By Jim Naveau
GLENDALE, Ariz. – This season was always going to be about a repeat for Ohio State. It just turned out to be a different, smaller one than expected.
Ohio State’s 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday was a repeat of the dominating performance the Buckeyes put together against Michigan in a 42-13 win in their final regular-season game.
The team that everyone expected OSU to be this season showed up in its last two games after a 17-14 loss to Michigan State ended the Buckeyes’ dream of back-to-back national championships.
And Notre Dame, like Michigan before it, paid the price.
Ohio State (12-1) jumped out to a 14-0 lead when it scored on its first two possessions of the game, had an answer when Notre Dame cut the lead to a touchdown early in the second half and put the game away late with three field goals.
Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, who will declare for the NFL draft, said good-bye to Ohio State by rushing for 149 yards and tying the Fiesta Bowl record for touchdowns with four.
Sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will be back next year with no one looking over his shoulder, completed 19 of 31 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 96 yards on 23 carries.
Notre Dame (10-3) got 284 yards passing and two touchdowns from quarterback DeShone Kizer and freshman Josh Adams led the ground game with 78 yards on 14 carries.
Ohio State’s success started with its offensive line, which consistently opened holes, like it did against Michigan.
“That’s what we strive to do is dominate the line of scrimmage,” Barrett said. “Those guys definitely did that, which opens up our whole offense when you’re able to do that.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly also pointed to Ohio State’s offense as one of the big differences in the game.
“They did a very good job of spreading it out a little more. But they still went to what their strength is and that was running the ball 54 times,” he said. “They just did it with a little bit of a different look.”
Ohio State marched 80 yards in nine plays, the last two yards on Elliott’s first touchdown run, to go up 7-0 the first time it had the ball.
The next time it touched the ball, it went 43 yards in three plays and scored on a 15-yard pass from Barrett to Michael Thomas for a 14-0 lead with 7:41 left in the first quarter.
Notre Dame lost its best defensive player, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jaylon Smith, when he suffered what Kelly called “a significant knee injury” just before Thomas’ touchdown.
And three minutes later, OSU lost its top defender when defensive end Joey Bosa was ejected for targeting after a hit on Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer.
While some of Ohio State’s players talked about “next man up” when asked about replacing Bosa, coach Urban Meyer was more worried about his team going against Notre Dame without Bosa and suspended defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
“Oh my goodness, that was a kidney shot,” Meyer said. “We were playing with some cats out there that I didn’t know were going to play. But they played hard and did fine against a very good team.”
Ohio State had 496 yards total offense and allowed 405 to Notre Dame, though 81 of that came on one pass play, an 81-yard touchdown from Kizer to Will Fuller.
Ohio stretched its lead to 28-7 late in the second quarter on two more short touchdown runs by Elliott at the end of long drives before Notre Dame got to within 28-14 at halftime.
The Fighting Irish scored first in the second half on a 4-yard pass from Kizer to Chris Brown to narrow the lead to 28-21 after linebacker Joe Schmidt intercepted a pass from Elliott at Notre Dame’s 42-yard line.
But Ohio State had an immediate answer when Elliott went 47 yards untouched for a touchdown that made it 35-21. Notre Dame never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
“He’s a physical back and he certainly makes his presence known,” Kelly said about Elliott.
Notre Dame’s leading rusher, C.J. Prosise, did not play because of an ankle injury that has kept him out of action since Nov. 14.
“He just felt like he couldn’t go,” Kelly said.
But for the second game in a row, Ohio State had no trouble going where it wanted to go and doing what it wanted to do. It just came a little too late.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau