Though Ohio State‘s bowl game is not in the playoffs, it still is an elite game versus a very good opponent. What must be done for each team to win and who will be the winner?
Tomorrow’s Fiesta Bowl has a familiar ring to it — Fighting Irish, Buckeyes, the desert. There are shades of 2006 all over the place. We have already covered the key match ups and how Ohio State can overcome key missing pieces on defense. Now it is time to finally pick a winner. So, how can either team claim victory on New Year’s Day?
For Notre Dame, they need to move the ball on the ground. Both running back C.J. Prosise and quarterback DeShone Kizer have proven to be a winning combination on the ground all season, while running behind a very good offensive line, headlined by tackle Ronnie Stanley.
Ohio State has struggled much of the year to stop the run, which is why the Buckeyes had to settle for the Fiesta Bowl and not one of the playoff games on New Year’s Eve. Aside from a few strong outings (Michigan, Minnesota, Rutgers), the Buckeye run defense has been suspect for most of the year.
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Add to that the fact that defensive linemen Adolphus Washington‘s arrest and Tommy Schutt‘s injury will cause a jumbled rotation up front. The changes in the rotation could force Joey Bosa to slide inside far more often than Buckeye fans would like. If Notre Dame can take a page from the Michigan State blueprint on how to beat Ohio State, the Fighting Irish could pull off the upset.
Additionally, Notre Dame will have to get wide receiver William Fuller involved in their passing game. With one of the best pass defenses in the country, it could be tough sledding for Notre Dame if they cannot get Fuller involved. Without Fuller threatening the secondary, Ohio State can roll their safeties up and reinforce a makeshift defensive line. But if Fuller, who averages over 20 yards per catch, can break loose, Ohio State will have to maintain balance on defense, which could open up running lanes.
The Irish defense also needs to step up their game. An average unit at best, they have allowed only 22.4 points per game. What they have allowed though, is a whopping 166.5 yards per game on the ground, which is worse than such defensive juggernauts at Army and Arkansas State.
Ohio State wants to run the ball and everyone knows running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best at his poisition in the country. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day will have to play the games of their lives to stop a Buckeye rushing attack that racked up 241.9 yards per game on the ground.
The Buckeyes, though, cannot win just by showing up. I wrote about it before, but the Buckeye linebackers have to contain Kizer. He is the engine that makes the Notre Dame offense go. Even if the line contains Prosise, Kizer has shown week in and week out that he can make plays on the move.
It is up to players such as linebackers Raekwon McMillan, Darron Lee, and Joshua Perry to limit what Kizer can do once he rolls out or scrambles out of the pocket. Should Kizer break loose, he can cause serious problems even for a defense as fast as the Silver Bullets.
Offensively, Ohio State needs to take advantage of a soft Irish run defense. However, the Buckeyes cannot just ram the ball down their throats. Quarterback Cardale Jones had the eye popping results in last year’s bowl games because defenses fully committed fully to stop Elliott on the ground.
Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett has struggled at times in the air, but the Irish are going to be without a couple of defensive backs. When you factor in the way that they may need to load the box against the Buckeye running attack, Barrett has to take advantage of man coverage on the outside with wide receivers Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall.
The X-Factor might be none other than H-Back Braxton Miller, who could have one more magic moment to cement his place in Buckeye history. He has always stepped up in big games and big moments. If Miller gets matched up with a linebacker or a reserve corner out of the slot, he may present the best mismatch for Barrett to exploit in the passing game. Yet, none of that can happen without establishing the run.
Lastly, Barrett has to be the Barrett we all know he can be. He cannot be the player who struggled to find his form until cementing his place as the starter down the stretch. Remember, Barrett did not play in the postseason last year. Even with The Game in Ann Arbor this year, he has never played a game on a bigger stage than this one in Glendale, Arizona.
How will he respond — will the good Barrett show up? Will he be the player that punishes teams off of his zone reads? Or is Barrett going to try to aim his throws and think too much like he did against Michigan State?
Yes, Elliott will be the focal point of the Ohio State offense. If Barrett cannot find success both with his legs and with his arm, it could be a long day for the Buckeye offense. Ohio State needs Barrett to put his foot on the gas to continue his strong play down the stretch (save for that stinker of an outing against Sparty, of course).
Now who is going to win?
Elliott will go over 200 yards en route to being named the Fiesta Bowl’s MVP. Notre Dame is not good at stopping the run and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer will go after that weakness often with reckless abandon. Kizer should have a great, not good, but great game, with a couple of costly turnovers.
I see this game ending somewhere around 35-31 with the Buckeyes taking home the win. However, the seven point spread is a little too much. Though I favor Ohio State (call me a homer if you want), this game will be decided by more than four points. I do not have much of an explanation — I really do not. Call it a gut feeling, a vibe, a twinge in my brain. That is fine. Both defenses have looked suspect at times during the year.
Yet, with so many weeks to prepare, coaches like Meyer and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly will come out with all sorts of creative ways to attack.
There is no way I am comfortable predicting a blow out and would not be surprised if the Buckeyes trail early as Meyer gets a feel for what Kelly draws up.