It was just the fifth-ever meeting between Ohio State and Notre Dame, and the Buckeyes made sure they brought their big plays with them.
Fourth-ranked Ohio State used four long touchdown plays and some smothering defense to avalanche fifth-rated Notre Dame 34-20 before 76,196 in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
The Buckeyes (10-2) won the Fiesta Bowl for the third time in four years.
“There is something special about this Fiesta Bowl, no question about it,” said OSU coach Jim Tressel. “Our seniors are so superlative and they have done so much in their four or five years here. We wanted to send them out as champions.”
The win allowed Ohio State to become the first school to a 4-0 record in Bowl Championship Series games, although USC can match that mark with a win over Texas in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl. OSU also takes a 3-2 lead in the all-time series with Notre Dame.
“The number one goal we had was to make sure our seniors left here with some wonderful memories,” said Tressel, whose team ended the year on a seven-game winning streak. “They’ve done an extraordinary job. We’re proud of them and the underclassmen for being committed to them. It was a tough football game. Our kids deserved to win it.”
OSU led 21-7 at halftime, but could not put Notre Dame (9-3) away until Antonio Pittman’s 60-yard touchdown run with 1:46 left. That was Ohio State’s fourth long touchdown, following Troy Smith’s touchdown passes of 56 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. and 85 yards to Santonio Holmes and Ginn’s 68-yard touchdown run on a reverse.
The Buckeyes had only had three offensive plays of 50 yards or longer all season and had four in this game against the Irish. Those big plays allowed OSU to withstand two blown scoring chances in the first half and a pair of blocked field goals.
For the game, OSU accumulated 617 yards total offense and 27 first downs. The Buckeyes exploited a Notre Dame defense that was ranked 96th nationally against the pass at the end of the regular season.
“(Offensive coordinator Jim) Bollman and his staff worked long and hard for a month, watching where we thought that we could make some big things happen,” Tressel said. “I thought they had a tremendous plan and our guys executed it so well. The one thing we talked about was we didn’t want to overthrow the deep ones.”
In that vein, Smith was the game’s offensive MVP. He completed 19 of 28 passes for a career-high 342 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 66 yards.
“I have to credit everything to the offensive play calling,” Smith said. “The scheme today was set out to make big plays. The offensive line did a great job with withstanding the blitzes that came, and I was fortunate to be able to connect in a couple deep passes.”
Equally impressive was Ginn, who had eight catches for a career-best 167 yards and one score and 73 yards and a touchdown on two carries.
“I had a lot of fun,” Ginn said. “The point of the game was to play hard for the seniors. I have another year and the seniors don’t. I try to go out and play hard and play fast and do everything right.”
After the game, Holmes announced his plans to leave Ohio State a year early for the NFL draft. He goes out with five catches for 124 yards and one touchdown in his swan song.
Pittman ended up 136 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk was the game’s defensive MVP. He tallied 12 tackles, 3-1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks on Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, whose sister Hawk is dating. In one of the key plays of the game, Hawk sacked Quinn on an ND fourth-down pass attempt from the OSU 6-yard line.
“Any time you get a quarterback, it feels good,” said Hawk, who helped the Buckeyes get to Quinn for five sacks. “That was our game plan. We wanted to come out and pressure them. We felt we could do that. When we needed to make plays, we did.”
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Quinn said of Hawk. “He showed up today and had a great game. I’m sure he’s got a bright future in the NFL. He was playing in the Fiesta Bowl and playing Notre Dame and he was amped.”
For Notre Dame, Quinn was 29 of 45 passing for 286 yards. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall caught nine passes for 126 yards, while tailback Darius Walker had 90 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries.
“They were definitely the better team today,” said ND coach Charlie Weis. “They deserved to win. They made the play at the end to put it away.”
“We were just bringing a lot of pressure and disguising a lot,” added OSU safety Donte Whitner, who tallied nine tackles, one fumble forced and three pass break-ups. “We wanted to take away the big plays from their receivers. They lived off big plays all season, and they didn’t really have any of those in this game.”
Ohio State won the toss but elected to defer. Josh Huston slipped on the kickoff and hit a squib kick, which ND upback Asaph Schwapp returned 10 yards to the ND 28. Quinn went right to work, throwing deep incomplete to Jeff Samardzija. He then found Samardzija for an 8-yard gain. Walker exploded through a big hole for 9 yards on third down before he gained 10 yards on a draw.
On first down at the OSU 45, the Irish went with an empty backfield. Quinn hit Stovall down the seam in front of safety Nate Salley for a 25-yard gain down to the 20. Then, on first down there, Walker took a toss right, picked up block from John Sullivan and accelerated into the end zone for the 20-yard touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead with 12:59 left in the first quarter. The Irish scoring march was 72 yards in six plays.
“We knew Notre Dame was coming out to make plays,” Hawk said. “They have a ton of talent and a great coaching staff. San Diego State scored on the first play of the game on us and we just had to calm down and play our game.”
Ohio State answered almost as quickly, moving 82 yards in seven plays. Facing third-and-9 from the OSU 19, Smith stepped up and rolled for a 15-yard game behind a block from Holmes. He then converted another third down with a 6-yard pass to Holmes. Then, on first down at the OSU 44, Smith dropped and threw deep down the left side to a wide open Ginn. Ginn got at least 10 yards behind ND’s Ambrose Wooden and Chinedum Ndukwe and easily hauled in the pass at the goal line for the 56-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7 with 10:02 left in the first half.
Smith then committed a faux pas as he struggled to avoid the rush on first-and-20 from the OSU 27. ND’s Corey Mays poked the ball out and ND’s Ronald Talley recovered it at the OSU 15 with 3:45 left in the first quarter.
But Notre Dame failed to cash in on this golden opportunity. Three plays netted 9 yards. Weis opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the OSU 6. But Hawk came unblocked through the middle of the line and, along with teammates Mike Kudla and David Patterson, swarmed Quinn for a sack at the OSU 14, ending the serious threat with 1:32 left in the first quarter.
“I’m not big on second guessing,” said Weis, who eschewed the field goal try. “We had a play we practiced where we felt pretty good about our chances of either scoring a touchdown or, in that case, not scoring a touchdown. It’s easy to say take the points, but we went into the game planning on taking a lot of chances.”
The Buckeyes began to drive out of their own end, but were pushed back by a personal foul on guard Rob Sims. But Smith converted a third down with an 18-yard pass to Ginn. Then, on first down from the 32, Smith pitched the ball back to Ginn on a reverse. He got around ND defensive lineman Talley to get to the left sideline. He then picked up a block as Sims eliminated ND’s Wooden on the corner. It became a footrace between Ginn and Ndukwe down the sideline. But, just as Ndukwe closed in, Ginn cut back toward the middle of the field. Then, as Ndukwe and corner Mike Richardson closed back in, Ginn took it back outside to finish off a remarkable 68-yard touchdown play that put OSU ahead 14-7 with 14:16 left in the second quarter.
Ohio State then blew a big scoring chance of its own. After the Buckeyes had driven 56 yards down to the ND 15, Smith mistimed a pitch to Ginn and the ball was recovered by ND’s Ndukwe at the Irish 9-yard line with 8:56 left in the half.
The OSU defense held and forced a punt, but the Irish downed it at the OSU 2-yard line. No matter, the Buckeyes needed four plays to go 98 yards and find the end zone for the third time. Smith scrambled for 9 yards to convert a third down. Then on first down from the 15, Smith faked and threw deep down the middle to Holmes. Once again, Ndukwe and Wooden were the nearest defenders. Holmes caught it at 50-yard line and rolled the rest of the way. He was flagged for excessive celebration as ND’s Tom Zbikowski converged near the goal line, but it was still an 85-yard touchdown that put the Buckeyes up 21-7 with 2:21 left in the first half.
“Our guys wanted to get into the end zone as much as possible,” Holmes said. “We feel all the time we had a chance to get behind those guys.”
Quinn was then victimized by a pair of dropped passes, allowing OSU to get the ball back on a punt with 1:47 left. Smith led OSU into the red zone, completing 4 of 5 passes for 42 yards. But the Buckeyes ran out of time and had to settle for Huston’s 28-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the half. But ND’s Ndukwe blocked the attempt to end the half.
OSU held a 21-7 halftime lead despite a pair of turnovers and in spite of a pair of missed opportunities. In the first half, the Buckeyes rolled up 391 yards and 18 first downs.
Weis said he wanted to change the tempo of the game in the second half.
“We were down 21-7 at halftime and we were lucky to be down 21-7,” Weis said. “It could have been a three-score game.”
The teams traded punts to open the second half before OSU moved 30 yards down to the ND 29. On fourth-and-6 there, though, Huston had his 46-yard field goal blocked by ND’s Trevor Laws with 7:18 left in the third quarter.
The Notre Dame offense, held largely in check since its game opening drive, then came to life. The Irish drove 71 yards in 10 plays. Quinn hit Matt Shelton for a 21-yard gain and then went to Maurice Stovall for a 19-yard gain on a slant. Shelton then made a sliding grab of a 13-yard pass for a first down at the 18. Finally, on third-and-2 from the OSU 10, Quinn looked as if he would pass and instead handed to Walker. He rolled through a big hole up the middle, juked OSU’s Salley at the 5 and scored on the 10-yard touchdown run.
D.J. Fitzpatrick’s PAT kick was just wide right, but Notre Dame had trimmed the gap to 21-13 with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
Ohio State then took possession at its own 35 after ND’s kickoff went out of bounds. On first down there, Smith threw to Ginn in the left flat. ND’s Wooden slipped on the play, allowing Ginn to roll for 44 yards down the sideline until Zbikowski saved the touchdown at the ND 21.
But one of the game’s biggest plays came on third-and-12 at the ND 23. Smith threw underneath to Anthony Gonzalez, who appeared to fumble the ball. Zbikowski swooped in, picked it up and returned it 88 yards for an apparent touchdown, although the score would have been negated by a block-in-the-back penalty on the Irish. But the entire play was negated, though, when the replay official from the SEC called for a review.
Upon review, it was determined that Gonzalez did not have possession for a pass completion. It was ruled an incomplete pass and the Buckeyes, thankfully, retained possession. Huston came on and was finally able to avoid a blocked field goal. His 40-yard kick put Ohio State ahead 24-13 with 2:20 left in the third quarter.
After forcing a Notre Dame punt, OSU drove 50 yards down to the ND 9. The key play was Smith’s 17-yard rollout pass to Roy Hall for a first down at the ND 16. But when Smith came up 3 yards shy of a first down on a third-down keeper, Huston came on and made a 26-yard field goal to push the lead to 27-13 with 10:12 left in the game.
Notre Dame answered with a had-to-have, methodical 13-play, 80-yard scoring march. Quinn converted a fourth down pass to Stovall for 16 yards, setting up Walker’s 3-yard scoring plunge. The officials originally ruled Walker down at the 1, but replay overturned the call when it was clear Walker put the ball across the plane of the goal line. The touchdown trimmed the OSU lead to 27-20 with 5:27 left.
Notre Dame kicked deep and tried to stop the Buckeyes to get the ball back. But ND was unsuccessful as Smith completed key third-down passes to Pittman for 10 yards and Gonzalez for 15. Finally, on first down at the OSU 40, Pittman took the ball going left and beat everybody to the corner and down the sideline for the game-clinching 60-yard touchdown with 1:46 left.
“I’m thinking, ‘Don’t get caught,’ ” Pittman said. “Touchdowns don’t come easy for me. Whenever I get a chance to get it, I just have to run. It was real good to break the big one. They always say you have to play four quarters and when I broke that one we were able to seal it up.”
Trailing by two touchdowns and with just two timeouts left, Notre Dame barely mounted a challenge on its final possession.
As the final seconds ticked off, OSU faithful in the north end zone chanted, “This is our house.”
* The 85-yard touchdown pass to Holmes stands as the second longest TD pass in OSU history, trailing an 86-yard touchdown from Art Schlichter against Washington State in 1979. Holmes also has the fourth longest pass in OSU history, catching an 80-yarder from Justin Zwick against Marshall in 2004.
* This was the sixth time this season Smith eclipsed 200 yards passing. He ended the year throwing for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. Smith is now 13-2 in his career as a starter and has 24 career TDs against seven interceptions.
He becomes the first Ohio State quarterback to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in the same season.
Smith ended the game with 408 yards in total offense, the most-ever for a Buckeye in a bowl game, surpassing the 330 yards by Steve Bellisari against South Carolina in the 2002 Outback Bowl.
* Holmes ended the year with 11 touchdown grabs and 24 for his career, the third highest total in OSU history.
* Ginn ended the year with seven touchdowns, six of which were 58 yards or longer. In his career he now has 15 TDs with 12 of them going 58 yards or longer.
* Pittman enjoyed his seventh 100-yard game of the year and eighth of his career. He finished the year with 1,331 yards and seven touchdowns on 250 carries. That yardage total is the 10th highest single-season total in school history.
* The crowd figure of 76,196 was the largest for a non-championship game at the Fiesta Bowl.
* The scoreboard operator mistakenly put up a point on Fitzpatrick’s miss. It took two minutes and a plea from the referee to get it changed from 14 to 13. The OSU fans, who outnumbered ND fans two-to-one, let out a cheer when it was changed.
* Gonzalez, when it was discovered his third-quarter fumble was really an incompletion, reared his head back in relief on the OSU bench.
“That was unbelievable,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the happiest I have ever been in probably my whole life. The best drop I have ever had in my life.”
* Tressel is now 50-13 after five years as the OSU coach and 185-70-2 in 20 years as a college head coach.
* OSU takes the edge for the first time ever in its series with Notre Dame.
Notre Dame won games in 1935-36 (18-13 in 1935 and 7-2 in 1936). Ohio State won games in 1995-96 (45-26 in 1995 and 29-16 in 1996).
* Ohio State is now 18-19 all-time in bowl games, including 4-1 in the Fiesta Bowl. That record includes a loss to Penn State in 1980 and wins over Pittsburgh in 1984, Miami (Fla.) in 2003 and Kansas State in 2004. The win over Miami was in the BCS national championship game. OSU has now won four straight bowl games.
With the win, Ohio State has now won four consecutive bowl games for the second time in school history. The previous four game bowl winning streak occurred over a 19 year span that included the 1950 Rose Bowl, the 1955 Rose Bowl, the 1958 Rose Bowl and the 1969 Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame is 13-14 all-time in bowl games, including 1-3 in the Fiesta Bowl. ND has now lost its last eight bowl appearances, dating to a win over Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.
* Ohio State is 4-0 all-time in BCS bowl appearances with a win over Texas A&M in the 1999 Sugar Bowl and the wins over Miami (Fla.), Kansas State and now Notre Dame at the Fiesta Bowl.
Notre Dame was making its second-ever BCS appearance, following the loss to Oregon State in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.
* The OSU seniors leave with a mark of 43-8. That would tie the school record for wins in a four-year period.
The 1998 senior class posted a record of 43-7.
* Ohio State is now 25-31-7 all-time against top-five ranked teams, including a loss to then-No. 2 Texas on Sept. 10.
* Ohio State now has an all-time record of 16-9-1 in games matching top-five teams. That includes a record of 5-6 in bowl game match-ups of top-five teams.
* OSU is now 64-45-8 all-time against top-10 opponents, including 6-2 under Tressel. That includes a win over No. 1 Miami (Fla.) in the Fiesta Bowl. The losses were to then-No. 5 Michigan in 2003 and then-No. 2 Texas earlier this year.
* The Buckeyes are 109-99-12 all-time against ranked opponents, including 5-2 this year. Tressel's record against the top 25 is now 22-7.
* OSU got its 14th 10-win season in school history, its eighth in 13 years and third in four years.
* OSU is assured of its third top-five finish in four years.