Notre Dame stirred, but not shaken by Fiesta Bowl loss

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jaylon Smith stopped a few feet shy of the University of Phoenix Stadium tunnel — leaning dependently on crutches, his left leg hanging limply inches off the ground — took a deep breath, and smiled.

He looked to his left and right, with athletic director Jack Swarbrick flanking him, and absorbed a standing ovation from the fans in blue and gold.

Hours earlier, the 2015 Butkus Award winner’s left leg planted and buckled, shattering the hopes of the eighth-ranked Irish in the same ill-fated step. Lying on his back at the 15-yard line, he draped his green gloves over his face. Coach Brian Kelly leaned over the junior linebacker and ND's leading tackler, helpless. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott trotted over to console him, but there was nothing anyone can do.

In a season rife with injuries, Smith was the next in line.

Elliott went on to rush for 149 yards on 27 carries, scoring a Fiesta Bowl record-tying four touchdowns as No. 7 Ohio State defeated Notre Dame Friday in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, 44-28.

Smith’s “significant knee injury,” as Kelly classified it after the loss, was the latest in a load of bricks that ultimately sealed Notre Dame’s tomb.

On Monday, starting cornerback Devin Butler broke his foot in practice. The next day, junior free safety Max Redfield was suspended for the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl for a violation of team rules. Prior to Friday’s game, it was announced that freshman nose tackle Jerry Tillery had also been suspended for the same reason.

Senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day, the team’s season-leader with 14.5 tackles for loss, injured his foot earlier in the week, then became gravely ill on Thursday. He clung to a diet of medication and IVs to make it through the game.

Add it all together, and the result is a Notre Dame defense that was battered, then beaten. Ohio State scored touchdowns on four of its first five drives, piling up 496 total yards — 285 of them rushing — in an inevitably dominant display.

“I would say schematically they do a great job of creating challenging situations with changing numbers and unique plays,” said graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt, who tied for the team lead with 13 tackles in his final game. “You combine that with Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett's ability to run the football, then their offensive line doing a great job all day.

“So I would say their back is very talented, but they did a great job scheming, especially early on.”

Friday’s game, to the ire of the Irish, was an unfortunate microcosm of an adversity-stricken season. Smith fell with eight minutes remaining in the first quarter — carted to the locker room with Swarbrick at his side, his leg in a black brace, his golden cleat long gone, chewing dejectedly on a towel as his defense struggled to recover.

His replacement, freshman Tevon Coney, left with a shoulder injury two series later, and fate kept piling on.

“This is such a special kid,” Swarbrick said of Smith. “His entire focus (in the locker room during the game) … it wasn’t a bunch of questions about consequences. It was, ‘You’ve got to get me back out there so I can be with my teammates.’ That’s what we focused on — getting him showered, getting him braced and getting him back out there.”

In the next couple of days his focus is expected to shift to whether to wade into the 2016 NFL Draft pool and leave his senior season unused.

In Smith’s absence on Friday, the Notre Dame offense found some life.

Sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer and freshman running back Josh Adams each landed in the school record books on Friday, as Kizer claimed his 10th rushing touchdown of the season (the most for an Irish quarterback) and Adams finished the year with 835 rushing yards, the most of any Notre Dame freshman runner.

Kizer completed 22 of 37 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns with an interception and a lost fumble, adding 21 rushing yards and a score on the ground. Adams and senior wide receiver Chris Brown both found the end zone as well.

But the team’s offensive highlight belonged to Will Fuller, as it usually does. The junior speedster caught a short pass, tip-toed past a would-be tackler and sprinted 81 yards along the right sideline for Notre Dame’s final touchdown of the day.

Fuller’s 113 receiving yards and a touchdown, though impressive, weren’t nearly enough. Not when Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett passed for 211 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 96 more. Not when the interior of the Irish defensive line consisted of Day, who was ill and injured; Jarron Jones, who was playing in his first game of the season; Daniel Cage, who was slowed with an ankle sprain; and Isaac Rochell, a natural defensive end playing a lot of downs on the interior on Friday.

Not against the reigning national champions (12-1), who Friday played like another title was on the line.

“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 to win the game. (We) couldn't get off the field on third-down situations and had some opportunities offensively that we couldn't capitalize on.

“But I couldn't be more proud of the football team. (It was) an honor to coach them, an honor to be around them. The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing."

When the clock ran out on Notre Dame’s 10-3 season, Smith stood there, smiling, as his teammates left the field. Fuller hugged him. Day hugged him. Another in the long line of casualties, Zaire hugged him and said, “I love you, bro,” and Smith said it back.

They were all leaving, but not Smith. Not yet. He paused, leaning on his crutches, prolonging an inevitable exit.

It was the end of a season, and maybe, a chapter in his life.

Jaylon Smith leaves the field.

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) January 1, 2016

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) on crutches following the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN