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Buckeyes will be tough nut to crack for Irish

Mike Gilloon | Sunday, December 11, 2005

With finals week nearing fast, Irish defensive end Victor Abiamiri hadn’t had time to study tape of Ohio State before Saturday’s bowl media day. But the few chances he had this season to see the Buckeyes play on TV were enough to let him know Notre Dame will be tested in next month’s Fiesta Bowl.

“They’re a good team,” Abiamiri said. “We’ll have to save our best game for them.”

The Buckeyes have impressed Abiamiri and the Irish this season with an offense led by multi-skilled quarterback Troy Smith and a defense featuring Lombardi Award-winning linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Giving up just 14.8 points per game, Hawk headlines a group of linebackers regarded by many as one of the best in the nation. Anthony Schlegel is second on the team with 75 tackles to Hawk’s 109. Bobby Carpenter occupies the third linebacker spot and has 49 tackles as well as a team-leading eight sacks.

“Their linebackers jump out at me, I think,” Notre Dame running back Darius Walker said. “Players like A.J. Hawk, players who have had incredible seasons and even had incredible careers … at that position. We haven’t had a whole bunch of time to look at them on tape … but just from watching them on TV … you can definitely see they really have a dominant defense that’s keying in on stopping the run.”

Walker and the Irish rushing attack are averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season. But the Buckeyes have held opponents to 2.4 yards per carry, nine total rushing touchdowns and a stifling 74.5 yards per game. The play of the defense has been solid enough for Ohio State to place five defenders on the all-Big Ten first team, as conference defensive player of the year Hawk is joined by defensive end Mike Kudla, free safety Nate Salley, strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Ashton Youboty. Carpenter was selected to the second team along with defensive lineman Quinn Pitcock.

These statistics and accolades have certainly been noticed by Irish offensive guard Dan Stevenson, who acknowledges Hawk as the catalyst of the nation’s No. 4 total defense. (Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked No. 10 in total offense.)

“Wherever [Hawk] is on the field, or whatever you try to do, he’s always there,” Stevenson said. “He has a natural path to the ball. He’s a great player, along with the whole defense. They all kind of feed off each other.”

While the Buckeyes’ rush defense is one of the top units in America, their defensive backfield has given opposing quarterbacks problems all season, tallying six interceptions and giving up just 200.8 passing yards per game.

One striking feature of Ohio State’s secondary is its height. The three first-team all-conference honorees – Salley, Whitner and Youboty – are listed at 6-foot-3, 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1 respectively. The other starter, freshman cornerback Michael Jenkins, is 6-foot-1. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s two leading receivers – Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall – are both listed at 6-foot-5.

The extra few inches, especially with Salley, could test an Irish receiving corps that has tallied 334.3 yards per game and 32 total touchdown receptions this season.

But Whitner is the only Buckeye with more than one interception, racking up two this season including one for a touchdown.

While the Ohio State defense gets much of the media attention for its outstanding play, Smith and the offense have played their way to a No. 29 ranking in passing offense. Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn, Jr. lead the Buckeyes with 853 and 636 yards receiving respectively. Ginn especially worries the Irish, as the 6-foot sophomore averages 14.8 yards per reception and has scored a touchdown returning both a punt and a kick.

“[Ginn’s] speed is the biggest thing you see,” Notre Dame strong safety Tom Zbikowski said. “He’ll just run past guys like it’s nothing. He’s a playmaker, kind of like [USC’s] Reggie [Bush]. When he hits a gap there aren’t too many people that are faster than him in the country.”