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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

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Fifteen years after leaving Notre Dame as a wide receivers coach Urban Meyer finally gets to face the Irish as a head coach.

J.T. Barrett, always chill on the field.
J.T. Barrett, always chill on the field.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

osu helmet

Ohio State (-6.5) vs. Notre Dame

2016 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl

University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

Kickoff: 1:00 PM ET

Date: Friday, January 1, 2016

Television: ESPN

Series: 3-2-0 Ohio State

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this Friday's Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

5 Factoids

All-Americans

Last year the Fiesta Bowl featured 2 AP All-Americans in Boise State running back Jay Ajayi (3rd team) and Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright (1st team). This year's edition has a little more high-end talent.

Ohio State's AP All-Americans include offensive tackle Taylor Decker (1st team), safety Vonn Bell (1st team), running back Ezekiel Elliott (2nd team), offensive guard Pat Elflein (2nd team), and defensive end Joey Bosa (2nd team), while Notre Dame features linebacker Jaylon Smith (1st team), offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (2nd team), receiver Will Fuller (2nd team), and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (2nd team).

Post-season Records

Since coming to FBS in 2004 this marks Brian Kelly's 9th post-season game among a 5-3 record in such contests. He has wins in the (season they were played) 2006 International Bowl, 2007 Papa John's Bowl, 2010 Sun Bowl, 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, and 2014 Music City Bowl. Losses came in the 2008 Orange Bowl, 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, and the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Kelly brought his team to, but did not coach, in the 2006 Motor City Bowl (W) and 2009 Sugar Bowl (L).

Urban Meyer will be looking for his 10th post-season win among an overall 9-2 record. He has wins in the 2003 Liberty Bowl, 2004 Fiesta Bowl, 2005 Outback Bowl, 2006 BCS National Championship Game, 2008 BCS National Championship Game, 2009 Sugar Bowl, 2010 Outback Bowl, 2014 Sugar Bowl, and 2014 College Football Playoff National Championship. Losses came in the 2007 Capital One Bowl and 2013 Orange Bowl.

Kelly and Meyer were scheduled to face each other in the Sugar Bowl following the 2009 season before Kelly left to take the Notre Dame job. More on this below.

Even Things Up

This will be the 6th meeting between Ohio State and Notre Dame, quite an unbelievably small number for two major schools just over 250 miles apart and sharing a state border. Most will remember the Fiesta Bowl matchup after the 2005 season and before that the schools had only played in a pair of home-and-home contests.

The original meeting in 1935 was dubbed the first "Game of the Century and saw the Irish score 18 points in the 4th quarter for the win in Columbus. The Buckeyes took the next year's game 7-2 in South Bend. The 1995-96 series during the last two seasons of the Lou Holtz era saw the Irish lose both games to a couple Top 10 John Cooper-led Ohio State squads.

More With Less?

Notre Dame's injuries are well documented with the starting quarterback, running back, and tight end all missing nearly all of the regular season. Still, the Irish head into the bowl game averaging 34.8 points per game which stands as the 9th best mark in school history. For the school record Notre Dame would need to score at least 73 points in the Fiesta Bowl.

Ohio State averaged 35.0 points per game but against a softer schedule. Both FEI and S&P rank the Irish offense 6th nationally while the Buckeyes are ranked 26th and 14th respectively.

Low Turnovers Forced

Neither of these defenses have been all that good at causing turnovers this year. On their march to the 2014 title the Buckeyes caused 33 turnovers in 15 games but have only forced 19 turnovers in 12 games this year.

Notre Dame hasn't been able to shake out of their Brian Kelly Era tug between being average at forcing turnovers then being poor. This year, the Irish went right back to dreadful with just 13 forced turnovers in 12 games. Only Stanford, Oregon State, Miss State, Wake Forest, and Michigan forced less among Power 5 programs.

4 Players to Watch

HB Jalin Marshall

The redshirt sophomore was the top recuit in the state of Ohio back in 2013 and played a key role (983 all-purpose yards) in the Buckeyes' run to the National Championship last year. Marshall missed the opener due to suspension and hasn't quite matched last year's production due to OSU spreading the ball around more with the addition of jack-of-all-trades former quarterback Braxton MIller.

Still, Marshall is a dangerous receiver with 69 receptions, 947 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 26 career games. He's also one of the premier punt returners in the country with 589 yards through 2 years of play.

WR Michael Thomas

Those around the Ohio State program think the loss of receiver Devin Smith (37th overall to the Jets) and his insane 28.2 average and 12 touchdowns on just 33 receptions really hurt the Buckeyes ability to stretch the field and open up the run game this year. For reference, OSU is throwing for 60 fewer yards per game and the YPA has fallen from 9.1 (7th nationally) to 7.6 for 2015.

Don't overlook redshirt junior Michael Thomas, though. He's caught at least one ball in every single OSU game over the last 2 years and is currently on a 28-game catch streak overall. While not as explosive as Devin Smith, the consistency from Thomas has been impressive. He's hauled in 49 receptions for 709 yards and 8 touchdowns this year after totaling 54 receptions, 799 yards, and 9 touchdowns in 2014.

LB Raekwon McMillan

The former 5-star and No. 2 recuit in the state of Georgia from the 2014 class now starts at middle linebacker after a freshman All-American season last fall that saw McMillan total 54 tackles and 6.5 TFL. He's flanked on each side by redshirt sophomore Darron Lee and senior Joshua Perry to form one of the nation's best linebacker units.

This season, McMillan leads Ohio State with 114 tackles and has chipped in 4 TFL, 5 quarterback hurries, and broken up 4 passes.

S Vonn Bell

Ohio State dipped into Georgia back in 2013 as well picking up 5-star Vonn Bell who forced his way onto the field as a true freshman at the nickel position and has started at safety for the past two seasons. As mentioned he was named an All-American this year and has totaled 155 tackles, 8 interceptions, and 15 pass break ups since the start of 2014.

3 Concerns

Red Zone Turnovers

Both Notre Dame and Ohio State have totaled 50 red zone opportunities this season with the Buckeyes scoring 33 touchdowns and the Irish 28 touchdowns. That 5 touchdown discrepancy is the difference between the 38th and 90th touchdown percentage in the country.

With all the talk about fixing the red zone offense focused largely on play-calling let's not forget Notre Dame was -6 in red zone turnover differential compared to Ohio State. The Irish threw 5 interceptions and lost 3 fumbles in the red zone while the Buckeyes did not throw any interceptions and lost 2 fumbles.

Zeke

The Irish have done well containing running backs all season and are coming off a valiant effort against Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey. Although the Stanford back has some gaudy stats Ezekiel Elliott may be the best pure running back Notre Dame has faced since Leonard Fournette in last year's bowl game. And Elliott's numbers aren't too shabby, either. He's got back-to-back 1,600+ yard seasons and 3,550 yards with 37 touchdowns since 2014. That two-year rushing total would leave Elliott just 581 yards short of Notre Dame's all-time school record, for reference.

The Secondary

Things weren't all peaches 'n' cream heading into this week's bowl game before we learned of the suspension of starting safety Max Redfield and broken foot for starting corner Devin Butler. Now, sophomore Nick Watkins will be making his first career start with his 5 career tackles in tow.

Thank God for veterans Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, and Cole Luke still being healthy. But if one of them go down, especially at safety, it could be a debacle.

2 Sides of the Ball

Ohio State's offensive line has played the entire 2015 season together and features the aforementioned All-Americans in senior LT Taylor Decker (6-8, 315) and redshirt junior RG Pat Elflein (6-3, 300). Decker will be making his 42nd straight start and Elflein his 28th straight start.

The other linemen include redshirt sophomore LG Billy Price (6-4, 315), redshirt junior C Jacoby Boren (6-2, 285), and 5th-year senior RT Chase Farris (6-5, 310). Both Price and Boren are second-year starters making their 28th straight starts while Farris is a first-year starter.

Fiesta Stats

Despite the presence of All-American and possible top NFL pick in junior defensive end Joey Bosa (6-6, 275) the situation along the defensive line for the Buckeyes is the clear team weakness heading into the Fiesta Bowl. For his part, Bosa's numbers are a little down from 2014 but he's still dominant with 47 tackles, 16 TFL, 5 sacks, plus his quarterback hurries exploded to 14 this year. He was suspended from the opener and played in only 11 games so far.

Due to the suspension of senior DT Adolphus Washington (6-4, 290) and foot injury of senior DT Tommy Schutt (6-3, 290) the options are limited on the interior. Washington would've been making his 32nd career start and totaled 49 tackles, 7 TFL, and 4 sacks this year. Schutt would be making his 10th career start and totaled 25 tackles, 5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks in 2015.

There are 9 other tackles on scholarship for the Buckeyes but 4 of them are true freshmen currently taking a redshirt. Fifth-year senior Joel Hale (6-4, 295) should be the next man in after bouncing back and forth from the O-line throughout his career. He's made 3 starts in 2015 and has 12 tackles. Redshirt sophomore Michael Hill (6-3, 295) should see his snap count increased with his 10 tackles and 0.5 TFL this year.

Redshirt sophomore Tracy Sprinkle (6-3, 290), sophomore Donovan Munger (6-4, 300), and redshirt freshman Dylan Thompson (6-5, 275) have all played sparingly with Sprinkle's 3 tackles the only ink on the stat sheet for these players.

There are more options at defensive end which is why Bosa is going to see some time on the interior. Redshirt sophomore Tyquan Lewis (6-4, 260) made 11 starts this year with 53 tackles, 13 TFL, and 7 sacks. Former Notre Dame lacrosse commit and redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard (6-5, 265) started for Bosa in the opener and has played significant snaps with 24 tackles, 7 TFL, and 5.5 sacks. Sophomore Jalyn Holmes (6-5, 265) is another trusted option with 10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and 1 sack.

1 Prediction

Earlier this season in one of my game previews I explained why I try not to get tied down into over-analyzing statistics, comparing positional units, and looking at ways individual players could overwhelm inferior talent lining up across from them. This is my starting point for doing any research but eventually I have to let it go and try to look at a bigger picture.

This is never more true than during bowl season when forces, both internal and external, can wreak havoc on a program over a month-long break from the grind and habit of game week.

Looking at the numbers and the talent on each side it's not difficult to envision a scenario where Notre Dame wins this game. The Irish offensive line can have its way with the depleted Buckeye interior, the run game remains productive, and the pass game hits a few deep shots to post a big number on the scoreboard. Defensively, the safeties play well in the box, Notre Dame does enough to slow down OSU's run game, and they don't get killed by mental errors and a handful of crippling big plays.

That seems like the mostly likely scenario for an Irish win. Or, who knows, maybe the Notre Dame defense doesn't play all that well and is saved by 5 touchdowns from Will Fuller anyway?

In the lead up to the bowl I've been asking myself 3 questions which I believe will prove pivotal to the outcome of this game:

  • What are the odds that Kelly out-coaches Meyer?
  • What are the odds Ohio State isn't THAT good?
  • What are the odds Ohio State isn't highly motivated?

Normally, I don't like to make great sweeping generalizations about people getting out-coached. It's a phrase that gets thrown around far too often when in reality it's just something generic that fans like to blurt, typically absent of any context of how the game played out.

In regards to Kelly v. Meyer it's more about if Notre Dame can come prepared to face a coach that has been one of the best in history in taking a month to engineer a post-season victory. Last year's plan against LSU was terrific but the stakes are higher now, the opponent is better, and the coach is better.

The last two questions go hand-in-hand for me. There's been plenty of talk about how Ohio State hasn't impressed this year and aren't as good as people make them about to be, Part of that depends upon who 'they' are and how good they're making Ohio State out to be in the first place. That's a really varied discussion.

There's plenty of truth to the discussion that the Buckeyes largely haven't performed like the defending National Champions and have disappointed relative to their expectations. However, I think this is a little different than talking strictly about their talent level, specifically since they're a month removed the regular season.

This isn't like we're dealing with Auburn who came into the season with Top 10 expectations based on an unproven quarterback projected to become one of the nation's best, a defense doing a complete 180, and a bunch of other things needing to turn around for the Tigers. No, this is an Ohio State team that returned the bulk of their squad from last year's devastating National Championship run.

Yet, we know not every season ever comes close to the same as the year before and that definitely has been the case for the Buckeyes. But why?

  1. Championship Hangover
  2. Quarterback Controversy
  3. Coaching Changes

Here are the 3 main reasons why a team stocked with proven talent isn't taking part in today's College Football Playoffs to defend their title.

The tug of war between quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones obviously neutered the offense, prevented growth over the season, and did who knows what to the chemistry in the locker room--after all Barrett was named a team captain only to find himself on the bench to begin the season.

This dysfunction was exacerbated by losing offensive wunderkind Tom Herman as play-caller and going to a pair of new co-offensive coordinators who really did not show themselves worthy of that much responsibility.

The hangover from 2014 is even more explainable and proof yet again that even the best coaches struggle to repeat because it's hard to keep everyone hungry once you've reached the summit. Plus, anyone could have looked at Ohio State's schedule and surmised they might not be going full throttle from week 1 when no one was going to be in the same zip code of their talent until late November.

Add in a pinch of some guys likely with a foot out the door to the NFL and the Buckeyes sleepwalked through 2015, ultimately paying the price against Michigan State. Yet, they looked alive against Michigan.

Perhaps the question is which is the 'real' 2015 Ohio State--the one that had some ups and downs over an 11-game span, or the one that showed up in ill mood against Harbaugh? Given that choice most would take the larger sample size as proof.

The problem is that 2015 Ohio State is not about to embark on another 11-game schedule. If they were they might be able to gel more with J.T. Barrett at quarterback but for the most part they're stuck with the coaches, culture, and issues they've had all season and over time it might be difficult to reboot with the same players.

One game, on a national stage, is a different story. I won't be surprised if Notre Dame wins but I'll be very surprised if an Urban Meyer team--with a month to prepare for his first game against the Irish--comes out unmotivated or shows that, despite their talent, they're really not that great.

There are some interesting parallels between this Ohio State team and Meyer's 2009 Florida squad. Each were coming off a National Championship, returning the bulk of their starters, and were pre-season No. 1 overwhelming favorites. Florida saw big playmaker Percy Harvin jump to the NFL while Ohio State lost Devin Smith. Both lost their offensive coordinators (Dan Mullen, UF & Tom Herman OSU) in the off-season to head coaching jobs and replaced them with underwhelming offensive line coaches (Steve Addazio, UF & Ed Warinner OSU).

By most measures, that Florida team (finished a clear No. 2 in F/+ behind Alabama) was still more dominant than this Ohio State team but the Gators generally underwhelmed given expectations with 5 games won by 10 points or less, and even though they went 12-0, they were soundly beaten by Alabama in the SEC Championship. All year, disappointment and discontent followed that Gators team around, ultimately bringing us Urban Meyer's aborted attempt to resign only to come back for the bowl game and 2010 season before finally pulling the plug on the program.

Tebow Cry

Tebow cried, Meyer nearly quit, but those tears were taken out on Cincinnati while Kelly recruited for ND.

A handful of days after stepping down and then not stepping down the Gators found themselves up 37-3 in the middle of the 3rd quarter in the Sugar Bowl.

***

I'd really like for Brian Kelly to beat Urban Meyer. It would be so delicious and filling. From the Notre Dame perspective I'd argue it'd be fair if we won and that maybe we even deserve this moment. The Irish clawed their way through injuries to get to 10 wins against a tough schedule, while OSU coasted most of the season on reputation and kind of just floats into Glendale with their 11-1 record.

At the very least, I think Kelly deserves this. I don't hold the same blood lust for Meyer as some and have never truly seriously thought about him taking the Notre Dame job, but the fact remains that one guy jumped at the chance to come to South Bend while the other jerked the Irish around on a couple occasions over a 6-year period.

Beating Ohio State on Friday won't suddenly make Brian Kelly in the same tier of a coach as Urban Meyer. Like hell if it wouldn't close the ranks around this program, prove to anyone willing to listen that Kelly is OUR guy, and put to bed any second thoughts that this wasn't an excellent hire for Notre Dame, though. It'd just be a great moment.

Had we been lining up against someone like Iowa this would be closer to just another data point about the 2015 Irish than anything else. I still contend that type of game, win or lose, doesn't move the needle too much in either direction whereas with Ohio State there's much more volatile repercussions. With a loss against OSU not so much because of what's at stake (this frames it like we should win or have to win which I don't agree with), but rather, what's dangling in front of Notre Dame with a win. Missing out on that will be painful.

Maybe we're due for this moment but college football doesn't deal in fairness.

I think we'll play well. Offensively, I can't say I'm too worried about much besides a crippling turnover or two. This unit has been able to consistently move the ball and maintain the best balance of the Kelly era. Ohio State missing their starting defensive tackles doesn't feel like an overwhelming loss for them but it's a nice little extra edge for Notre Dame.

If you ranked all 22 starters from each side (or included a few more who play a lot) I'm certain the DT position where Bosa won't play is near the bottom of the list. Yet, the rest of the bottom would be littered with some players from Notre Dame's back seven.

Ohio State has found more success in heavy sets while running the ball but what if they spread Notre Dame out? What if they switch back and forth when we almost literally don't even have a nickel corner available--unless receiver Torii Hunter and his 5 defensive snaps is someone we're going to count on?

The Buckeyes have to be licking their chops with 34 days to prepare for this.

There's hope the defensive line dominates, VanGorder concocts a masterful game plan, and the safeties play the game of their lives. That's just too much faith when I haven't seen this defense step up against this kind of talent. A win would be phenomenal but I'm not predicting one.

Notre Dame 24

Ohio State 35

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