Talent rules in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl matchup

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The destination city played out just like it was scripted in their dreams and drawn up on the dry erase boards in meeting rooms.

It’s just that No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) and eighth-ranked Notre Dame (10-2) will be playing in Glendale, Ariz. — under a translucent, retractable roof and on the first-ever in North America retractable natural-grass playing field, at University of Phoenix Stadium — 10 days too soon.

As of the morning of Nov. 21, both teams were on a trajectory to have a chance to end up playing each other in the National Championship Game, Jan. 11 in Glendale instead of the Jan. 1 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl.

Pushing résumés, statistics, chemistry and internal/injury drama aside, it’s easy to see why both teams at times so easily aced the eye test.

Talent. Draftable, future NFL talent.

Among the 40 bowl matchups — starting with former Irish head coach Bob Davie’s first bowl game (not counting as an ESPN talking head) since the 2000-01 Fiesta Bowl (the 2 p.m. EST, Dec. 19 New Mexico Bowl matchup) and ending with the Cactus Bowl Jan. 2 at 10:15 p.m. — none have the mock draft star power of ND-OSU.

And it’s not even close.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., breaks down top 10 draftable prospects by position, including those who haven’t yet declared as early entries and/or those who have said they’ll remain in school.

Excluding the fullback and kicker/punter position groups, which figure to have few, if any, players drafted, Ohio State and Notre Dame combine for 18 players on those top 10 lists.

The next closest is the Dec. 31 Cotton Bowl national semifinal game between Alabama and Michigan State, with 12. No one else has more than seven. The Clemson-Oklahoma Orange Bowl, Georgia-Penn State TaxSlayer Bowl and LSU-Texas Tech Texas Bowl share that distinction.

In terms of the actual breakdown, Ohio State has 11 of those 18. Notre Dame’s seven are Jaylon Smith (No. 1 outside linebacker), Ronnie Stanley (No. 2 offensive tackle), C.J. Prosise (No. 3 running back), Nick Martin (No. 4 center), Will Fuller (No. 5 wide receiver), Sheldon Day (No. 8 defensive tackle) and KeiVarae Russell (No. 9 cornerback).

Bleacher Report lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller put out a three-round mock draft on Tuesday. The Irish had two players in the top six of the first round — Stanley third overall to San Diego and Smith sixth to New Orleans. The Buckeyes projected five first-rounders between Nos. 9 and 32.

So what tripped two of the most talented teams from joining the four-team playoff field?

Some of their season-long headaches bubbled up in their Nov. 21 games, which pummeled Ohio State from its No. 3 position in the CFP rankings and the Irish from their No. 4 perch.

The Buckeyes fell to Michigan State at home, 17-14. The Irish won, but unimpressively (19-16), in an off-site home game at Fenway Park in Boston over Boston College.

Ohio State’s wealth of talent and depth at quarterback never translated into an elite passing, or elite offense overall for that matter, and certainly didn’t against the Spartans.

The Buckeyes went from second nationally in team pass efficiency (167.72) in 2014 — behind only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota — to 38th (141.80) in 2015, 15 spots behind Notre Dame. In the Michigan State game, QB J.T. Barrett amassed a rating of 101.03.

OSU’s national total offense ranking fell from ninth to 41st, its yards per offensive play from fifth to 22nd, its yards per pass completion from 14.26 yards to 12.13. Against Michigan State, the Buckeyes garnered just 132 total yards with five first downs.

Perhaps most dramatic was Ohio State’s dip on third down. The Buckeyes were third at 52 percent during their national title run in 2014, 73rd this season at 39 percent. Against Michigan State, OSU converted four of 14 attempts (28.6).

Two things that jump out as common threads that tie the stat dips together — the loss of playmakers like Devin Smith (28.2 yards per catch, 12 TDs), who could stretch the field, and the loss of offensive coordinator Tom Herman, now the head coach of Peach Bowl-bound Houston.

For Notre Dame, red zone woes on offense and regressive stretches on defense turned what could have been a 30-point Irish win against the Eagles into a drama-filled finish. Both problems contributed to the 24-22 loss at Clemson on Oct. 3 as well.

Redemption has taken on a business-like tone for the Irish.

“I don't want to overdo it or overstate it, but in maybe our first couple years, when we talked about the bowl game, they were excited,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the ND players. “There was cheering. There was none of that (this time).

“Look, they're disappointed they're not in the playoffs. They're going to a great bowl and one that we're honored to be part of and excited to be playing Ohio State, and they want to play one more game. But it's a different feeling about this team and what they want to accomplish.”

Smith pulls Butkus double

The very same year former Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te’o won the college version of the Butkus Award, in 2012, Jaylon Smith was taking home the high school version as a senior linebacker at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers.

On Tuesday, Smith pulled off the double, winning the collegiate Butkus Award, emblematic of the nation’s best linebacker. He joins Te’o, the 2008 high school winner while at Punahou in Honolulu, as the only players to pull off the high school/college exacta.

Their stat lines in the award-winning collegiate seasons have some eerie similarities, though Smith has another game yet to play, the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl matchup against Ohio State.

Each had 113 total tackles. Te’o had 1.5 sacks, Smith one; Te’o 5.5 tackles for loss, Smith nine. Each had two fumble recoveries, Smith also with a forced fumble. Te’o had four QB hurries, Smith six. Te’o had four pass breakups, Smith with five.

The big difference was in interceptions, with Te’o garnering seven and Smith zero.

And that’s where stat lines not only don’t tell the whole story, they out and out lie. So much of Smith’s value rests in plays that never happened because of his presence. His pass coverage skill set is so versatile, he can pick up backs, tight ends and slot receivers.

And often when he does, he takes that player completely out of the play to the point where a QB would never dare wedge a ball into a tight or non-existent window.

More awards

Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Day were named first-team All-Americans Tuesday by USA Today. Wide receiver Will Fuller was a second-teamer.

Noticeably absent was offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley.

Stanley figures to make several of the other All-America teams, though. And Tuesday he was honored as the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year. Oregon Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota was the inaugural winner in 2014.

Stanley’s mother, Juli, was born in Tonga, a monarchy comprising more than 170 island in the South Pacific.

Stanley beat out fellow finalists Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, USC linebacker Su’a Cravensm, UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and USC wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster.

Announcing team set

ESPN on Tuesday unveiled its announcing teams for the bowls it is televising. Sean McDonough, Chris Spielman and Todd McShay have drawn the Fiesta Bowl assignment.

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9), here confronting Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) on Nov. 28, is part of a deep pool of NFL talent in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl matchup between ND and Ohio State. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)