Current Notre Dame team loaded with talent, but is it nasty enough?

Tom Zbikowski
Tribune Guest Columnist

I am a Chicago firefighter now, but I still watch games like someone who wants to be a college coach. And when I watch Notre Dame games, I also see them through the eyes of a former player.

That’s even more the case with this Fiesta Bowl between Notre Dame and Ohio State, because of my experiences of playing in the Fiesta Bowl 10 years ago between the same two teams.

It’s a challenge to watch the games the way that I want to for a couple of reasons.

A lot of times I’m at the firehouse, and I’m with 10 other people. So it’s not like you can pause and rewind and really, really watch them, but throughout the season you get the general gist of what this Notre Dame team is about.

The other thing that makes it hard is I want to help out and help coach them, and I can’t. I’m one of those people who wants to save the world, and you can’t. So I just stick to dealing with saving who I can in the job that I’m in now.

As I watch this Notre Dame team, I really like watching them play. I think they have more talent than our 2005 team. They’re more athletic, but they’re not as gritty and borderline dirty like we were on defense.

It’s kind of the way we played. We weren’t the biggest. We weren’t the fastest. We weren’t the most skilled. We didn’t have the luxury of having years and years of experience playing in a set system and being able to grow.

That year, 2005, was the first year after a coaching change, with Charlie Weis coming in. So it was more of patching things together and putting people in places and let’s develop the personality of our team.

We were just gritty, dirty and wanted it. We were tired of the stereotype of what Notre Dame had become at that point. You heard rumors during that time that NBC was ready to pull the plug on the TV deal because of how bad the football had been.

I don’t know how close those rumors came to being true, but what was undeniably true was the football had gotten bad. It was a weird period of time for Notre Dame football. In 2005, we were just trying to get us back to neutral, not take us to new heights.

When I watch this team, I look at the defense, and I don’t think they hit hard enough. Maybe I’m always going to think that about every Notre Dame defense that’s not the one I played on. But I don’t think they go after forcing enough fumbles.

If you’re not leading the nation, you’re not good enough in that category (Notre Dame is 111th in fumbles forced/recovered among the 127 FBS teams). And that’s just a constant swarming to the ball and the mentality of how you play defense.

This is going to sound vain, but I’m waiting to see a guy who’s kind of like me. I tried to be unique and different. You want to be remembered. I hope these guys want to be remembered too, because they have a chance to make that kind of impression against Ohio State.

I think this Notre Dame offense would be really difficult to defend, because they get everyone involved. When you get everyone involved, it’s tough on a defense.

When you’ve got a running game, you can control games. And if you can control games, you always have a chance. I think this is also an offense that can match people point for point if need be. And this game may turn into that kind of game.

The way I look at this matchup is this is a game that you can look directly in the mirror. You’re kind of the same team. Then it comes down to who’s better prepared and who wants it more.

Those are always the toughest games, because it’s the simplest answer. It’s those one-on-one battles against someone who is of equal and possibly better talent than you, and you’ve got to play with them every single play.

Now there’s a chance the offenses and defenses will kind of cancel each other out. Special teams is the x-factor. It may come down to who can snag a couple of plays on special teams to get you that field position that you need, get you that play that you need. And if you can get points out of it, it’s even more of a bonus.

When I look back to that Fiesta Bowl 10 years ago, which Ohio State won 34-20, we thought some of the teams we had played during the season prepared us for this game — Michigan State and USC come to mind.

But teams change over the season. Some get better. Some get worse. This Ohio State team got better. I really believe at the end of the season they could have beaten the two teams that played for the national championship, a Texas team that beat them earlier in the season and the USC team that beat us.

The farther you get away from that game, the more you appreciate how much talent they had. They had a Heisman Trophy winner and a Super Bowl MVP on offense. They had some prime talent on defense.

We had a starting lineup. We had guys who could play. But they had depth.

But don’t tell me, we weren’t in that game. Until Antonio Pittman had a (60-yard TD) run late, late in the fourth quarter (1:46 left), it was still a game. We blocked two field goals in that game, and that helped keep it close.

We were very talented. We were very good, but we were super raw. That’s an impressive rebuilding season if you look at it.

Going in, I think we all felt pretty confident and felt pretty excited to be there and just felt good about being there. We had a good week of practice. Charlie reached out to other people, found out what to do here and there.

The best thing about bowl prep, as opposed to games during the season, is you get your body back for the first time since August. I remember having a week or two to settle back into the weight room, having some practices and being able to get caught up and do whatever you had to do school-wise for those who were interested in that.

For me, it was time for your body to get healed up. Your weight settled back into where I should be after a 12-game Notre Dame season took a toll on you. And it was kind of perfect.

We weren’t beat up, but we were taxed. All our defensive starters were playing every rep. It’s not like there was much rotation on either side of the ball.

In the game, we gave up the most yards a Notre Dame defense had ever given up in that game (617). The first touchdown, to Ted Ginn, was the players’ fault, the secondary’s fault. After that, it was good scheming and a really good game plan by (Ohio State coach) Jim Tressel.

They had players that could execute it and they had a quarterback in Troy Smith who could call plays, check plays. It wasn’t just audibles of getting you out of a (lousy) play, but getting you into the best play possible every play.

Tressel trusted Troy Smith enough and they had a good enough relationship that every time they knew how to bump their running back over in protection, slide it however they were sliding it. They had a prolific pro-style offense then that nobody really could have stopped

The yards don’t matter if the points aren’t there. Yeah it was embarrassing, but after that game you’ve all got to look in the mirror. It was not one side or another why we lost. Everybody came up a little short.

My touchdown being called off was (bull). I had an 88-yard fumble return for a touchdown that was called off after a review, because they said it was an incomplete pass and not a catch and fumble.

That one play goes our way, it’s 21-20. That’s at least a 10-point swing, and it’s a different game.

The biggest what-if for me was this. If we have Justin Tuck and we have Rhema McKnight, just those two players, how significant could those two players have been for us that season? Tuck went pro after the 2004 season, and Rhema was hurt most of 2005.

You think about how good that team would have been. Those are would’ve-could’ve-should’ves, but, damn, that’s football for you.

If I had a chance to talk to this Notre Dame team, what I’d like to tell them is Ohio State is comfortable in this setting. They have the experience of being in major bowl games like this. It’s all about your mind-set going in. It’s either a positive or negative.

Every series matters, every play matters just like every other game. But this one is different, because you’ve had the time for them to scout you up a little bit. They know more about you than anything, but don’t get it twisted, that you need to over-scheme everything.

It’s still about blocking and tackling and executing, which it always comes down to. Execute your play. The 70th play of the game, in the third quarter, is just as important as the first one, but it’s not as important as the next one.

It’s always on to the next one. You’re matched up with this team for a reason. You’re always going to have a chance. I’m hoping they whoop their (butts).

These are two fan bases that I don’t think like each other. When we played it was a great atmosphere, because I think there was a lot of pride between both programs. Both travel well. I think they had a little more numbers on us, but our crowds are always raucous and always fun. We ain’t taking (crap) from anybody when we’re playing.

When we’re playing well, our fan base can be loud, obnoxious, awesome football fans. So what if you don’t like us? That’s why it’s fun to play there.

You’re supposed to not like us. That’s our allure. That’s what we do. That’s the fun of it.

Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski brings down Ohio State's Anthony Gonzalez after making a catch during OSU's 34-20 win at the Jan. 2, 2006 Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. (Photo courtesy of Akron Beacon Journal/BOB DEMAY)