Dec. 6, 2015

Bowl Central

By John Heisler

The Notre Dame football record book details 38 series that have featured more games than the five that comprise the history between the Irish and Ohio State.

In fact, 10 of those 38 are other Big Ten Conference programs, including Penn State and Nebraska, two of the more recent league additions.

And, yet there hardly could be more intriguing storylines involved in just the sixth meeting between the 10-2 Irish and 11-1 Buckeyes-this one slated for New Year’s Day in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl (1 p.m. EST, 11 a.m. MST, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona).

These two teams haven’t met in 10 seasons (that one, too, came in the Fiesta Bowl) and only that one time after 1996. The programs have met twice in South Bend (a 7-2 Irish win in 1936 and a 29-16 Ohio State victory in 1996) as well as twice in Columbus (an 18-13 Notre Dame victory in 1935 in one of the earlier Games of the Century, followed by a 45-26 Buckeye triumph in 1995). The Fiesta Bowl matchup a decade ago went to Ohio State by a 34-20 count.

These are two teams that as recently as the Saturday before Thanksgiving both ranked among the top four in the College Football Playoff standings. That night the Buckeyes fell at home to Michigan State-and the Irish managed a 19-16 victory over Boston College.

A year ago, a single regular-season defeat (to Virginia Tech) was enough to leave the Buckeyes in the four-team playoff. This time that same single regular-season defeat came against conference rival Michigan State and cost the Buckeyes a spot in the Big Ten title game.

Meanwhile, the Irish knew their playoff hopes effectively extinguished themselves in their final-play loss at Stanford last weekend, so an at-large slot in either the Fiesta or Peach Bowl among the New Year’s Six was the likely assignment for Brian Kelly’s crew.

So, now, back to the Irish-Buckeye storylines for 2015:

— Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is a former Notre Dame assistant coach under both Lou Holtz and Bob Davie (1996-2000 when he coached receivers and special teams).

— Buckeye assistants Ed Warinner (2010-11), Tim Hinton (2010-11) and Tony Alford (2009-14) all coached on Kelly’s Notre Dame staff in recent years. In fact, Alford had some hand in recruiting just about every player on the current Notre Dame roster before he departed for Columbus just after signing day in 2015. Alford qualified as the lone Notre Dame assistant retained from the Charlie Weis era when Kelly was hired.

— Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith is a former Notre Dame defensive lineman (he earned a monogram in 1976 as a backup to captain Willie Fry) who also coached the Irish junior varsity and special teams in 1978-80.

— The Irish boast 10 scholarship players with Ohio home addresses-most notably starting quarterback DeShone Kizer (Toledo), one-time starting quarterback Malik Zaire (Dayton), along with veteran linebacker Jarrett Grace (Cincinnati), defensive line starter Daniel Cage (Cincinnati), tight end contributor Chase Hounshell (Kirtland), defensive lineman Jacob Matuska (Columbus), cornerback Nick Coleman (Dayton), injured defensive back Shaun Crawford (Lakewood), offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne (Cleveland) and defensive lineman Elijah Taylor (Cincinnati). Expect comparisons to that 2006 Fiesta Bowl game when the Irish also had an Ohio product playing quarterback in Brady Quinn from Dublin, Ohio.

— Kelly is no stranger to the state of Ohio, having spent four seasons as head coach at Cincinnati (2006-09). And recruiting coordinator and linebacker coach Mike Elston lists St. Marys, Ohio, as his hometown.

–And, realistically, there are lots of players on both rosters who looked at both Notre Dame and Ohio State in the recruiting process.

And, yet, none of that will have much to do with whether or not the Irish can defeat the defending national champions.

Kelly’s message to his team moments after the postseason pairings were announced had far more to do with how the Irish represent themselves on this major national stage.

Kelly, the fourth-year seniors including Sheldon Day, Elijah Shumate, Romeo Okwara, Chris Brown and Ronnie Stanley, the fifth-year seniors including Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley-they all remember the last time Notre Dame spent the holidays at this sort of event. They all were around at the end of 2012 when the 12-0 Irish dropped the Bowl Championship Series title game to Alabama.

As Kelly said to his squad, “The last time we were in this situation, it didn’t work out so well. We’ve made great strides as a program since then, and now we have that chance again. We didn’t get to exactly where we wanted to be at the end of this year, but this is a great challenge to show the country what kind of team we are.”

And, though Kelly wasn’t around for these, he’ll surely be reminded over the coming weeks that Notre Dame’s other BCS opportunities (2000 against Oregon State in the Fiesta, 2005 against Ohio State in the Fiesta, 2006 against LSU in the Sugar) didn’t go all that well, either.

That same Notre Dame history book shows 11 “major” bowl wins for the Irish (five Cotton, two Sugar, two Orange, one Rose, one Fiesta). Yet the last one of those came after the 1993 season in a Cotton Bowl victory over a sixth-ranked Texas A&M unit.

The columnists covering this matchup will have plenty of time to cover all those other angles (if karma counts, the Irish even will bunk at the same Scottsdale hotel where they stayed in 1988 when they clinched the national title at the Fiesta Bowl).

Yet Kelly knows full well this is all about proving on a single Friday afternoon whether his team is good enough to defeat an elite football opponent.

As the Irish head coach noted Sunday, a case probably could be made for any of the top eight (or so) teams in the final CFP poll being strong enough to contend for all the marbles. His team ended eighth in the last poll (Ohio State was seventh) following two-point road losses to top-ranked and Orange Bowl-bound Clemson and sixth-ranked and Rose Bowl-bound Stanford.

He and his staff and players will spend the next month trying to make sure Notre Dame remains in that conversation about the best teams in the nation by the time nightfall comes on New Year’s Day in the desert.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky:

— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:

— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner–and Moves On:

— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:

— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:

— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:

— Sunday Brunch: Irish Leave RISP, Still Win Game No. 10:

— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father

— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: