And in that corner… The Ohio State Buckeyes


Notre Dame isn’t playing in the College Football Playoff. But any worry that the Irish were headed to a meaningless bowl game this January was dismissed when Notre Dame matched up with Ohio State. Urban Meyer’s 11-1 team fell short of defending their title when they lost to Michigan State in November, tumbling to the three seed of the Big Ten with the Spartans in the playoff and Iowa getting the Rose Bowl bid.

That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t the class of the Big Ten. They’ve got a collection of talent that rivals any program in the country. Ohio State has the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, led by All-American Joey Bosa. They’ve got the Big Ten’s best running back in Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett starting at quarterback (finally). And with Meyer’s staff filled with three former Brian Kelly assistants, there’s no shortage of connectivity between two programs vying for Midwestern supremacy.

To get us ready for the Buckeyes, we welcome in Bleacher Report’s Ben Axelrod. Now the Big Ten lead writer for B/R, Ben is a prolific tweeter, a Columbus native and Ohio State graduate. It’s tough to find anybody who knows more about the Buckeyes. At a busy time of year, Ben brought his A-game.

Hope you enjoy.


Is it possible to have a disappointing 11-1 season? Or perhaps more to the point, is it possible for an 11-1 team to underperform?

When you return as many starters from a national title team as the Buckeyes did and are expected to be even better than the year before, I think it’s definitely fair to call this season a disappointing one for Ohio State. The Buckeyes schedule was very manageable and they lost one of the two games they couldn’t afford to lose — on their own home field to a backup quarterback no less.

I will caveat this by saying that if your program is in a place where an 11-1 season that ends with a New Year’s Day Six bowl game is considered a “disappointment,” then your program is in a pretty good place. But all things considered, Ohio State didn’t live up to its expectations this season.


Let’s start with the biggest news of the past few weeks—the suspension of Adolphus Washington. He’s played more snaps than any other defensive lineman. He’s a top-five DT per CFF. And his replacements up front are a pretty clear step behind him. How important is this in the grand scheme of things, and how do you see the new Buckeyes defensive brain trust replacing him?

Anytime you lose a first-round talent, you’re obviously losing something and Adolphus Washington is no different. Washington had one of the better years of any play on the Ohio State defense and is still a player who could hear his name called in the first round of the draft.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that if there’s anywhere on their roster they could afford a hit, it’s on the defensive line. Not only is Ohio State deep up front, but it’s versatile as well. I’d anticipate that you’ll see Joey Bosa sliding inside to replace Washington and freshman All-American Sam Hubbard replacing Bosa outside, at least for the better part of the game.
It won’t be as dominant as the “rushmen” lineup the Buckeyes have used featuring Washington, Bosa, Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, but it should still give Ohio State plenty of pass rush ability without leaving itself susceptible against the run.

Offensively, this team seemed to grossly underperform. Is it as simple as putting it on the quarterbacks? Outside of Ezekiel Elliott, did this group reach expectations? And if not, what do you pin it on—quarterback choice, coaching turnover or something else?

The quarterbacks were definitely a big part of Ohio State’s struggles this season and the entire situation was something that seemed to hang over the entire team throughout the year. Between Urban Meyer’s indecisiveness and J.T. Barrett’s arrest, we were at a point where even heading into November, no one knew for sure who the full-time quarterback was.
An injury plagued wide receiver corps didn’t help either, nor did an offensive line that seemed to underperform compared to how it played in the playoff. But with the talent Meyer has recruited and the history these quarterbacks have already established, there’s no real excuse for the Buckeyes to have ranked 104th in the country this season.


Notre Dame’s offense is probably the best unit Ohio State will have faced this year—and it might not really be close. Is there an area you expect the Irish to attack?

It’d have to be up the middle. Ohio State’s secondary is good enough to hold its own and even without Washington, you would have to think the pass rush will be there. The Buckeyes have struggled against the run at times this season and the loss of Washington won’t help there. Even if Bosa is willing to do so, I can’t believe he’ll be Ohio State’s primary defensive tackle against the Fighting Irish.

Running quarterbacks in particular are something the Buckeyes have struggled with the season, so the more Notre Dame can get DeShone Kizer involved on the ground, the better its chances will be.


Even if the passing game is a bit of a work in progress, Ohio State’s running attack has been prolific. Do you see the Buckeyes trying to grind down Notre Dame’s front seven, or testing their secondary—a clear weakness for the Irish defense?

Meyer will always try to do a bit of both, but based on how Ohio State played against Michigan, I’d anticipate the ball being in either Elliott’s or Barrett’s hands for the majority of the game. That was definitely the best the Buckeyes offense has played all season and it probably wasn’t a coincidence Elliott and Barrett combined for 351 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
If Meyer can find some weaknesses in the secondary, he’ll definitely do his best to exploit them and Jalin Marshall has emerged as a quasi-deep threat, but regardless of what the Fighting Irish present, I’d expect Ohio State to rely on a heavy dose of its run game.


Urban Meyer is 49-4 in his time at Ohio State, doing historic things since showing up in Columbus. He’s done it against a watered down Big Ten and a conference with only Michigan State playing to its potential. But it’s still remarkable. How do you grade his performance this season?

In my opinion, it’s definitely the most disappointing of Meyer’s four seasons at Ohio State, which really doesn’t say much. The first year, he went 12-0 with a pretty lackluster roster by the Buckeyes standards, but wasn’t eligible to play in the postseason. In 2013, they went 12-0 in the regular season and were a win in the Big Ten title game away from playing in the BCS national title game. In 2014, he won the first College Football Playoff with a third-string quarterback. Even this year, heading into championship weekend, the Buckeyes felt like they had a chance with enough chaos to crash the playoff again.
This year, the quarterback situation was something Meyer had never dealt with before and even he’d admit he could’ve done better with it. I also think there’s something to the thought that a lot of these players already had their legacies established last winter and have been looking ahead to the NFL ever since. This may have been the most talented team Meyer has coached, but it also presented him with the most challenges. That Michigan State loss is going to sting him for a while, but through four years, Meyer’s track record in Columbus speaks for itself.


Fill in the blank:

If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is ______________ and the key on defense is ___________.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to ______________ and the defense failed to __________.

 If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is connecting on shots downfield and the key on defense is containing Deshone Kizer on the ground.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to establish Ezekiel Elliott and the defense failed to hold its own in the ground game.

Bowl Season Mailbag: Now Open


It’s been a while, so let’s reopen the mailbag.

There’s plenty to talk about, so if you have a question about the Fiesta Bowl, recruiting, who’s staying or going to the NFL, the coaching carousel, Season 2 of Fargo — I’m all ears.

It’s a Holiday Mailbag.

Notre Dame lands safety Devin Studstill

via Twitter

Notre Dame received a commitment from Florida defensive back Devin Studstill Tuesday evening, the 20th recruit in the 2016 class. Studstill made the news official on a local ESPN radio affiliate, giving the Irish one of Florida’s most talented and versatile defensive backs.

At 6’1″ and 180 pounds, Studstill picked Notre Dame over Texas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Miami, among other offers. He was one of the first defensive backs to get offered in the 2016 recruiting cycle by this Irish coaching staff and will be an early enrollee, set to arrive in South Bend in early January.

Studstill hails from the same high school that brought Notre Dame Te’von Coney. He’s been on campus multiple times, first visiting for the summer camp Irish Invasion before taking an official visit in October. Autry Denson was his main recruiter.

Studstill credited Showtime’s “A Season With Notre Dame” as a big factor in his commitment, a feather in the cap for Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff’s strategy of letting people inside the walls of the program.

Studstill brings another defensive back to a class that’s heavy at the position—a group that needs numbers as they prepare for the departure of Elijah Shumate and the potential loss of KeiVarae Russell. Notre Dame isn’t done chasing corners and safeties either, they’ll stay on national targets like Damar Hamlin and Jordan Fuller, who was on campus last weekend.

Studstill is Notre Dame’s fifth prospect from the state of Florida in the 2016 recruiting class, a group that showcases Notre Dame’s ability to still succeed there even without Tony Alford.

Russell’s potential fifth-year return requires an NCAA waiver


Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell has not announced his intentions for 2016. But if Russell wishes to return for a fifth-year in South Bend, he’ll require a waiver from the NCAA to do it.

Russell’s entanglement in the Frozen Five academic fiasco made his return to Notre Dame an accomplishment, with Russell on track to earn his diploma after serving a two semester academic suspension last year. But if the senior cornerback wants to play out his four seasons of competition for the Irish—and perhaps bolster his NFL Draft status in the process—he’ll need to ask the NCAA first.

“He’d have to appeal to get another year through the NCAA,” head coach Brian Kelly explained on Sunday. “We’re going to submit one, but it’ll have to be a wait and see.”

Notre Dame’s fifth-year process is much different than most universities. Each candidate applies for admission into graduate school, with each student-athlete having his undergraduate degree work complete. We’ve seen players like Joe Schmidt, Nick Martin and Matthias Farley return as graduate students. We’ve seen many others—Everett Golson the most high-profile—leave and play out their eligibility elsewhere.

The deadline to declare for the NFL Draft for underclassmen is January 18. Notre Dame expects to hear back from the NCAA on their waiver before that date, so Russell isn’t put into a precarious situation where he’ll need to gamble on his future.

Heading into this season, the prevailing sentiment—with Russell all but saying it from the day he returned to South Bend—was that this was the cornerback’s final season in college football. Projected as an early round pick, Russell may have been Notre Dame’s most dependable defensive back, but he was hardly bullet proof, with opposing quarterbacks completing 34 of 60 throws his way, per CFB Film Room’s analysis. Add in Russell’s recovery from a significant leg injury and losing time to train for the scouting combine in Indianapolis and a return for a fifth season might make good business sense.

Notre Dame’s coaching staff plans on having discussions with all senior and fifth-year candidates in the near future. Neither Kelly nor Russell has discussed the cornerback’s future status, other than to say that the senior will not be healthy enough to play against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.


Zaire back to practice, but won’t play against Ohio State


Malik Zaire‘s recovery from an ankle injury is ahead of schedule. The junior quarterback returned to practice this week and worked in seven-on-seven drills, Brian Kelly revealed on Saturday afternoon.

“Malik is taking some reps and he’s well ahead of schedule,” Kelly said Saturday. “He will not play, but he is in there taking reps and has been phenomenal in terms of the way he has gotten back, moving around and throwing the football.”

Zaire’s return to practice points to a healthy spring for the returning quarterback, a key objective after badly breaking his ankle in just the second game of the season. And while Kelly wasn’t willing to commit Zaire to helping on the scout team as the Irish look to replicate J.T. Barrett’s skill-set, Zaire getting into the mix now allows him to return to a positional depth chart that may find this season’s opening day starter chasing his understudy.

The season started brightly for Zaire. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns against Texas. While he struggled passing in his first road start against Virginia—completing less than 50 percent of his throws—he was averaging nearly nine yards a carry when his season ended.

In his place, Kizer won nine football games, pulling out the victory against the Cavaliers with a late-game touchdown pass to Will Fuller. He rallied the Irish three more times in the fourth quarter, finishing the regular season with 19 touchdown passes against nine interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his throws and rushing for nine scores.

Kelly expects to have a formidable depth chart this spring, with Brandon Wimbush also getting time to develop during bowl preparations. Kelly talked about the meaningful reps Wimbush will receive this week as being helpful to his development, meaning both quarterbacks who saw limited on-field action are ahead of the game heading into 2016.