It’s hard to imagine that we live in a world in which Ohio State and Notre Dame have met on the gridiron only five times during their long histories. Both programs will meet for the first time since 2006 — on a stage very familiar to both programs: the Fiesta Bowl in suburban Phoenix, where Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes edged out Charlie Weiss’ Domers nearly 10 years ago.
At that time in history, Charlie Weis was still revered, Brady Quinn was the highest touted pro quarterback prospect, and half and half jerseys became an actual thing.
As was the case in 2006, there is still plenty to prove on the field for both teams as the season officially comes to a close. Almost a decade later, both teams also head into the Fiesta Bowl with rosters built around NFL-caliber talent.
These two teams let their chances of playing in the College Football Playoff slip away. Yet, there is still plenty at stake when the Irish face the Buckeyes in the first game of a jam-packed New Year’s Six lineup on January 1.
Here are 5 things to know about Ohio State heading into the Fiesta Bowl:
5 — Notre Dame Ties
Urban Meyer has shown a major respect toward the Fighting Irish program since coaching there under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie from 1996 through 2000.
Since making his way to Ohio State, the Notre Dame program has been the water hole Meyer has continued to visit in order to strengthen his coaching staff.
Longtime left-hand man Mickey Marotti spent seven seasons as Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning coach. The current assistant athletic director for sports performance was the first person Meyer contacted after taking the Ohio State job. He is also the reason the program has made vast off-field advancements in player development.
Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton were two key cogs in Urban Meyer’s initial coaching staff in 2012. Both left Brian Kelly’s staff to join Meyer in Columbus.
Hinton, who once served as a running backs coach, coached with Meyer at Ohio State in 1986. He has served as the program’s tight end coach, but has also been a versatile tool for the offensive coaching staff.
Warinner made a name for himself at Notre Dame as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Since then, his growth as a line coach has multiplied, and he has gotten the opportunity to run the Buckeye offense as its offensive coordinator.
After the departure of Stan Drayton to the Chicago Bears during the offseason, it wasn’t surprising to see Meyer go back to the Notre Dame well to hire running backs coach Tony Alford, who played for Colorado State when Earle Bruce and Meyer coached there in 1990.
It’s safe to say that the Ohio State coaching staff will have a chip on its shoulder heading into this game.
Recruiting prestige, program pride, and Ohio State’s standing in the upper echelon of football are all on the line.
4 — The Buckeye Defense Will be In Transition
New Rutgers head coach Chris Ash has dedicated himself to the Ohio State staff over the next few weeks as he prepares to build his own program in New Jersey.
Ash will stay on as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator through the Fiesta Bowl. Yet the distraction of leading another program, while coaching another, has started to rear its ugly head.
We still got another game Coach… https://t.co/jxm5kg8kbo
— Darron Lee (@DLeeMG8) December 10, 2015
The Silver Bullets have played championship-caliber football all season long and have been on the upswing since 2014, when Ash joined the coaching staff.
In one year, the former Wisconsin and Arkansas defensive coordinator turned the pass defense around with his ability to adjust schemes in-game and develop Ohio State’s safeties into dynamic playmakers.
In one season, the Buckeyes went from 112th best in pass defense to 29th. This year they finished as the 10th-best pass defenders in the country.
As Ash mentioned in his first press conference as the head coach of Rutgers, he owes it to Ohio State to coach its defense one last time.
Could that cost the Buckeye defense?
Since Ash has been the primary play-caller for Meyer over the last two years, it truly could affect defensive performance. Granted, it didn’t bother Tom Herman last year, when he secured his current gig at Houston. He was able to lay the groundwork in Texas that led to a one-loss season and a trip to the Peach Bowl, but his initial work at Houston did not get in the way of his duties with the Buckeyes. He set up his framework in Houston, but he did so while coaching the Buckeyes’ offense in two premiere games with Alabama and Oregon on the road to a national championship.
Either way, this defense might see some transition if fellow defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is given more control of the in-game decision making.
Who knows what direction Meyer will take in the offseason? At any rate, it wouldn’t hurt to give Fickell some in-game responsibility to see if he has grown as an in-game coach on the defensive side of the ball.
If that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more blitzing from linebackers, along with coverage schemes where his athletic linebackers have chances to make plays in the passing game.
3 — Tim Beck Will Be Disconnected from Offensive Play-Calling
It’s surprising to me that Urban Meyer has not yet made the decision to fire co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck heading into the Fiesta Bowl.
The reason that the former Nebraska coach found his way to Columbus was because of the waiting game Meyer had to play with Tom Herman still on staff, despite his plans to head to Houston at the end of the year.
That delay led to top-level coordinators such as Lincoln Riley and Mike Sanford finding homes elsewhere, with Beck being the scrap in the heap fellow coordinator Ed Warinner was familiar with.
After an abysmal game plan against Michigan State, Beck became nearly non-existent in the final game of the year.
Meyer opted to have Ed Warinner in the booth with Beck looking over, and put a graduate assistant in charge of his offensive line on the road against Michigan.
That’s how much value Beck has at this point.
On the other hand, Warinner’s value as an offensive play-caller might have more weight than his ability as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country.
In all of his previous stops, Warinner has worked in the press box as the offensive coordinator. This year, he tried to double dip as a coordinator and line coach on the sideline. His move to the press box seemed to pay off, though. His offensive line, led by coach Tim Hinton and graduate assistant Jimmy Cordle on the sideline, played one of its best games of the year.
Meyer has a lot of trust in Ed Warinner. The Fiesta Bowl will be a test to see whether that trust warrants another opportunity to be the head of the offense in 2016.
2 — The Buckeyes Will Have an Answer for Will Fuller
When a player averages over 20 yards per catch, you better have an answer for him.
Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller has had a campaign to remember. His big plays have played a major role in keeping the Irish atop the rankings, despite battling injuries at nearly every key skill position.
The Buckeye defense, though, has had answers for opposing receivers all season long. Lead receivers have averaged just four receptions against the Buckeye defense this season, which on average has led to just 55 yards per game.
Ohio State has faced four receivers that have tallied over 1,000 yards receiving throughout the year. Of those four, just Western Michigan’s Daniel Braverman was able to gain over 100 yards in the air. In the same game, the Buckeye secondary was able to keep teammate Corey Davis, who gained over 1,200 yards on the season, to just 42 yards on six catches.
Michigan State dominated Ohio State at the line of scrimmage, but the Ohio State secondary kept top-notch receiver Aaron Burbridge to just four catches and 62 yards. Only two primary receivers have been able to score on the Bucks all season long.
Even though Fuller is a different kind of animal — one which can score at will — expect the Buckeye defense to have an answer for him on New Year’s Day.
1 — Ezekiel Elliott Will Run Through The Desert
There is no secret that Ezekiel Elliott has a short history of helping Ohio State literally run away with bowl games.
Last year, there was the 46-carry, 476-yard barrage against Alabama and Oregon. That came after he ran the ball 20 times for 220 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game.
This bowl season, there isn’t as big a platform for a flair of the dramatic. Yet Elliott has a lot to prove in his final collegiate game… on a stage big enough to show professional scouts and doubters that he’s the best running back in college football. This opportunity will come against the 65th-ranked rush defense of the Irish, a unit that has given up 166 yards per game.
Those numbers look a bit worse when you start eliminating teams without winning records. Against the six teams the Irish faced that will go bowling, rushing attacks averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. Against ranked opponents, Notre Dame gave up 198 rushing yards per game.
The key number for Ohio State’s rushing offense will be 43. Both Stanford and Clemson ran the ball 43 times in Notre Dame’s only losses this season.