A pair of last-second field goals kept both No. 7 Ohio State and No. 8 Notre Dame from reaching their ultimate goals of a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, but the two storied programs are set to square off in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day as a consolation.
The 1 p.m. showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, comes after each team barely missed a chance for more.
The Buckeyes (11-1) were sitting at No. 3 on Nov. 21 before a field goal as time expired by Michigan State was the one and only blow needed to put an end to their playoff chances.
Seven days later, the then-No. 6 Fighting Irish (10-2) experienced similar heartbreak, as a go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds remaining against Stanford was swiftly marred by a sprint down the field by the Cardinal offense, ending with a 45-yard field goal as time ran out.
Despite falling short of its ultimate goal, OSU coach Urban Meyer said his team is thrilled to receive the draw it did.
“There’s no disappointment,” Meyer said during a Sunday press conference. “You start talking about that level of football, that level of bowl game, the level of opponent you’re going to play, and you just get locked on.”
However, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said during a coaches teleconference later in the day he would have liked to have seen the playoff be open to eight teams rather than four, which would’ve allowed both OSU and the Fighting Irish to sneak in.
“Clearly these eight teams are all very good football teams,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to hold it at four. But I think we’ve got it right right now. I don’t know that the committee is interested in going to eight right now. But I think if college football continues on the path it is, it’s going to be more and more difficult to keep it at four.”
While each of the programs have existed since the late 19th century, the Fiesta Bowl will mark only the sixth time they have squared off with one another.
The most recent matchup came on Jan. 2, 2006, also in the Fiesta Bowl. That game saw former OSU quarterback Troy Smith throw for 342 yards en route to a 34-20 victory.
Overall, the Buckeyes hold a 3-2 series advantage, winning the past three games after losing in consecutive years in 1936 and 1937.
Welcoming the new year in Arizona is nothing unfamiliar to either team. OSU is set to make its seventh appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, more than any other team, while Notre Dame is gearing up for its fifth. The teams are 4-2 and 1-3 in the game, respectively. One very memorable trip for OSU came in January 2003, when a double-overtime victory over Miami (Fla.) delivered the Buckeyes a national championship.
How the Irish got there
Notre Dame’s season seemed to take an early turn for the worse when redshirt sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire was lost for the season in the second game with a broken ankle.
He was replaced by redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, a product of Toledo. Despite never leading a huddle in his collegiate career prior, Kizer had a strong year, throwing for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns and running for nine more scores.
“We knew DeShone’s makeup, the kind of kid he was, the character he had,” Kelly said. “He went in, made a lot of plays, gained confidence. As his confidence grew, we were able to add more to his plate. Really proud of the way he handled himself.”
Though the Fighting Irish lost a pair of games by two points to Clemson and Stanford, teams that ended up being ranked No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, Kelly said he is very happy with how the season turned out, especially coming off an 8-5 campaign in 2014 that ended with a trip to the Motor City Bowl.
The coach credited some of the sustained success after losing his starting quarterback to borrowing the model OSU set the year before, when it went on to win the national championship despite losing its first- and second-string quarterbacks in Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett to injuries.
“Urban had a similar situation last year. We kind of stole a little bit of what they did last year: not making any excuses, just going and playing,” Kelly said. “The kids really responded to that, in particular DeShone did and was able to lead our football team to some big wins.”
The coaching staff of OSU is deep with Notre Dame connections, starting all the way at the top.
Meyer was hired away from Colorado State before the 1996 season to become Notre Dame’s wide receivers coach. He stayed there until before the 2001 season, when he received his first head coaching job at Bowling Green.
“That was a dream come true,” Meyer said during the teleconference. “That was my first exposure as a full-time coach to that level of football.”
Kelly arrived at Notre Dame in 2010 by way of Cincinnati — the same school that Meyer graduated from in 1986.
In addition, Meyer has been active in recruiting his coaches out of Kelly’s program. Of the nine coordinators and position coaches on Meyer’s staff, three were hired away from Kelly.
For the first five years of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, Indiana, his wide receivers coach — and later running backs coach — was Tony Alford. Before this season, Meyer hired Alford away from Kelly as OSU’s running backs coach, ending his six-year stint with the Fighting Irish.
OSU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner also worked under Kelly at Notre Dame in 2010 and 2011 as the Fighting Irish’s offensive line coach. He then took a job at OSU upon Meyer’s arrival in 2012.
Following the same path as Warinner was Tim Hinton, who also left his two-year stint under Kelly when Meyer assembled his coaching staff at OSU. Hinton was Notre Dame’s running backs coach, and is now OSU’s tight ends and fullbacks coach.