By Jim Naveau
A Sunday morning grade card on Ohio State’s 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, a game that put about the best possible ending on a season when the ultimate goal was out of reach.
Slow starts were a problem much of the season but OSU’s offense made sure that wasn’t an issue by scoring two touchdowns before the first quarter was even halfway over.
Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 149 yards and four touchdowns in his farewell to Ohio State. J.T. Barrett was 19 of 31 for 211 yards passing and ran for 96 yards on 23 carries.
The offensive line repeated the dominating performance it had in a 42-13 win over Michigan. Balance was a goal and the Buckeyes got it with Barrett’s 31 passes. He completed his first seven passes and connected with six receivers by halftime.
The only questions were about why Ohio State didn’t play its fast-moving “tempo” offense more often earlier in the season and why it took so long to move offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to the coaches booth from the sideline.
Unfortunately, the All-American poster boys for Ohio State’s defense and Notre Dame’s defense didn’t make it out of the first quarter.
OSU defensive end Joey Bosa was ejected for targeting and Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith left the game with what his coach Brian Kelly called “a significant knee injury.”
Bosa’e ejection meant Ohio State was playing without three of its four starting defensive linemen. Even without Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, though, the Buckeyes held Notre Dame to 143 yards on the ground.
Linebacker Darron Lee (two sacks) and defensive ends Tyquan Lewis (one sack) and Sam Hubbard (one sack) got good pressure on ND quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Notre Dame had only one really big play in the air, an 81-yard touchdown pass to its No. 1 receiver, Will Fuller.
Kicker Sean Nuernberger made a nice comeback from a tough season when he kicked field goals of 38 yards, 37 yards and 35 yards in the fourth quarter. The sophomore lost his job to Duke graduate transfer Jack Willoughby for most of the season and had missed his only attempt before the Fiesta Bowl.
Ohio State’s kick coverage team did a nice job of containing dangerous Notre Dame return man C.J. Sanders, the son of former Ohio State receiver Chris Sanders, who never found room to run. Punter Cameron Johnston was his usual excellent self.
The most often asked question in the weeks before the Fiesta Bowl was if Ohio State would be motivated.
Some people speculated the Buckeyes would be distracted by the NFL draft or still disturbed about not getting into the College Football Playoff. The answer to that question came quickly when OSU jumped out to leads of 14-0 and 28-7 in the first half.
Ohio State finished 12-1 and the senior class departed with a 50-4 record in the last four seasons.
The Fiesta Bowl was a good ending to the season and to the seniors’ careers.
But everyone knows wearing hats that said “Fiesta Bowl Champion” on the field after the game was not what Ohio State had in mind this season.