In its final game of the season, against an elite opponent, Notre Dame football reached its breaking point.
An already injury-plagued, suspension-hampered and inconsistent defense lined up against Ohio State on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish promptly lost star linebacker Jaylon Smith to a gruesome knee injury on the Buckeyes’ second drive and his backup on the following drive.
In a game many expected to be a shootout, Ohio State powered to a 44-28 win and nearly 500 yards of total offense.
Injuries don’t tell the entire story, neither of Notre Dame’s 10-3 season nor the bowl-game loss. The objective isn’t merely to lament them. But from fall camp in South Bend through the start of a new calendar year in Arizona, Notre Dame was decimated.
Both the quantity and quality of the injured players make the big picture so remarkable. Equally remarkable is the job the Irish—what was left of them, anyway—still turned in.
With KeiVarae Russell already out, Devin Butler was set for his second career start at cornerback. But the junior suffered a broken foot in bowl practice, putting the onus on sophomore corner Nick Watkins to log his first career start against the No. 7-ranked team in the country in front of 71,000-plus fans.
With Jerry Tillery suspended, Daniel Cage battling an ankle issue and Sheldon Day playing through foot pain and illness as well, Andrew Trumbetti rose on the defensive line to post his best game of the season by a wide margin.
With Smith and true freshman Te’von Coney sidelined early, Jarrett Grace—who shattered his leg two seasons ago—stepped in as the “Will” linebacker and had the unenviable task of chasing around Ohio State’s armada of speedsters.
The Irish just didn’t have enough.
They couldn’t slow Ezekiel Elliott, who gouged Notre Dame for 149 rushing yards, four touchdowns and had his eating celebration looped across social media all afternoon.
They couldn’t get off the field on third down, allowing Ohio State to convert 10 of its first 14 third-down opportunities (71 percent). The Buckeyes ranked 71st nationally entering Friday with a 39 percent third-down conversion rate.
They couldn’t win the battle in the trenches, as Ohio State racked up 285 rushing yards and averaged 5.3 yards a pop.
Against an offense as explosive as Ohio State’s and with a defense as inconsistent as its own, Notre Dame needed more than it had to offer.
Ohio State averaged 35 points per game in the regular season. Notre Dame averaged 34.8.
But the Irish struggled offensively, too, and injuries and poor defensive play don’t tell the full story. Notre Dame punted on each of its first three drives before engineering a 70-yard scoring drive in the second quarter.
Quarterback DeShone Kizer tossed two interceptions (one negated by Joey Bosa’s targeting penalty) and fumbled when he was smacked from his blind side to seal the game.
The Irish, who trailed for nearly 55 minutes of game action, rushed for 121 yards—their second-lowest output of the season.
They talked all season about accomplishing their “mission”—the obvious yet unspoken goal of a playoff berth. Notre Dame missed a shot at that and an undefeated regular season by four points.
Still, the Irish ended the season with 10 wins. And they finished the Fiesta Bowl with different starters across the lineup—quarterback, running back, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback and safety—than they began the season (not to mention the game) with.
A date with an opponent playing playoff-quality football proved too tall a task. But the end result isn’t an underachievement.
All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.