When Ohio State and Notre Dame square off in Maricopa County on New Year's Day, there will be a lot to talk about. Two of the most successful and tradition-filled programs in all of college sports so rarely do battle on a national stage, and getting these two teams together, even if it isn't for a potentially greater prize, is a prize in and of itself to them, and to us, the fans and viewers of such a game.
The more interesting thing, however, is what a difference 10 points can make. For two potent offenses, 10 points isn't a whole lot to worry about, in theory. But for the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish, 10 points were the difference between meeting in a Fiesta Bowl, and potentially meeting in a national semifinal.
Ohio State, of course, lost to Michigan State by three points back in November. If it adds four points to the total against Sparty, (and we'll for this exercise's purposes assume a Big Ten Championship victory over Iowa for this scenario) the Buckeyes are in the playoff. The Irish, on the other hand, lost to Clemson by two, and to Stanford by two, both games on the road, the first in the middle of a hurricane*. Add three points to both games (or maybe just one, since Stanford and Clemson are ranked ahead of the Irish) and it's a safe bet that Notre Dame would at least be knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, if not in it.
*Note: I don't give Notre Dame an ounce of credit for losing in those conditions, anymore than I give Clemson credit for winning in those conditions. Weather doesn't matter to me in many situations, and the same goes for the tough conditions for Ohio State/Michigan State -- you play the hand you're dealt; your opponent does the same.
But here we are. No playoff implications, no second game to play for, just two teams hanging out in Glendale, AZ and playing some football. The last time these two teams met, in the Fiesta Bowl in 2006, the winner, Ohio State, used that game to springboard to a rather eventful 2006-2007 season, which culminated in an undefeated regular season and a heartbreaking loss in the then BCS National Championship -- also in Glendale. Certainly the winner of this game will get some early love in the polls next year, and won't have to spend an offseason wondering what could have been (the winter/spring/summer after the Clemson game was as dreadful as you remember it).
As previously stated, Notre Dame lost two games this year by a combined four points; that's rough, especially in hindsight. But in both of those games, the Irish were victim to a few things that Ohio State must exploit in order emerge victorious in the Fiesta Bowl.
Get ahead early
In their first loss of the season, Notre Dame went to Death Valley ranked No. 6 in the country, playing against a Clemson team that had yet to crack the top 10, and was still expected to engage in their semiannual surprise loss that would wind up ending their season short of the ultimate peak. Little did we know then that Clemson would go on a tear to take the top seed in the College Football Playoff. But against that Clemson team, Notre Dame found itself down big, 14-3 at the half, and eventually 21-3. A late, furious comeback was almost enough, but a missed two-point conversion that would have tied the game with seven seconds to play fell wanting, and the Irish were handed loss one of the year.
Similarly, against Stanford, the then-and-still No. 6 Irish fell into another hole early, going down 14-7 in the first quarter, and staying down 21-20 at the half. Both teams traded points, but an improbably late field goal gave Stanford the win, and paved the way for the Cardinal to head to the Rose Bowl. Just like against Clemson, the early lead was enough, in the end, to bury Notre Dame.
This is an Irish team that can, obviously, fight back when called upon to do so, but in the interest of giving an inch and taking a mile, the best case scenario for the Buckeyes would be to put up some points early. On the year, the Buckeyes hold a 59-20 edge in first quarter scoring, posting eight first quarter shutouts, including five straight to end the season. But the Buckeyes were also held scoreless in four first quarters this season, and only broke double digit scoring in quarter one way back on Labor Day against Virginia Tech.
Win the turnover battle
This one should be obvious, but for this year's Buckeyes, it hasn't always been easy. It took the entire year to do it, but Ohio State actually did finish with a +2 turnover margin, a statistic that wasn't too kind for the majority of the year. Turnovers are huge momentum swingers, and their importance can't be overstated. This is a Buckeye team is filled with ball-hawks in the secondary, but gets a little too cavalier with the ball on offense, and at the worst times.
Notre Dame knows the importance of keeping the ball, especially in big games. Against Clemson, the Irish gave the ball away four times, including an interception after forcing a Clemson three-and-out, and a fumble after a missed Clemson FG. Those are huge game-changers, especially considering the game's final margin.
Similarly, against Stanford, the Irish played a relatively clean game, committing only one turnover, but it was at a costly time: down by one at the end of the first half, Notre Dame driving to take a lead into the locker room. It would even get as far as the Stanford 22 before DeShone Kizer put the ball on the ground. No score for the Irish, no momentum at the half.
Of course, turnovers aren't the be-all-end-all, and in no place was this more on display than at Fenway Park, when the Irish and the the Boston College Eagles got together for the 2015 Shamrock Series. Five times, Notre Dame gave the ball away to Boston College, thrice on interceptions by Kizer, and twice on fumbles by Irish running back C.J. Prosise. No doubt the turnovers hampered Notre Dame's offense, which only mustered 19 points against an offensively challenged BC team (did you know: Boston College punted 92 times last year, and only had 110 pass completions? That's crazy but true). But BC's defense was for real last year (and the Buckeyes will probably see parts of it next year), and forced a good Notre Dame offense into inexplicable fits.
* * *
It's simple enough: get up early, and force turnovers. And those are things that the Buckeye offense and defense are certainly capable of doing. But it comes down to execution, as usual. This isn't the Notre Dame team that last met the Buckeyes, with vacant promises made by the world's largest snake oil salesman (still on the payroll through this month!). But Brian Kelly's squad is not one to take lightly. If Urban Meyer's squad can do these two things on New Year's Day, it won't guarantee a victory. But it will make earning one a little easier.