Ohio State-Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl is loaded with NFL talent

The deciding factor in Buckeyes-Fighting Irish could be which team is better able to defend the run.

| 10 months ago
Ezekiel Elliott

Ohio State-Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl is loaded with NFL talent

Two staple powerhouses of college football collide on New Year’s Day in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl. There were points during the season where Ohio State vs. Notre Dame looked like it could have been a national title matchup, but tough losses for each team down the stretch kept them out of the College Football Playoff.

Matchup preview

Back in April, Cradle Jones was asked about the football cliché that if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none, the Ohio State quarterback infamously stated, “I feel sorry for Notre Dame.” The irony in that quote is that neither of the Notre Dame quarterbacks he was referring to (injured Malik Zaire and FSU transfer Everett Golson), nor Jones himself will figure to see playing time come Jan. 1. No, this one will be J.T. Barrett, the 76th ranked FBS quarterback in our grading, against sophomore DeShone Kizer, the 44th overall QB. The odds are this game will be decided elsewhere, though, as neither offense has revolved around a passing attack.

The critical matchup will be which running game is able to bust open out of the gates. This game features two of the top offensive lines in the country blocking for two running backs that ranked inside the top 25. Additionally, giving two of the most creative college playcallers in Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly a month to prepare, will add a fascinating twist to see which coaching staff prevails in this chess match.

This game is all about NFL talent, though. Expect a handful of these names to be called in round one come April and good number more will come off the board by the end of the weekend.

Players to watch

Running backs Ezekiel Elliot (OSU) and C.J. Prosise (ND)

Elliot isn’t quite on the warpath to finish the season that we saw from him last year when he ended up as our second highest graded running back in the country. Even behind a weaker run blocking offensive line in 2015, he’s still comfortably in the top 10 and a true weapon running, catching and even lead blocking on the edge where no other back in the country has earned a higher grade than him. His 983 yards after contact were the fourth most in the nation.

Prosise has battled some injuries this year and had 100 fewer carries than Elliot, but was just as effective on a carry-for-carry basis for the Irish. Prosise averaged a broken tackle every 3.6 carries as opposed to every 5.4 for Elliot. He’s also a home run threat every time he touches the ball, with 49.6 percent of his yards coming on carries of 15 yards or more.

Wide receivers Michael Thomas (OSU), and Will Fuller (ND)

Braxton Miller might be the most well known name of any receiver in this game, but his impact this year was marginal and both players listed above figure to play a much bigger role in the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeye’s run heavy nature depressed Thomas’ numbers, but he was still our 18th highest graded wide out among power-5 schools. His 2.6 yards per route is almost a half yard higher than Miller’s (2.16).

Fuller has easily been the best deep threat among the power-5 schools this year, pacing all receivers in deep yards (708) and deep touchdowns (10). Throwing to Fuller yielded the ninth best quarterback rating of any receiver in the country. Shutting Fuller down has to be a top priority for the Ohio State defense.

Offensive Tackles Ronnie Stanley (ND), Mike McGlinchey (ND), and Taylor Decker (OSU)

Stanley and Decker will be the ones hearing their names called early in April, and deservedly so, but it’s actually McGlinchey who graded out the highest of the bunch. The junior earned the second best grade of any right tackle in the power-5 and it will be interesting to see how he holds up against superstar pass rusher Joey Bosa. McGlinchey’s not likely to leave school this year, so he’ll be a name to watch next season.

Stanley and Decker have both failed to deliver on the preseason hype heading into their senior seasons. Decker has had serious issues in pass protection with a +.3 grade in that area and his run blocking took a step back from it’s 2014 form. Stanley, on the other hand, has been excellent in pass pro, with 12 total pressures allowed all season long, but his run blocking has left something to be desired. The senior is too frequently overpowered and got manhandled by the Clemson and Temple defensive lines.

Defensive linemen Joey Bosa (OSU), Jarron Jones (ND), and Sheldon Day (ND)

We’ve probably talked about Bosa too much here at PFF, but it’s worth reiterating that he is in fact the best defensive lineman in college football. Bosa registered only seven sacks on the year, but his 62 combined hits and hurries were the most in the nation.

Ohio State’s Aldolphus Washington (who is suspended for this game) and Day’s grades are eerily similar with the sixth and third highest overall marks from interior defenders, respectively. Both grade out about equally well versus both run and pass. The real wildcard here, though, is Jones. The defensive tackle hasn’t played all year because of injury, but he actually graded out higher than his teammate Day in 2014. The Irish have been without a compliment to Day all season long and Jones has the ability to stand up against the most talented offensive linemen with his prodigious size and length.

Linebackers Darron Lee (OSU), Raekwon McMillan (OSU), Joshua Perry (OSU), and Jaylon Smith (ND)

The OSU trio all get significant playing time (all 700+ snaps on the year) and they can flat out fly to the football. Each graded among the top 30 linebackers in the power-5, while Perry paced the group with solid grades in coverage, run defense, and rushing the passer.

In next year’s draft it’ll be Smith who gets selected first. He does it all for Notre Dame. Smith earned the fourth-highest grade among power-5 linebackers and his coverage ability is truly special. Marking backs, tight ends, and receivers, it didn’t matter what Irish linebacker was asked to do – he accomplished it all.

Defensive backs Vonn Bell (OSU), Gareon Conley (OSU), and Max Redfield (ND)

Bell earned the sixth-best coverage grade among Power-5 safeties, and quarterbacks targeting him this season had only a 53.1 quarterback rating. Conley might not be a household name yet, but the sophomore is already a lockdown cornerback. He may have only had two interceptions, but on 50 targets, he allowed just 20 completions for 314 yards and a quarterback rating of 51.3. You’ll be hearing more from him in the future.

The Notre Dame secondary was much maligned this year after some high expectations for cornerbacks Cole Luke and Keivarae Russell. Both graded negatively in coverage on the season. The best of the bunch is junior safety Max Redfield, who acted as the cap on the Irish defense this year. His 59 yards allowed in coverage was the least of any starting safety in the country.


Notre Dame 27, Ohio State 24

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Buckeyes have won all 3 meetings in the modern era including a Fiesta Bowl victory but the Irish should be able to prevail this time.