-season loss to Michigan State and a cupcake schedule done no favors by its weak conference opponents, the Buckeyes could easily make a case they’re more qualified to be a part of the four-team showdown than the mighty Alabama or an Oklahoma team that lost to Texas.

But Friday’s consolation matchup could be for more than just the No. 5 ranking. In a game that’ll have a load of NFL talent on both rosters and two of college football’s finest tacticians engaging in a chess match, Notre Dame won’t get a chance to play for the national title, but they will take center stage on college football’s grandest day. That’ll allow Kelly to finally go head-to-head with a coach many feel is the era’s best, as his injury-plagued team goes for its 11th victory against, just the second time it could accomplish that feat since 1993.

A Fiesta Bowl win would serve as more than just a springboard for the Irish in 2016. It could also silence—once and for all—any of the nonsense that “almost” is as good as it gets in South Bend.

“We want to win the game,” Kelly said, noting just how unique “Team 127” was as it battled through a challenge-filled year. “It will be a satisfying season that we overcame a lot of things to get to this point. Probably for me the most enjoyable, with the group of kids that we had that just didn’t let anything get in their way. They just kept moving forward.”