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Despite great defenses, Ohio State-Notre Dame could be a shootout

This game might have the most total talent of any bowl game this year.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Fiesta Bowl is finally here. Notre Dame is about as good an opponent as the Buckeyes could have hoped for outside of a playoff opponent, and that's evident in the S&P+ rankings, where the Irish are eighth.

They have fought off injuries on both sides of the ball, including on the defensive line, at corner, at quarterback, and at running back, but they've still played at an elite level this season. The Irish' strengths are evident: Will Fuller is one of the most explosive receivers in the country, the run game is incredibly efficient, and the defense is fairly efficient and plays great field position.

Category Notre Dame Ohio State
S&P+ (Rk) 8 4
Category Notre Dame offense Ohio State defense Ohio State offense Notre Dame defense
Yards per play (Rk) 6.90 (4) 4.26 (5) 6.13 (27) 5.38 (74)
Yards per game (Rk) 474.7 (22) 304.3 (10) 424.3 (43) 365.9 (42)
Points per possession (Rk) 2.86 (17) 1.06 (3) 2.63 (33) 1.81 (45)
Category Notre Dame offense Ohio State defense Ohio State offense Notre Dame defense
S&P+ (Rk) 42.7 (6) 15.6 (8) 39.4 (14) 23.3 (33)
Rushing S&P+ (Rk) 128.7 (3) 118.1 (17) 124.7 (8) 105.1 (51)
Passing S&P+ (Rk) 130.9 (8) 137.2 (4) 118.5 (26) 109.1 (36)
Standard Downs S&P+ (Rk) 120.6 (10) 121.3 (8) 121.2 (9) 103.7 (50)
Passing Downs S&P+ (Rk) 153.2 (3) 138.6 (5) 119.6 (26) 113.4 (28)
Q1 S&P+ (Rk) 124.1 (14) 121.2 (19) 112.0 (41) 106.2 (41)
Q2 S&P+ (Rk) 118.5 (25) 134.2 (6) 122.0 (19) 112.0 (32)
Q3 S&P+ (Rk) 155.4 (1) 138.9 (7) 130.5 (6) 114.5 (28)
Q4 S&P+ (Rk) 136.1 (1) 124.0 (9) 126.6 (5) 97.5 (74)
Category Notre Dame offense Ohio State defense Ohio State offense Notre Dame defense
EXPLOSIVENESS 1.44 (5) 1.22 (51) 1.27 (58) 1.32 (94)
EFFICIENCY 45.8% (25) 33.0% (6) 47.9% (16) 38.3% (38)
FIELD POSITION 29.4 (81) 25.1 (3) 34.4 (3) 25.9 (6)
FINISHING DRIVES 5.1 (36) 3.7 (7) 5.2 (29) 4.3 (34)

Stopping the Notre Dame offensive attack

Despite Ohio State's excellent defense this season, it's easy to imagine a high-scoring Fiesta Bowl. Even before Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt were out, the Buckeyes defense was fairly susceptible to efficient rushing attacks (37th in rushing success rate) and the defense as a whole can allow big plays (51st in IsoPPP).

Unfortunately for Ohio State, the Irish excel at creating big plays on the ground and through the air, ranking fifth in explosiveness and third in overall rushing S&P+. C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams average 6.9 and 8.5 highlight yards per opportunity, so they make the most out of their opportunities with big runs. And they generate a lot of opportunities to begin with, averaging over a 46% opportunity rate. This will be difficult with a reshuffled defensive line. Meyer has noted that Joey Bosa is likely to slide inside like their typical third down pass rush, but he'll also be paired with a less experienced underclassman like Michael Hill or Donovan Munger. Adolphus Washington really came in to his own this year after moving to the 3-technique. His loss will certainly be felt trying to limit the Irish run game.

Even if the Buckeyes load the box, that might leave Will Fuller on an island with probably Eli Apple. Fuller is similar to Devin Smith in that he averages north of twenty yards per catch and can easily take the top off of most defenses. Alabama and Wisconsin fans probably still have memories of the Cardale Jones-Devin Smith connection, and an efficient run game from Prosise and Adams could easily set up a similar connection for Deshone Kizer and Will Fuller. The Buckeyes will likely need Apple and Conley to more or less play without too much support to try and stop the Notre Dame rushing attack.

One final area that could favor the Buckeyes is in the red zone, where Ohio State is seventh and the Irish are 36th in finishing drives.

But the Buckeyes can score big too

The good news is that the Notre Dame defense is much worse than the Ohio State defense. At 33rd in overall S&P+ and 51st in rushing S&P+, Ezekiel Elliott should be excited for this matchup. Sure Jarron Jones might play a good bit in his return from injury and Jaylon Smith is one of the best linebackers in the country, but the Buckeyes' hold huge advantages in rushing efficiency, short-yardage rushing, and rushing explosiveness.

The offense will need to be ahead of the curve on standard downs, where the numbers suggest they have a large advantage (ranking ninth in standard downs S&P+ to 50th for the Irish). Because passing downs could be more of an issue for Ohio State. They rank 26th in passing downs S&P+ to the Irish at 28th. J.T. Barrett and the passing game have struggled much more on obvious passing downs. The only exception is in explosive plays. Ohio State has a large advantage in passing downs IsoPPP, where they rank 44th, but the Irish are at 118th. This is where Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall, and Michael Thomas will need to step up and get separation. That should be a little easier with Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell's injury, but this group has underperformed relative to their talent his year, so a big final performance is really needed.

In summary

The Buckeyes have a few things that really favor them, including:

  1. Offensive rushing explosiveness
  2. Pass rush on defense (third-ranked standard downs sack rate)
  3. Offensive explosiveness overall
And a few things that put them at a disadvantage:
  1. Slow starts (ranking 41st in first quarter offensive S&P+)
  2. Run defense (especially missing the two starting defensive tackles)
  3. Will Fuller and the Irish offensive explosiveness
As a result, I think this one stays close, but the Buckeyes pull out a win somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-31.