Analysis: Notre Dame's significant Fiesta Bowl story lines

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — All you need to know about the fervor with which Brian Kelly is approaching Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup with Ohio State rests in the normally delicate balance between long-term player development and actual game prep.

This time, there is no balance, delicate or otherwise.

It’s all in for CFP and AP No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) and its Jan. 1 date with the CFP/AP seventh-ranked Buckeyes (11-1) in Glendale, Ariz., with the notion of a “second spring practice” agenda being way, way, way back burner.

“First and foremost, this team wants to win,” Kelly said Sunday after ND’s fifth-ever Fiesta Bowl appearance became official. “And so winning will be the most important thing.

“I think that we'd like to say that experimenting and positions and getting young guys work is really left to the spring. This is about preparing this football team for one last game.”

Ohio State leads the series, 3-2, with their most recent meeting also coming in the Fiesta Bowl, a 34-20 Buckeye triumph 10 seasons ago. In that matchup of top five teams, OSU racked up an opponent-record 617 yards in total offense, and the shortest of its four touchdowns was 56 yards.

Kelly was finishing up his second season at Central Michigan back then. Grad linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt was an ND fan in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium that day, while grad center and captain Nick Martin was disinterested in either team, instead a follower of Kentucky, where his father once played football.

The most indelible image from that ND-OSU game, at least from a TV standpoint, may have been the incessant camera shots of a divided Laura Quinn with a half-and-half jersey to go with her mind-set.

She was the girlfriend (and now wife) of Ohio State star linebacker A.J. Hawk and is the sister of then-Irish QB Brady Quinn.

“For some weird reason, I remember that,” Martin said of the overplayed story line.

Here are the most pertinent story lines to follow in this iteration as the Irish kick off bowl prep on Thursday:

Many Happy Returns: Not only have injured starters Jarron Jones and Durham Smythe been cleared to practice beginning Thursday, they’ll be practicing with the intent of playing in the bowl game and making significant contributions.

Jones, projected to start at nose guard this season after doing so in 2014, was sidelined on Aug. 14 with an MCL tear to his right knee. The injury was suffered in preseason practice that was expected to end his season.

Smythe actually started ND’s first two games this season, but didn’t quite finish the Virginia game on Sept. 12. The play just before DeShone Kizer hit Will Fuller with the go-ahead touchdown in the 34-27 Irish triumph, Smythe suffered a right MCL tear himself.

Three days later, he underwent surgery on the knee as well as a shoulder that had been troubling him.

Because Jones and Smythe both have already redshirted for non-medical reasons and would not be likely candidates to successfully petition the NCAA for a sixth year, playing in the postseason would not “burn” a year of eligibility.

Jones’ final season of eligibility will be in 2016, while Smythe has two seasons after this one.

If they can even be part-time players Jan. 1 at their respective positions, they have the potential to impact ND in two of its weakest areas — red zone offense, where the Irish and Buckeyes both rank 89th (out of 127) in the FBS, and run defense, with ND standing at 65th nationally.

Kelly thinks there is potential for them to be more than that.

“I know (trainer) Rob Hunt feels like we can get Durham Smythe to where he was in August,” Kelly said. “His strength levels are above where he was coming into the camp.

“Jarron is at about 90 percent right now, so it just depends on where we can get his volume. If we can get his volume up, I think at this time of the year, that's pretty good. I think we can get some really good play out of Jarron.

“It's just strength levels and getting them up, and then matching that with volume in terms of reps.”

• Running back C.J. Prosise (high ankle sprain) is expected to be available for the bowl game, but isn’t yet fully cleared for contact.

“He's out of the cast,” Kelly said of the 1,000-yard rusher. “He's moving around. We'll have to see how he continues to progress. We expect him to be ready, but he'll be a process of moving him and getting him to the level that we need to get him.”

• Starting outside linebacker James Onwualu, who missed ND’s last two regular-season games with a knee injury, is expected to be back for bowl prep and the game itself.

• Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell (broken tibia) is likely done for the season, per Kelly.

The man who replaced Russell in the Stanford game on Nov. 28, junior Devin Butler, keeps the inside track to replace him in the bowl game.

Butler had to leave the Stanford game on Nov. 28 with a head injury, but has been cleared for practice, as has wide receiver Corey Robinson for a similar injury.

“We like Devin and what he did in the Stanford game,” Kelly said. “It wasn't a very good pass-interference call made against him. The league (ACC) admitted that they should not have made that call, so we thought that he competed very well in that game.”

The Road Ahead: As it turns out, Notre Dame’s streak of playing at least one Big Ten team (at the time of the game) every year since 1917 won’t be broken after all this season.

And the streak will continue at least until 2018, with a home game for the Irish against Michigan State next season, a game at Michigan State in 2017 and game at Northwestern in 2018.

As for the near term, Notre Dame’s practice schedule includes sessions Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week, with Sunday off. The Irish will have to work around exams next week, and will continue to practice in South Bend through Dec. 23.

The players will then be released to go home for Christmas, reconvening in the Phoenix area to resume practices there on Dec. 27.

Working into the design of those bowl practices will be the consideration that Ohio State’s staff has on it three former Kelly Era Notre Dame offensive assistants — Tim Hinton, Ed Warinner and most recently Tony Alford. Additionally, OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs worked for Kelly all three seasons that Kelly spent at Cincinnati (2007-09).

“We'll look at maybe what we communicate on the line of scrimmage and be cognizant of it,” Kelly said. “I think there's a couple of maybe protections that sound the same that maybe you can change a little bit. There wouldn't be wholesale changes.”

• Looking back at ND’s 2015 strength of schedule, the Irish finished third nationally in the Fremeau Efficiency SOS rankings, behind only Arkansas and USC.

Among playoff teams, Clemson was 70th in strength of schedule, Alabama 27th, Michigan State 29th and Oklahoma 58th. Bowl opponent Ohio State was 82nd.

The Road Way Ahead: Kelly acknowledged Sunday that Notre Dame has submitted paperwork to the NFL Draft Advisory Board on behalf of five players with eligibility remaining.

Those players are linebacker Jaylon Smith, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback KeiVarae Russsell, running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller, the latter of who told the media last month he plans to return for his senior season.

Simply trying to get feedback from the board isn’t necessarily an indicator a player will leave early for the draft. In fact, sometimes the information nudges them back to school and in other instances, even positive feedback from the league is ignored.

One junior who didn’t even consider getting feedback from the NFL is standout defensive end Isaac Rochell.

“It didn’t even cross my mind,” he said. “I’m committed to coming back, for more reasons than just football. I want to get my degree.

“I just think it would be waste to come all the way to Northern Indiana and not get my degree and be in the cold. I could have gone to any other school. So I’m excited to be here and I’m excited with the way things have gone. And I’m excited to come back next year.”

And So It Begins: Kelly deftly handled the first and perhaps most awkward of many Urban Meyer-Kelly threads to come over the next month.

When asked if he might use this bowl appearance to “shut up” those fans who think Meyer, Ohio State's head coach, could or should be Notre Dame’s head coach someday, Kelly didn’t miss a beat.

“We're going to wrestle, arm wrestle before the game,” Kelly said, “and whoever wins gets the Notre Dame job.

“No, I mean, I think that's just great talk for the fans, and Urban is a great coach. Who knows? I'm not going to be here forever. Maybe he'll get a chance one day to coach at Notre Dame if that's what he wants.”

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has to coax his team through potentially complacency and history of a post-triple-option hangovers when the sixth-ranked Irish host 29.5-point underdog UMass on Saturday. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

No. 8 NOTRE DAME (10-2) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (11-1)

When: 1 p.m. (EST) on Jan. 1

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (63,400); Glendale, Ariz.

Line: Ohio State by 6

Tale of the Tape

Here’s how Notre Dame matches up in the national statistical rankings with Fiesta Bowl opponent Ohio State:

                          ND  OSU

OFFENSE

Rushing offense    25   12

Passing offense    37  104

Total offense       25    41

Scoring offense   31     29

Pass efficiency    23    38

Sacks allowed     57    32

DEFENSE

Rushing defense  65    22

Pass-eff. Def.     61     6

Total defense     38    10

Scoring defense 34      2

Sacks               77    16

Tackles for loss  56    52

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kickoff returns   30   32

Punt returns      68   25

Net punting       35   15

MISCELLANEOUS

Turnover Margin 97  52

Third-down conv.37  73

Third-down def. 18   32

Red zone off.    89   89

Red zone def.   22   32