Jan. 3, 2016
By John Heisler
Tears in the University of Notre Dame football locker room following Ohio State’s 44-28 conquest of the Irish in the 45th BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl?
Full disclosure, there were a few—but they weren’t the sort that might have been born out of frustration or disappointment in the end result.
The real reveal suggests the Buckeyes showed as the better team Friday at a sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium. Irish coach Brian Kelly acknowledged as much. The Irish either couldn’t make enough plays on third down to get their defense off the field—or make enough key conversions on the offensive side.
Yet Kelly couldn’t have been prouder of his team for hanging tough—and that’s why the postgame locker room scene became one showcasing all sorts of emotions, most of them based on the notion this intriguing group will never be together again to represent the University of Notre Dame.
An hour after the game, senior linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt sat in a nearly empty locker room, tape still on his wrists. A full uniform, pads and cleats encased him. He likely had finally realized this was the last time he would play football for the Irish, and he really didn’t want it to end.
In fact, that marked the general feeling across the board. This Notre Dame team, this Team 127, really seemed to enjoy what it did. The Irish enjoyed the process and they enjoyed each other and, even after losing a game by 16 points, quarterback DeShone Kizer couldn’t help suggesting the Irish still think they are one of the best teams in the country.
There were hand clasps and back slaps and all sorts of hugs during the postgame scene. There were seniors going locker to locker. There was Schmidt thanking walk-ons for their hard work. There were other seniors making the rounds, maybe not sure when they’d again experience what they experienced in 2015.
It’s always tough when it ends because there’s a raw finality to it all. That’s what smacked so many of the Irish across the forehead Friday afternoon—and it had nothing to do with Ezekiel Elliott’s 147 rushing yards and Fiesta Bowl record four touchdowns or J.T. Barrett’s 211 passing yards and 96 ground yards.
No one had suggested this would be easy. After all, this Ohio State team ranked as the defending national champion and, with the victory Friday over the Irish, the Buckeyes reached the 12-win mark for a fourth straight season. The last two teams Notre Dame faced in 2015 -- Stanford and Ohio State -- both looked like playoff teams in the postseason.
And Irish players and coaches had to face the fact that -- no excuses -- the Notre Dame defense was running on fumes by the end of the year, and barely even that.
The Irish lost their best defensive player—maybe their best player, period—when outside linebacker Jaylon Smith early on suffered what Kelly called a “significant” left knee injury. He returned to the field in the third period in street clothes and on crutches with his knee immobilized. That might have seemed like a fair trade after Ohio State star Joey Bosa was ejected (at 5:26 of the first period) for a helmet blow to Kizer’s midsection, but the Buckeyes more easily survived their loss.
Notre Dame already was missing its best cornerback, KeiVarae Russell, victim of a broken tibia against Boston College. Then his replacement, Devin Butler, broke his foot in practice Monday in Phoenix. Also missing were safety starter Max Redfield and defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. Then Smith’s replacement, true freshman, Te’von Coney, suffered a noteworthy shoulder injury a few plays after Smith went down (leaving Jarrett Grace to play a position with which he was not all that familiar). And Kelly noted after the game that captain and defensive lineman Sheldon Day thought he broke his foot in practice this week and then took ill the night before the game.
And so on. And so on.
Before the game, Irish assistant head coach Mike Denbrock compared the extra preparation for a bowl game to the time prior to the 2015 Irish season opener against Texas:
“We were outstanding in terms of offensive efficiency in that game because we had time to prepare. So let’s cherish possessions today. We can’t give them anything cheap. We didn’t come down here to just accept a trophy, we came to take it.”
Kelly sent his team to the field with this charge:
“This isn’t about talk. It’s about what’s inside of you. There’s no place to hide out there today. This is why you came to Notre Dame. Now let’s go out and win a football game.”
In reality, the Irish may have lost the game on the two teams’ first two possessions. Notre Dame twice went three and out, while Ohio State drove for touchdowns, the first on a methodical 80-yard march. It was 14-0 before the opening quarter was half over, and the Irish had been outgained 123-13 in yards and 6-0 in first downs.
Later, Kelly would say, “That was the difference in the game. We had to play catch-up early.”
The Buckeyes put the ball in the hands of their quarterback, and Barrett completed his first seven throws (for 82 yards). He made maximum use of what Kelly termed “easy access” throws. The Irish forced one Ohio State punt (after a 10-play Buckeye possession), and Notre Dame mixed and matched (converting twice on third down and once on fourth) on its way to a 70-yard scoring drive that halved the Buckeye advantage. But Urban Meyer’s crew responded with consecutive TDs on 62- and 63-yard drives to make it 28-7. By halftime Elliott had three short scoring runs and 55 rushing yards.
A Kizer TD run capped a 75-yard Irish possession at the end of the opening half, but Ohio State had amassed 280 first-half yards—with both teams running 40 plays in the opening two periods.
“We gotta persevere,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder told his troops at halftime. “This game’s made for men. We gotta find a different switch and hit that switch. We’ve gotta win third down (Ohio State converted on four of six of those in the first 30 minutes and ended 10 of 18). We’ve got to get off the field. Can we get it turned around and get the momentum back? It’s a 14-point game. Suck it up and concentrate and get stops. Let’s see what you got.”
As Kelly noted after the game, he challenged his team at the break. He told them:
“Listen, this game will be decided in the first five minutes (of the third period). Ohio State possesses the ball. What do you got for five minutes? Everybody better be in the game. It’s all or nothing on defense. Let’s go play.”
And the Irish responded.
That first Ohio State possession ended after nine plays on an interception by Schmidt (the Buckeyes’ lone turnover of the day). Kizer found Chris Brown for 19 yards (the longest Irish gain to that point), Amir Carlisle ran 20 yards to the 11—and Kizer capped it with a four-yard fade throw to Brown for six points. It was 28-21 Buckeyes and the Irish were in it.
But Elliott effectively quieted the Irish faithful with a backbreaking 47-yard dash up the gut—and Notre Dame’s next two possessions ended in an interception and a three and out. Three Buckeye field goals in the last period negated the biggest Irish play of the day, an 81-yard catch-and-run TD from Kizer to Will Fuller (six catches for 113 yards).
Notre Dame lost a fumble late, and Buckeye fans amused themselves spelling O-H-I-O with their arms. Brutus Buckeye came across the field to shake the leprechaun’s hand, and the scarlet and gray confetti flew.
The Irish came to grips with the end in different ways.
Schmidt (he won the Fiesta Bowl’s Art Bodine Sportsmanship Award after making 13 tackles) shook hands with Kizer (22 of 37 passing for 284 yards and two TDs) and Brown (four catches for 35 yards and a TD) as he entered the room and later shared a big hug with VanGorder.
Kelly exchanged words with Ronnie Stanley with one hand on the lineman’s shoulder, did the same moments later with Brown and had a private conversation with Smith.
“I told you the team that was tougher and more physical would win this game, but that wasn’t the case,” Kelly told his team. “They won because they out-executed us. Not for one second was this a physical domination. You gave everything you had for four quarters and that doesn’t surprise me.
“You’re either a winner or not a winner—and you gave all you had today. We couldn’t get off the field on third downs and we couldn’t make some plays (on offense) when we needed to.
“I’m proud to have led Team 127. Nobody pushed you around. That’s the core of playing a tough game. I’m disappointed we don’t get another chance to go out on the practice field again with you.
“We’re right there. I’m excited about the future and what you seniors have helped us build. We’ll keep building it.”
Kelly then headed to the interview room and told the media, “I couldn’t be prouder of the way this team competed. I love the resiliency of this group. They just keep playing. We were shorthanded today, but we were not outmanned.”
“We had some challenging situations out there, but we didn’t flinch,” added Schmidt. “There’s no group of guys I’d rather do this with.”
It wasn’t much of an afternoon for scrutinizing the stat sheet. Kizer set an Irish season record for rushing scores by a quarterback, and the Irish in general established some highs for long-yardage plays. Safety Elijah Shumate made 13 tackles. And history will note that no team scored more points against Ohio State in 2015 than Notre Dame’s 28 (Maryland also put up 28).
Still, a wistful Kelly had to wonder late Friday night if it might have been more interesting if the Irish defensive depth chart had at least somewhat resembled what it could have been. “Next man in” only takes you so far.
And so where do the Irish go from here?
“We keep banging on the door,” suggested Kelly. “We’ll keep playing the Ohio States and the Florida States and the Alabamas, the big names and the great traditions. We’ll get back here and we’ll win this thing. You keep recruiting, keep working and stay the course.”
And with that the Irish folded their football tent for one last time in 2015.
Team 128 awaits.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
-- DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
-- 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
-- Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
-- One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
-- Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
-- Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner—and Moves On
-- Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
-- Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
-- Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
-- Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
-- Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
-- Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: