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What's Left of Notre Dame Loses Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State

Fairly gutsy effort to hang around, but ND just didn't have the manpower on New Year's Day.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

You can X and O and scheme and talk about motivation, but at the end of the day, a fully healthy Ohio State, probably the most talented team in the country, was always going to beat what was essentially a 3rd-string Notre Dame team with a couple of starters sprinkled in. And that's what happened in a 44-28 Buckeyes' win that was never a full-on boatracing, but was also never really in doubt.

For about 2 days there, after Ohio State lost two starting defensive linemen for the game, one to injury and one to suspension, it looked like the Irish might finally have something resembling a manpower advantage for a game for the first time this season, but then Devin Butler broke his foot, Max Redfield broke curfew, Jerry Tillery got booted, and Sheldon Day, while he played, also got injured. That left ND with a skeleton crew on defense against some of the best players in the country, which only got worse when Jaylon Smith ended his ND career (in all likelihood) with what sadly looked like a bad leg injury on what looked like a fairly needless shove from a Buckeye early in the game. That was followed later by Te'von Coney, Smith's replacement, suffering an arm injury. At one point, ND put #55 on the field on defense, which I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen play all year. (The roster tells me it's Jonathan Bonner. I guess I'll take its word for it.)

And it was clear from the start that the Buckeyes' offense was going to be too much for that version of ND on this day. Even without feeding Ezekiel Elliott as much as they probably should have, Ohio State moved up and down the field on the Irish, only really getting stopped when Jarron Jones forced J.T. Barrett into an interception early in the second half, with the game in danger of getting out of hand. The Irish showed a fair bit of fortitude - the defining trait of this team - from that point on to keep the game from ever turning into a blowout (hi, Will Fuller!), but the Buckeyes were able to keep them at arm's length throughout.

ND caught a bit of a break when Joey Bosa got tossed out of the game for targeting after a Buckeye interception, a technically correct call on what didn't particularly look like a dirty play. That seemed to spark the Irish offense to some extent, and ND was able to move the ball adequately against the Buckeyes the rest of the game. One bright spot was the Irish's red zone performance, which delivered TDs every time inside the 20, a main reason the game was as close as it was.

What did we learn? Not much. Brian VanGorder again cooked up a defensive scheme that had ND down 14-0 before the first quarter was halfway over. Brian Kelly didn't seem to have the Irish as ready to play as outside indicators might have led us to believe. But Urban Meyer is one of the best two coaches in the country, so it's not terribly surprising that he did a better job than his counterparts on the ND sideline either. BVG is 0-for-2 on delivering an even tolerable ND defense, but there are no indications he's going anywhere. Irish fans will just have to hope Kelly and Mike Sanford can keep delivering a good offense - and hope that maybe an ND defense can be somewhat healthy so it can at least be the best version of itself.

End of the day, this was a successful Notre Dame football season, as a team that absolutely had to have a good season to keep the program on solid ground did so despite the most absurd run of horrible injury luck in the history of the sport. Even after everything that happened, ND was essentially 2 bad breaks/mistakes (Corey Robinson's end-zone drop on a long bomb from Kizer at Clemson and Kizer's fumble in the red zone before halftime at Stanford) from a 12-0 record and #1 seed in the playoff. The bowl result stings - as always for ND in major bowls since 1/1/94 - but there's evidence things are going the right direction. Maybe some of the bad luck that befell the Irish last year will swing the other way in 2016. I just know I really wouldn't mind it being Sept. 3 right now, which wasn't something I would have said after last year.