Pat Leonard | Wednesday, January 18, 2006
TEMPE, Ariz. – Notre Dame scored in only six plays on the opening possession of the 2006 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Jan. 2, but Ohio State’s response was just as quick and even more emphatic.
The Buckeyes (10-2) scored three touchdowns before halftime and did not surrender points again until the 4:25 mark of the third quarter, as No. 4 Ohio State earned a 34-20 win over No. 6 Notre Dame (9-3) on Jan. 2 at Sun Devil Stadium before 76,196 fans, the largest Tostitos Fiesta Bowl crowd in a non-championship game.
“They definitely were the better team today,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said matter-of-factly following the game.
The common theme in the post-game Notre Dame locker room was that there was nothing else to say. Ohio State posted 617 yards of total offense, almost 300 more than Notre Dame’s 348. Irish quarterback Brady Quinn was held without a touchdown pass for the first game all season, while Buckeyes signal-caller Troy Smith completed 19-of-28 attempts for 342 yards and two touchdowns.
The Buckeyes dominated the box score, but the Irish still were just one down away from setting up their offense to complete a late-game comeback.
Scoring twice in the second half and holding Ohio State to two field goals, Notre Dame was down 27-20 with 4:45 remaining when the Buckeyes began their final drive.
Ohio State started on its own 15-yard line and got a first down to the 26, but Notre Dame’s defense tightened, holding the Buckeyes to -1 yards on first and second down.
“We thought we were gonna stop them,” Irish strong safety Tom Zbikowski said. “We worked a lot on the four-minute kind of drill trying to stop their offense.”
But Smith escaped the grasp of Irish defensive end Ronald Talley on 3rd-and-11 and hit wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez for the first down. Then Ohio State tailback Michael Pittman (21 carries, 136 yards) took the next play from scrimmage 60 yards for the touchdown to seal a Buckeye victory.
“Looking at film, our coaches got us very prepared,” Zbikowski said. “We kind of saw everything they were going to throw at us, but they just outplayed us today.”
Notre Dame nevertheless found itself in position to tie the game late, and a crucial third quarter call also prevented the game from being even closer.
Down 21-7 at the half, the Irish scored the first second half points on a 10-yard Darius Walker touchdown run, his second of three on the day. Place-kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick missed the extra point to make the score 21-13. And Ohio State seemed unfazed with a 44-yard completion to wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. (8 catches, 167 yards, one touchdown) on first down to the Notre Dame 21-yard line.
But three plays later, Buckeyes wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez fumbled a completion on 3rd and 12 deep in Notre Dame territory. Irish strong safety Tom Zbikowski scooped up the fumble and scampered the field’s full length for the score.
Not so fast, said the referees – first by throwing a flag, then by reversing the play entirely.
“I think everyone who saw the scoreboard saw what happened. I guess everyone has their own opinion,” Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said. “I guess the refs have their own opinion, too.”
First, Notre Dame defensive back Leo Ferrine was called for a block in the back, negating the touchdown. But then the referees reversed the original call, deciding upon further review that Gonzalez had not established possession prior to the fumble.
The ruling was incomplete. Ohio State settled for a 40-yard field goal and also escaped retaining just a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“That was the play,” Weis said. “What I said to the official on the field is I hope your guy upstairs was right because that changed the whole complexion of the game.”
The Irish were counting their blessings to even be in the game when the fourth quarter arrived. Ohio State’s defense held strong almost all game, led by 12 tackles (nine solo) from star middle linebacker A.J. Hawk. And Irish receivers dropped several passes early that stalled drives.
Notre Dame senior linebackers Corey Mays and Brandon Hoyte led their team in tackles in their final game with 12 and 10, respectively. But in the first half, the Buckeyes offense also never missed a beat.
Ginn scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass on the Buckeyes’ first possession of the game, sneaking by what cornerback Ambrose Wooden called a “busted coverage” deep down the left sideline with 10:02 remaining in the first quarter.
Ginn scored again at the 14:16 mark of the second quarter on a 68-yard end-around down the left sideline, beating Talley to the end and coasting the rest of the way.
Then the Buckeyes forced a punt and appeared poised to score again when Smith and Ginn could not connect on a pitch, and Notre Dame’s Wooden recovered the fumble on the Irish 9-yard line.
But the Irish were forced to punt again, and four plays later, Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes caught an 85-yard touchdown pass (2:21 remaining) from Smith, who also gained 66 yards rushing in addition to his near-flawless passing numbers.
“As you watched Troy throughout his career, every day in practice, he learns a little something and gets better, and he learns from every ball game,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
The Irish again could mount no offensive momentum when they began the next drive with 2:16 remaining, and Ohio State then drove downfield to set up a 28-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Notre Dame free safety Chinedum Ndukwe blocked the attempt – the first of two by the Irish – to prevent a larger deficit than the 21-7 halftime Ohio State lead, but the Irish went into the locker room still aware they had gotten their “butts kicked” for the game’s first 30 minutes, Wooden said.
The second half effort was not enough, leaving all Irish players in the post-game locker room despondent despite the season’s success in comparison to recent years.
“We did have a great season, but it just doesn’t feel as good when you don’t execute in the last game,” Walker said.
Irish tight end Anthony Fasano, who a week later would declare himself eligible for the 2006 NFL draft, put the loss in perspective.
“This team has a lot of character,” he said. “It went against what a lot of people were saying in the beginning of the year. And even though we’ve had some disappointing losses and coming out here with a disappointing loss, I think the season is still a success.
“I think we made some great strides. We’re back on the map, and we set up a lot for the future.”