Posted: Friday December 30, 2005 11:49AM; Updated: Monday January 2, 2006 2:57PM
Marquee Matchup: Fiesta Bowl
No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2)
Jan. 2, 4:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Sun Devil Stadium (73,752)
SI.com's B.J. Schecter analyzes the BCS showdown between the Buckeyes and Irish.
Setting the Stage
While Oregon fans have every right to be upset for the Ducks not getting an invite here, the Fiesta Bowl did the right thing by picking these two teams. This should be the second-best bowl game (after the Rose) and features a pair of high-powered offenses. Ohio State is 3-0 in BCS games and 2-0 in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame hasn't been as successful of late in the postseason. The Irish have lost their past seven bowl games and were routed by Oregon State in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.
Breaking down Ohio State
Senior linebacker A.J. Hawk is the leader of Ohio State's vaunted defense.
In their final six regular-season games, the Buckeyes' offense hit its stride, averaging 456.5 yards and 33.4 points per game. Junior quarterback Troy Smith led the charge, throwing for 200 or more yards in five of those games, including 300 yards in a 25-21, come-from-behind win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Smith, who is 12-2 as a starter, led the Big Ten in passing efficiency and accounted for 25 touchdowns -- 14 passing and 11 rushing. Ohio State's second-leading rusher, Smith is extremely mobile and has a knack for making big plays. The Buckeyes have a pair of dangerous receivers in Santonio Holmes (853 yards, 14 TDs) and Ted Ginn Jr., who has come on after a slow start. But don't forget about Anthony Gonzalez, a reliable target with a flair for the dramatic (witness his acrobatic catch against Michigan, which set up the winning score). Durable sophomore RB Antonio Pittman is a control-the-clock back who rushed for 1,195 yards this season.
Once again, Ohio State fielded one of the nation's best defenses and led the Big Ten in every statistical category. The Buckeyes led the nation in rushing D (74.5 yards per game), were fifth in total defense (275.3 yards per game), seventh in scoring D (14.8 points per game) and the unit has produced 39 sacks. Everything is centered around All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year who swarms to the ball. Hawk is tough to double because he has a pair of studs next to him in fellow linebackers Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, who is hoping to return from a broken leg to face the Irish. End Mike Kudla rules up front, while free safety Nate Salley and corner Ashton Youboty are stars in the secondary.
Breaking down Notre Dame
Irish WR Jeff Samardzija (83) has been Brady Quinn's favorite target this season.
The Irish have markedly improved on offense under first-year coach Charlie Weis and are one of two schools in the nation to have a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers (Miami of Ohio being the other). Notre Dame improved its offense from 345.5 yards per game in 2004 to 489.1 this season, the biggest jump in the nation. Junior quarterback Brady Quinn (3,633 yards, 32 TDs) has morphed into the best pure passer in college football and makes good decisions. Quinn has a pair of big targets in 6-foot-5 wideouts Jeff Samardzija, who set a school record with 15 TD catches, and Maurice Stovall (11 TDs, with 10 in the past five games) and TE Anthony Fasano. Running behind a veteran offensive line, sprite sophomore back Darius Walker has been terrific and possesses breakaway speed and swift cutback ability.
Notre Dame's mostly no-name defense has given up its share of big plays, but the unit has stepped up when necessary. In their final regular-season game, the Irish held Stanford to minus-11 rushing yards. Junior safety Tom Zbikowski has a nose for the ball -- and the end zone. He leads the team with five interceptions and has four returns for touchdowns (two punt returns, an interception and a fumble return) this season. The strength of the D is in the secondary and with linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays.
This is only the fifth meeting between the schools, which are located just 280 miles apart (Notre Dame won the first two meetings and Ohio State the last two). Both offenses can move the ball and have the ability to score points, and given the fact that Weis has had a month to prepare, look out. That said, the Buckeyes are far superior on defense. They're big, physical, aggressive and have the ability to make stops with the game on the line. The same cannot be said for Notre Dame's D. In a game in which a late stand or turnover could decide the outcome, Ohio State gets the slight edge.