"We think we’re playing the best team in the country. No disrespect to any teams in the final four. We’re playing the defending national champs. There aren’t many holes in this team."
Both the Ohio State Buckeyes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish have arrived in Arizona in anticipation of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl Friday. Despite higher hopes of matchups in the second year of the College Football Playoff, both teams recognize the significance of this game, and the quality of their opponents. Ohio State ended the regular season ranked seventh in the official Playoff rankings, while Notre Dame fell from the six spot to finish the season eighth.
Notre Dame is coming into the game with two, two-point losses incurred in the final seconds of their respective games against Clemson and Stanford. The second loss against the Cardinal was particularly gut-wrenching for the Irish, as it effectively ended any hope of making the final, four-team grouping. Ohio State endured a similar fate, despite having one-less loss to its name, as the Buckeyes lost out on a shot at the Big Ten Championship game with a loss to Michigan State on a game-ending field goal.
Nonetheless, this Fiesta Bowl as a marquee matchup between two historic programs. The two teams last met in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl a decade ago, when Jim Tressel was still at the helm of Ohio State, and Notre Dame was led by none other than Charlie Weis. Even current Notre Dame players recall the likes of Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes in his last game as a Buckeye in the 34-20 victory for Ohio State.
Now, Brian Kelly leads the Irish, and he had nothing but positive things to say of his Fiesta Bowl opponent. Kelly also noted that his own team "is as good as any in the country," but that "you’ve got to win it on the field."
"That’s a part of the game. Somebody goes down, somebody else has got to step up. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on those guys. That’s what we’ve talked about all year, having the ability for [backups] to not coast."
Ohio State proved beyond reasonable doubt last season that "next man up" is more than just a catchphrase, as the team went down to its third starting quarterback to finish out its national championship season. Now, the Buckeyes are fulfilling that same mantra on the defensive side, as injuries and suspensions have wreaked havoc on a once-solid defensive line.
And while Notre Dame is getting Jarron Jones, one of its outstanding defensive lineman, back after missing the entire 2015 season due to an injury in fall camp, Ohio State has lost two starters since the conclusion of the regular season.
Senior defensive end Adolphus Washington was cited for solicitation earlier this month, and was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl by Ohio State. Washington, who has been a two-year starter on the defensive line, was named second team All-Big Ten this season, and is one of five Buckeyes who has accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl.
While the team had time to prepare for Washington’s absence, they were hoping that senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt would be able to recover from a recent foot injury in time for the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, Schutt will also be out for the game with a broken foot, as confirmed by head coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes were without Schutt earlier in the season, when he missed several games with a broken wrist. Sophomore lineman Michael Hill stepped up to fill Schutt’s spot during his absence, and we can likely expect the same to happen in the Fiesta Bowl.
Along with Hill, Meyer said that senior Joel Hale and sophomores Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle will step up to fill starting and rotational roles on the line, and that senior defensive end Joey Bosa will also be filling in some at defensive tackle, where he has rotated at times this season.
Bosa seems confident in the rotation at defensive tackle, and acknowledged that being able to "step up when one of us goes down" is what the defensive line is all about.
"I’m excited about it, I’m just grateful for the opportunity because so many things happen during the course of the season. People get hurt and things happen...so being able to play in a bowl game and going against a great team like Notre Dame are things you’re thankful for."
As experienced as sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett seems to be, he has never played in a bowl game. Last year during the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, Barrett arrived on a scooter due to the broken ankle suffered during the final quarter against Michigan. Prior to that, during the Buckeyes’ loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, he was a redshirt freshman, still recovering from a torn ACL he sustained as a senior in high school. Now, he is the projected starter in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame Friday.
Even so, Urban Meyer left the possibility of a dual-quarterback system open for the bowl game. Given that junior Cardale Jones started eight regular season games this year after his breakout, three-game postseason run to end last season, it makes sense that Jones may have more "big game" experience than Barrett. When Jones was named the starter at the opening of the 2015 season, Barrett used the time on the sidelines as he did his redshirt freshman year: for preparation. And now, Barrett is less than a week away from his first post-season game.
Barrett says he is "at peace" with sitting out last year’s post-season, given that his broken ankle was not something he could have prevented, and that he had to move forward and continue to be a leader even from the sidelines.
"The most important thing that I can’t emphasize enough is that as a society, we have to make a clear distinction between recreational drug use and cheating. I really believe that they require two different approaches. One is more nuanced, and one is hard core."
Power Five conference schools are not punishing recreational drug use as harshly as they once were. According to a new study by the AP, at least a third of schools studied are not imposing as harsh of punishments for marijuana and other recreational drugs as they were just a decade ago. Even more broadly, the NCAA recently cut the standard punishment for athletes who fail drug tests, and some are calling for an end to testing for recreational drugs in favor of testing for performance-enhancing drugs. The Big Ten is one of just two conferences (the Big 12 being the other) that does independent testing from the individual school and NCAA testing, with testing centered primarily on performance-enhancing drugs.
Twenty-three of the 57 schools analyzed by the AP were found to have either reduced the penalties for drug use, or enhanced the number of tests before athletes have received punishment. The disparity is seen especially in the Pac-12, where marijuana is legal in both Oregon and Washington, though still barred at Pac-12 institutions. Officials at these schools say that by expanding the range of testing and lowering punishments, the process becomes more "rehabilitative" for student athletes. Alcohol and marijuana are the two most commonly abused substances among college athletes, and generally result in significantly lower punishments than performance-enhancing drugs.