GLENDALE, Ariz. – Before No. 7 Ohio State took the field to close out its 2015 season with a 44-28 victory over No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz laid out five things they would be looking out for. Here are how those five elements transpired.
Notre Dame got the ball first to start the game and were given the gift of OSU redshirt senior Jack Willoughby sending the kickoff out of bounds. It was exactly what Brian Kelly wanted for his team, but the Fighting Irish could not convert that into a quick start, as they would have hoped.
Instead, Notre Dame went three-and-out.
For OSU, it was night-and-day different.
The Buckeyes took over possession at their own 20-yard line and surgically marched down the field. Redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller had 36 all-purpose yards and Ezekiel Elliott punched it in from 2 yards out to cap off a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in just 3:01.
“Obviously their first series was outstanding,” Kelly said. “They ran the ball effectively right down the field. So I just think that they executed very well early on.”
From the get-go, it was clear the Buckeyes suffered from no cobwebs. The Fighting Irish, again, went three-and-out, including a false start penalty, forcing another punt.
Just three plays later, the Scarlet and Gray found the end zone for the second time, this time courtesy of a 15-yard catch-and-run by redshirt junior wide receiver Michael Thomas.
Notre Dame was able to claw back into game throughout the rest of play, getting it down to just a one-score deficit, at 28-21, but its ice-cold start, compared to OSU’s flaming hot one, clearly hindered the Fighting Irish.
“It was the difference in the game really, those 14 points early,” Kelly said. “We had to play catch-up from there.”
In postseason play, teams will often look to trick plays of sorts to try and catch their opponent off guard. That was the case in the Fiesta Bowl, however, it was only just once.
Down 14-0, with 9:22 left in the second quarter, redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer threw a backward pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who, instead of advancing forward, took a step back and looked to throw.
Hunter had an open man in the end zone, tight end Alizé Jones, but the throw had slightly too much on it, as it fell incomplete just beyond Jones’ reach.
Although the play was unsuccessful, it showed that Kelly was trying to find any way to kickstart his team after the sluggish start.
OSU, for the most part, avoided any sort of trickery, but some unusual route combinations did appear at times throughout the game, notably on Thomas’ 13-yard catch on the first drive of the second half.
End of the road
The victory over Notre Dame gave the 18 members of OSU’s senior class 50 career wins, the most in program history. Although it couldn’t secure a second consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff, the Fiesta Bowl win was still a good final chapter for the group.
“I am glad we got that win for them,” sophomore defensive end Jalyn Holmes said following the game.
Many of the seniors that saw the field on Friday were instrumental in the outcome.
Linebacker Joshua Perry’s seven tackles were tied for the team-high. On the offensive line, left tackle Taylor Decker was key, like usual, in excavating large holes for Elliott to run through and protecting Barrett. Right tackle Chase Farris, who at times has struggled during the year, turned in a solid performance, as well.
As for Miller, one of the most decorated players in OSU history, his final showing in scarlet and gray was certainly not a bad one. The win marked the first postseason victory he was active for and, after disappearing at times during the season, Miller made his presence felt Friday.
He finished with 26 rushing yards on two attempts, as well as two catches for 12 yards. Miller didn’t display any wicked spin moves like he did against Virginia Tech, but, all things considered, his OSU finale was a good one.
Holmes said the senior class will be missed and that there is “so many” who have left their marks on the program, not only because of their performances on the field, but for the lessons they have taught off it.
“All the seniors try to just help someone out in any way,” he said. “Chase Farris, (defensive tackle) Joel Hale, Joshua Perry, they all try and help on and off the field. That’s what made them so special.”
Barrett’s big-stage debut
After missing out on postseason play last year, Friday’s Fiesta Bowl was Barrett’s bowl debut. The redshirt sophomore has not been known to melt under the bright lights, but wondering how he might respond to such a large stage was a valid question.
He answered them soundly, ultimately winning the game’s most valuable player award.
Barrett started the game with an eight-yard completion to Thomas, and from there, he continued to facilitate the offense exceptionally. He completed his first seven pass attempts for 82 yards and one score. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native also ran for 16 yards during the 7-of-7 stretch.
Overall, Barrett finished the game 19-of-31 for 211 yards and one touchdown through the air, while also picking up 96 yards on the ground. He did have one interception in the third quarter after his pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but, for the most part, Barrett’s performance was very efficient.
He showed no signs of the big stage making him crumble. After the game, Barrett praised the Notre Dame defense, but he said the key to the offense’s success was just taking whatever was given to them.
“They tried to make sure they took away our (deep) shots,” Barrett said. “We was able to try to hit things underneath. (We) did a good job of that.”
Finding help up the middle
With two starters on the interior defensive line out for OSU, there was plenty of attention centered on how it would compensate. The solution, it appeared, was to slide junior defensive end Joey Bosa into that position frequently alongside a rotation of other defensive tackles.
But then, the solution once again became a problem, as Bosa was ejected after a targeting call with 5:26 left in the first quarter. It was a huge blow for the OSU defense, which, prior to the penalty, had just intercepted Kizer.
The interception was negated and from there, OSU was forced to play without three usual starters on the D-line.
Even so, the defense was able to limit the damage done up the middle, as it held the Fighting Irish to just 121 rushing yards. Kizer, who OSU was focused on slowing down on the ground, finished with just 21 yards on 15 attempts.
“It just speaks of the program,” Holmes said about the defense still being able to be effective despite not having three starters. “It’s just a ‘next man up’ program. I feel like we played great. We did what he had to do to get the win.”