GLENDALE, Ariz. – No. 7 Ohio State scored early and often, using a season-high 28-point first half on its way to dispatching No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 44-28, to finish the 2015 season with a 12-1 record.
“I’m glad I can leave this great university on that type of note,” junior running back Ezekiel Elliott said.
Elliott tied the Fiesta Bowl record with four touchdown runs, finishing with 149 yards on 27 carries in the final game of his collegiate career before enrolling in the NFL draft. Redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett, making his bowl-game debut, was 19-of-31 for 211 yards, and ran for 96 more.
The game could not have started much better for the Buckeyes, who said they were looking for a quick start to the game.
Notre Dame (10-3) received the ball first, but a quick three-and-out handed the ball to OSU. Just over three minutes later, OSU took a 7-0 lead.
The eight-play, 80-yard drive was highlighted by redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller, who made an early impact in his final collegiate game with 36 yards in the series. A rush by Elliott got OSU inside the 5-yard line, then the St. Louis native finished the job two plays later with a short score.
“That was kind of our challenge,” Meyer said. “I tucked every guy in last night. I just remember looking them all right in the eye and saying, ‘We need a fast start.’”
The same pattern then held on the second series of drives. Notre Dame gave up the ball quickly, and OSU found the end zone with nearly the same speed. Barrett completed passes of 27 and 15 yards, with the latter going to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas in the end zone for the Buckeyes’ second touchdown.
“That’s what we strive to do, is definitely dominate the line of scrimmage,” Barrett said about how the offense was able to move fluidly. “Those guys definitely did that, which opens up our whole offense.”
It seemed like the nightmarish start was settling in as the reality for the Fighting Irish, especially after their 2015 Butkus Award winner for the nation’s top linebacker, Jaylon Smith, left the game on the second OSU drive with what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called “a significant knee injury.” That was compounded on their next drive when redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer threw an interception into the hands of redshirt junior safety Tyvis Powell at midfield.
But that interception was taken away, as OSU junior defensive end Joey Bosa was flagged for targeting on the play after leading the tackle with the crown of his helmet. The call was upheld after a review, ending the three-year college career of Bosa, who has announced his intentions to leave for the NFL.
“Oh my goodness, that was a kidney shot,” Meyer said. “I guess it was a proper call. Hit him below (the neck), but it was leading with the crown of the helmet.”
While that bit of good fortune proved to be short-lived on that drive with a punt in OSU territory, the Fighting Irish’s next drive, following OSU’s first punt, was the one put them on the board.
Notre Dame orchestrated a 13-play drive to march 70 yards down the field and bring the score to 14-7. Kizer was responsible for 50 yards on the drive, which was aided by a 15-yard pass interference call, and freshman running back Josh Adams finished it off with a three-yard score.
But the Buckeyes were right there to answer, with Elliott and Barrett combined for 59 rushing yards on a 62-yard drive to grab the 14-point lead back. Elliott finished the drive with his second short rushing touchdown.
Then after a Notre Dame three-and-out, the Buckeyes put the finishing touches on the first-half beatdown with a third Elliott goal-line touchdown to bring the score to 28-7. However, with the defense perhaps relaxing, the Golden Domers marched down the field, scoring their second touchdown on a Kizer run just before the end of the half to make it 28-14 at the break.
“It happened so quick,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Darron Lee said of the late score. “They were nickel-and-diming us on that drive.”
Barrett had 185 yards in the first half, including 127 through the air on 10-of-15 passing. Elliott added 55 yards and his three scores on the ground, and also chipped in a 30-yard reception on the final OSU drive of the half.
The Buckeyes outgained Notre Dame 280-181 after 30 minutes, including a 152-59 edge on the ground, and the 28 points scored were their season-high for a first half.
But the momentum generated by the late touchdown scored continued past the intermission for Notre Dame, as an opening-drive interception of Barrett led to a seven-play scoring drive the other way for the Fighting Irish. Kizer found senior receiver Chris Brown on a fade route for the score to cut the deficit to just seven points.
“We came up with a big turnover, we consequently scored there,” Kelly said. “Made it 28-21. Just loved the resiliency of our group and very, very proud of them.”
But with the pressure mounting, Elliott took matters into his own hands, finding a seam up the middle and sprinting 47 yards untouched for his fourth score of the game about two minutes later to make it 35-21.
“I’m not the only man out there,” Elliott said. “(The offensive line) made a lot of runs easy for me, and I’m going to miss those guys.”
Two drives after Powell picked off Kizer again — with it counting that time — OSU tacked on three more points with a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter by sophomore Sean Nuernberger. That took it back to a three-score at 38-21, with time ticking away on the Notre Dame comeback bid.
But it didn’t take much time at all for the Fighting Irish to start that bid, as on the second play of its next drive junior receiver Will Fuller shook off OSU redshirt sophomore cornerback Gareon Conley and ran it 81 yards to cut it to a 10-point game.
With a stop crucial for Notre Dame, Meyer opted to keep the offense on the field on a fourth-and-10 play. Barrett lobbed a pass to redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall, who was unable to pull in the slight overthrow. But a defensive holding call on the play granted OSU the first down rather than the turnover, a dagger into Notre Dame’s comeback hopes.
The Fighting Irish were able to prevent the game from becoming out of reach, holding OSU to a 38-yard field goal, but Nuernberger’s conversion brought the score to 41-28.
A pair of defensive ends finished off the job, though. Redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard and redshirt sophomore Tyquan Lewis sacked Kizer on consecutive plays, and a 19-yard Marshall punt return allowed OSU to start its drive all the way at the Notre Dame 29-yard line.
Shortly after, Nuernberger’s third made field goal of the half officially put the game out of reach at 44-28 with less than three minutes left.
“I would say Ezekiel Elliott (was the key for OSU),” Notre Dame junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day said. “He makes it challenging. He’s a physical back. He makes his presence known. He did some special things with his feet today.”
The game marked the final time several notable OSU seniors, such as Miller, linebacker Joshua Perry and left tackle Taylor Decker, wore the scarlet and gray, as well as at least three underclassmen who are leaving early: Bosa, Elliott and backup quarterback Cardale Jones.
“We have good players leaving,” said OSU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “We’ll have to rebuild our O-line a little bit, we lose three good players out there, a good tailback, lose a good tight end, but we have good guys in our program, and that’s what player development is.”
Elliott said looking back on his career, culminating with his big performance, he simply feels humbled to join the ranks of the OSU greats.
“All I can say is, I’m just honored to be a part of this history,” he said. “I’m honored to continue the running back pedigree at Ohio State, I’m honored to be thought of as one of the best running backs to come through here.”