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Football

Depleted Irish reach breaking point in Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State

| Friday, January 1, 2016

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Despite all the injuries dealt to Notre Dame this season, the team had either still emerged victorious in 10 of its matchups or had been pushed to the edge, against Clemson and Stanford, and come up short by the smallest of margins.

But when the No. 8 Irish faced No. 7 Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl on Friday, they couldn’t hold it together for the last game of the season, falling 44-28 to the Buckeyes.

Notre Dame defenders swarm Ohio State sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett as he scrambles for a gain during the Buckeyes' 44-28 victory over the Irish on Friday.Wei Lin | The Observer

Notre Dame defenders swarm Ohio State sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett as he scrambles for a gain during the Buckeyes’ 44-28 victory over the Irish on Friday.

Since arriving in Arizona for the contest less than a week before, Notre Dame (10-3) had lost starting junior safety Max Redfield and freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery to suspensions and starting junior cornerback Devin Butler to injury.

Senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day played after nearly breaking his foot earlier in the week and then receiving IVs and medicine to battle through sickness the night before the game at University of Phoenix Stadium, head coach Brian Kelly said.

Senior running back C.J. Prosise, who Kelly had said earlier in the week had recovered well from a high ankle sprain, barely saw the field because he “just felt like he couldn’t go,” according to Kelly.

But the real strike came in the first quarter Friday, when consensus All-American junior linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered what his head coach called “a significant knee injury” to his left leg after being pushed by an Ohio State player following a play.

“You lose a guy like that early on, it significantly affects what you’re doing defensively,” Kelly said.

Smith’s replacement at “Will” linebacker, freshman Te’von Coney, then injured his shoulder at the beginning of the second quarter, to be replaced in turn by graduate student Jarrett Grace, who had taken most of his reps in 2015 at the “Mike” linebacker position.

Irish graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace wraps up Buckeyes junior running back Ezekiel Elliott during Notre Dame's loss to Ohio State on Friday. Grace entered the game after junior Jaylon Smith and freshman Te'von Coney both suffered injuries and finished with nine tackles.Wei Lin | The Observer

Irish graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace wraps up Buckeyes junior running back Ezekiel Elliott during Notre Dame’s loss to Ohio State on Friday. Grace entered the game after junior Jaylon Smith and freshman Te’von Coney both suffered injuries and finished with nine tackles.

With the Irish defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs all depleted in some way, Ohio State (12-1) was able to run easily and often over the Notre Dame defense. Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott had his way Friday, totaling 149 yards on 27 carries and reaching the end zone four times. The final score capped off a 47-yard sprint to put the Buckeyes back ahead by two scores in the third quarter, 35-21, two minutes after Notre Dame had cut its deficit to a touchdown.

“He makes it challenging,” Day said of Elliott. “He’s a physical back. He makes his presence known. He did some special things with his feet today. I would say that was the most difficult thing about it.”

Sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett rounded out Ohio State’s 1-2 punch, picking up 96 yards on 23 rushes and adding 211 more yards through the air on 19-of-31 passing.

The two Buckeyes largely led their team’s attack on third down, where they converted 10 of their 18 attempts, and they came away with scores in all seven of their trips to the red zone.

“I told our football team that it was going to be a physical game today,” Kelly said. “I thought that we handled ourselves well relative to the physicality of the game, but we didn’t execute as well as we needed to win the game. Couldn’t get off the field on third-down situations and had some opportunities offensively that we couldn’t capitalize on.”

Notre Dame never held the lead Friday and fell behind quickly after Ohio State crossed the goal line twice in the game’s first eight minutes. The Irish punted on their first three drives, including two three-and-outs, despite catching an early break as Buckeyes junior defensive lineman Joey Bosa was ejected for targeting on a hit to sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer.

Freshman running back Josh Adams finally put the Irish on the board midway through the second quarter, scoring on a three-yard rush, and they added another touchdown on a quarterback keep by Kizer shortly before halftime, when they trailed 28-14.

Ohio State received the ball to begin the second half, but its drive ended when Barrett was picked off by graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt, beginning an Irish drive that finished with a four-yard pass from Kizer to senior receiver Chris Brown in the back corner of the end zone.

Senior receiver Chris Brown battles for the ball in the air with Ohio State sophomore Eli Apple during Notre Dame's 44-28 loss to the Buckeyes on Friday in Glendale, Arizona. Brown had four catches, including a touchdown, for 35 yards in the game.Wei Lin | The Observer

Senior receiver Chris Brown battles for the ball in the air with Ohio State sophomore Eli Apple during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to the Buckeyes on Friday in Glendale, Arizona. Brown had four catches, including a touchdown, for 35 yards in the game.

“The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just keep playing,” Kelly said. “I think the best illustration of that was the first five minutes of the third quarter, I challenged them and told them, it was a bit risky as a head coach that you tell your football team that the game is going to be decided in the first five minutes of the third quarter, because obviously if Ohio State goes down and scores, it probably takes the wind out of our sales.

“We came up with a big turnover, we consequently scored there. Made it 28-21. Just loved the resiliency of our group and very, very proud of them.”

Kizer notched 284 yards on 22-of-37 passing, but he also struggled throughout the game, grounding several passes into the turf, throwing a third-quarter interception just as the Irish had entered Buckeye territory and fumbling with 1:27 left to all but seal the victory for Ohio State.

“It’s very disappointing,” Kizer said. “I believe I’m a better athlete than I showed today, and I believe that, with all the things we’ve learned in the past, all the experiences I’ve had in the past, that I should’ve executed a little better. We came up a little short, disappointing, but more importantly, as mad as I am at myself, the disappointment is really the fact that I wasn’t able to take an amazing group of seniors and amazing football team that we have and try to end the year on a victory.”

Kizer did hit junior receiver Will Fuller for an 81-yard grab and score at the start of the fourth quarter to cut Ohio State’s lead to 38-28, but the Irish were held scoreless the rest of the game while the Buckeyes tacked on two more field goals for the 44-28 win.

Despite the loss, Kelly said he “couldn’t be more proud” of Notre Dame’s showing Friday and throughout the season.

“We didn’t get out-toughed,” Kelly said. “[Ohio State] ran the ball effectively. I’m not taking anything away from their ability to do so. But we didn’t flinch. That’s the mark of this team this year, that they played hard and physical. Regardless of who was out there, they gave us everything they had.

We were a little shorthanded, but they didn’t make any excuses for it. They battled. We were missing a rotation inside defensively at the tackle position, but they didn’t complain. They took extra reps. That’s the mark of a group that just has bought in to do whatever is necessary to win.”

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Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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