TEMPE, Ariz. -- Notre Dame, after an impressive six-play opening drive, led 7-0 in the early minutes of the 35th Fiesta Bowl, and Ohio State, after a running play that was bottled up for a one-yard gain and an incomplete pass, was facing third-and-9.
In other words, the Fighting Irish were in trouble.
On the next play, Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith tucked the ball under his right arm and squirted through Notre Dame's defense for 15 yards and a first down. Smith would spend all afternoon and early evening in Tempe doing just that: getting Buckeye punter A.J. Trapasso's hopes up that he might enter the contest, then converting another third-down chance. And if you think Trapasso (one punt, 40 yards) was bummed after Ohio State beat the Irish 34-20, to win their third Fiesta Bowl in four years (and extend the Irish's bowl losing streak to eight games), you should have heard Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
"That was my biggest fear going into the game," Weis said of Smith's ability to make plays, either with his feet or with his arm. "I told my defensive staff that very thing during preparations for this game. Sure enough, the first third down of the game, he pulls the ball down and makes the big plays. I don't have the stats in front of me, but I think Ohio State was five-for-five in the first half on third downs."
Weis is correct. The Buckeyes were 5-of-5 in the first half, and 8-of-12 overall. For as many big-play scores as the Buckeyes had against the Irish (the shortest of Ohio State's four touchdowns was Ted Ginn Jr.'s 56-yard reception), it was the third-down conversions that sapped the strength of the Irish defense.
"Just keepin' it alive." That, Smith said afterward, was what his offense was trying to do on third down in the Fiesta Bowl. "A team that is only 50 percent [in third-down conversions] can lead the whole nation, so we just try to be better than that."
In fact, only four schools finished above 50 percent on third-down conversions this season, and it is no coincidence that two of those four are playing in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday. The Buckeyes, at 47.9 percent, finished in a tie for ninth this season, but were 66.6 percent against the Irish.
The reason? Smith. Five of the eight third-down conversions were successful thanks to pass completions by Smith, who finished the evening 19-of-28 passing for a career-best 342 yards, with zero interceptions. Two of the other three conversions occurred via Smith's wheels. On all seven of those third downs, the Buckeyes needed at least five yards to move the chains.
The only quarter in which the Buckeyes failed to convert a third down, ironically, was the third. That was also the only quarter in which Ohio State was outscored (6-3).
A play-by-play summary of the game will tell you that the Buckeyes passed two-thirds of their third-down tests. What it might not illustrate is the psychological effect such plays have on a defense.
Every game story will note that the Buckeyes won with big-play TDs: Ginn's 56-yard reception and his 68-yard reverse, a play that left so many Irish defenders sprawled on the turf that I thought I was watching the climactic scene from Horse Feathers; Santonio Holmes' 85-yard reception; and, lastly, Antonio Pittman's 60-yard off-tackle run. What every story may not mention is that all four of those scores occurred on the very next play after the Buckeyes had converted a third-down try.
"The key to any great performance," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said in the postgame news conference, "is that the key players have to make plays."