After all the hoopla of the off-season, the excitement of opening night versus Virginia Tech, the struggles that eventually led to a Senior Day loss, the high of beating Michigan by nearly 30, and the disappointment of missing out on the College Football Playoff, Ohio State finally caps it's season off by playing Notre Dame in the 2016 edition of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl.
The Fighting Irish come into the game in a similar position to the Buckeyes; narrowly missing out on the playoff due to a late season loss, but still finishing the regular season ranked in the top-ten. Notre Dame has battled injuries all season, including to their starting quarterback, yet for the most part, have weathered the storm and present an intriguing and tough opponent. All things considered, this is a playoff-style matchup that is absolutely loaded with talent.
With that in mind, here are five things to look for in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl:
A staple of the Buckeyes last game against Notre Dame was the big play. In the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes scored on plays of 56, 68, 85, and 60 yards, helping them to a monster 617 yard output. 10 years later, we could be in for a repeat.
If the Michigan game is any indicator, Ohio State's ground attack should be in top form. Behind an improved offensive line, the Buckeyes mauled the Wolverines for over 360 yards at nearly seven yards per carry. Coming in, the Wolverines had only allowed one opponent to average more than five.
Whether it was Ed Warinner going up to the booth, or the Michigan State loss acting as a needed boost, we finally saw the offensive line look like we thought it would coming into the season. Given the Fighting Irish's weaknesses on defense, it won't be surprising to see them replicate that success.
The Notre Dame defense showed a propensity for allowing big runs this year, giving up 24 runs of 20-plus yards while surrendering another 12 for over 30. Those two figures were near the bottom of the country, and were reflected in the Irish's 91st ranked IsoPPP rushing defense. While Notre Dame may put up their own share of big plays, expect Ezekiel Elliott and JT Barrett to find open grass early and often.
One of the most disappointing things about Ohio State's loss to Michigan State was the team's unwillingness to take deep chances against the Spartans. Michigan State sold out on the running game, and for whatever reason, Ohio State couldn't take advantage.
Though they actually attempted one less pass against Michigan the next week, the Buckeyes flipped the script, looking for one-on-one matchups a bit more, particularly with Michael Thomas. While the raw numbers weren't that impressive --113 passing yards-- they showed a willingness to attack and kept the Wolverines from honing in on Elliot and Barrett too much. A similar strategy would be wise against Notre Dame.
Just as the Fighting Irish defense has given up big runs, they've been just as porous on the back end, ranking 96th in Passing IsoPPP, while giving up nearly seven yards per attempt. When combined with their low adjusted sack rate, Ohio State should be able to keep the sticks moving and sprinkle in the occasional deep ball if they're willing to attack.
Front line depth
After Adolphus Washington's suspension, and Tommy Schutt's subsequent broken foot, Ohio State finds themselves in a bit of a conundrum at defensive tackle. Losing any starter hurts on principle, but given Washington's status as one of the best defensive tackles in the country, his suspension is particularly rough. Conversely, while Schutt may not have the eye-popping productivity of his fellow linemate, he played the run well, and made defenses think twice about focusing too much inside attention on Washington.
Of the players listed on the updated Fiesta Bowl depth chart, sophomore Michael Hill has flashed the most in limited opportunities. Along with Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle, the trio at least has adequate size in order to not be completely overwhelmed by Notre Dame linemen. There's also been talk of Joey Bosa moving inside to help mitigate the perceived weakness, but it's hard to count on that being a permanent solution, even just for one game.
Notre Dame has been one of the most effective running teams in the country this season, finishing in the top five nationally in Rushing S&P+, IsoPPP, Adjusted Line Yards and Opportunity Rate. With the loss of two key players, it won't be a surprise to see Notre Dame attack the middle of the Ohio State line and force Hill, Munger and Sprinkle to make the plays usually reserved for Washington and Schutt.
Washington and Schutt have spoiled us for the better part of four seasons with their play, and for better or worse, we're going to finally see if their understudies can walk into a tough situation and do the same.
A Full(er) plate
For the better part of the season, the Ohio State defense has shut down opposing passing games. A fierce pass rush combined with an elite secondary has made the Buckeyes one of the most efficient pass defenses in the country. In fact, Michigan was the only opponent to cross the 300-yard mark all year, and even then, it never felt as though the Wolverines would be able to win The Game through the air. Notre Dame not only has the capability to match or exceed the raw numbers Michigan put up, but has the best receiving threat the Buckeyes will have faced all year.
Fighting Irish wide receiver Will Fuller was already a star after a highly productive 2014, but really came into his own this season. While his 56 catches barley put him in the top-100 nationally, he finished in the top-20 in yards and yards per catch. Fuller's big play ability not only provided first-year quarterback DeShone Kizer a reliable target in big moments from the second he took over the job, but also opened things up for his fellow receivers and the Notre Dame run game.
Ohio State's defensive style of play sacrifices giving up the occasional (really) big play, in order to limit efficiency, and it would be unwise to think that Notre Dame (31st in Passing IsoPPP) won't make it a priority to target Fuller deep on more than a few occasions, especially early.
Fuller is too good to expect the Buckeyes to completely shut him down, but if Eli Apple, Gareon Conley and Co. can limit the damage from one of the nation's best, it will be a major win for the Ohio State defense.
The final assignment
This will be the last game at Ohio State for the following key players (not including Tommy's Schutt's injury and Adolphus Washington's suspension):
- Jacoby Boren
- Joey Bosa
- Taylor Decker
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Cardale Jones
- Braxton Miller
- Josh Perry
- Nick Vannett