One day after the Michigan State Spartans' heavy College Football Playoff semifinal defeat to the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Ohio State Buckeyes defended the Big Ten's honor, defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 44-28 in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
Ezekiel Elliott put an exclamation point on his college career, rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns, which tied the Fiesta Bowl record, per Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. The junior running back has been huge for Ohio State in the last two postseasons, per ESPN Stats & Info:
J.T. Barrett was also a dynamic presence in the OSU backfield, throwing for 211 yards and a touchdown while running for another 96 yards.
Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel reflected on what could've been for the Buckeyes this year:
DeShone Kizer did his best to try to keep pace with Elliott and the Ohio State offense, throwing for 284 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 22-of-37 passing.
C.J. Prosise dressed for the game but didn't receive a carry, so his injured ankle must have been a bigger problem than Notre Dame expected it to be.
Although the Fighting Irish had their moments, they were outclassed by a better team.
Ohio State wasted little time in jumping out to a 14-0 lead with 7:41 left in the first quarter after an Elliott touchdown run and a Michael Thomas touchdown reception. SB Nation's Spencer Hall was envisioning another bowl blowout after Thursday night's underwhelming semifinals:
But on Notre Dame's next possession, the officials called a targeting penalty after a Joey Bosa hit on Kizer and ejected the Ohio State star from the game. Buckeyes fans could take little issue with the call as Bosa lowered his head and led with his helmet while he approached the Fighting Irish quarterback, as shown in this video posted by ESPN College Football:
After heading back to the locker room, the departing defensive end apologized for the foul:
Losing their best defensive player was a significant blow for the Buckeyes, but luckily for them, they still had Elliott in the backfield.
A Josh Adams touchdown helped Notre Dame halve the deficit at the 7:34 mark of the second quarter, but Elliott responded with back-to-back rushing touchdowns as OSU took a 28-7 lead.
However, Notre Dame closed the first half and began the second half on high notes. A one-yard Kizer TD run helped Notre Dame make it a 28-14 game at the half, and one Joe Schmidt interception and a Kizer TD pass later, the Fighting Irish were down just one score, 28-21, with 8:58 left in the third quarter.
Yet, once again, Elliott came to the rescue for his team. He took a handoff from Barrett, and before you knew it, he was deep into the Notre Dame secondary with nothing but green space between him and the end zone. ESPN College Football provided the video:
ESPN Cleveland spoke for Buckeyes fans across the country:
Alabama's Derrick Henry may have the Heisman Trophy, but Elliott is the best running back in the 2016 NFL draft class. When thinking about Elliott's pro potential, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller drew parallels to two former Pro Bowlers:
The Notre Dame defense had no answer for Elliott, and in that respect, the absence of Jaylon Smith was glaring. Smith suffered what looked to be a serious knee injury after his left leg bent awkwardly in the first quarter.
Like the Buckeyes, the Fighting Irish played most of the game without their top playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Unlike their opponents, the Fighting Irish didn't have a star such as Elliott who could almost single-handedly swing the balance of the Fiesta Bowl in his team's favor.
Ohio State widened its lead to 38-21 on a 37-yard field goal by Sean Nuernberger with 12:10 left in the game.
Will Fuller helped the Irish trim the Buckeyes' advantage to 10 points with an 81-yard touchdown reception. The Fighting Irish wideout showed off his speed as he outran the OSU secondary en route to the end zone. Irish Illustrated's Jake Brown assumed NFL scouts were salivating over Fuller's potential at the next level:
Nuernberger connected on two more field goals to put the game out of reach.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer must be kicking himself after his team's convincing victory over Notre Dame. College football writer Matt Hinton believes the Buckeyes would've been a better opponent than Michigan State for Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and based on the Fiesta Bowl, it's hard to argue with that point.
The OSU team that beat Michigan and Notre Dame was one of the best in the country, but it only has itself to blame for falling out of the playoff picture following the home loss to the Spartans on Nov. 21.
Elliott already announced his intentions to head to the NFL after this year, and Bosa will follow him out the door, per ESPN.com's Austin Ward. Darron Lee is another underclassman the Buckeyes could lose to the draft. Meanwhile, Taylor Decker, Adolphus Washington and Joshua Perry headline the team's group of seniors.
Ohio State will be among the Big Ten's best teams in 2016, but finishing in the top four might be a bridge too far. The Buckeyes' matchup with Oklahoma on Sept. 17 will reveal their playoff credentials.
Notre Dame will experience the same problem, with Smith and Fuller potentially off to the NFL. The Fighting Irish will also lose Schmidt, Ronnie Stanley, Prosise, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day.
Head coach Brian Kelly might have an embarrassment of riches at quarterback in 2016, but filling out the rest of the roster won't be easy.
The Fighting Irish won nine games and eight games, respectively, in the two seasons after they reached the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Looking at the personnel they'll have to replace after this year, they could experience a similar drop-off in the short term before they recover to become national title contenders again.
"Our team just won their 50th game," said Meyer of his senior class after the game, per Ohio State's Twitter account. "That's incredible achievement for a group of players that I love and appreciate."
On one hand, winning the Fiesta Bowl is a somewhat disappointing way to finish the season for the Buckeyes looked to defend their national championship. Plus, they were undoubtedly one of the top teams in the country once they actually started playing their best.
On the other hand, OSU fans have been spoiled ever since Meyer's arrival ahead of the 2012 season. Only Alabama has had the same kind of year-to-year consistency.
Regarding Smith, the worst fears appear to have come true. The star linebacker posted a photo to his Instagram page, and his left leg looks to be in a cast:
Kelly also called Smith's knee injury "significant," per Rabinowitz, which could seriously hurt his draft stock. Elliott sent out a tweet in support of Smith after the game:
Smith was widely considered a lock for the first round and potentially a top-10 pick. Any hopes of going in the top 10 are likely gone now, unless Smith comes back for his senior season. Returning to college would carry significant risk, though, in the case Smith re-injures the knee or isn't the same player he was in 2015.