It would be tempting to view last night’s results and No. 7 Ohio State’s 44-28 defeat of No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and conclude the College Football Playoff selection committee got it wrong. That would be wrong. Michigan State earned its spot in the lowly-rated Cotton Bowl, just as Ohio State earned its Fiesta Bowl consolation prize.
But that won’t stop the Buckeyes from wondering what might have been.
Ohio State (12-1) flashed national championship ability from its first drive Friday afternoon in Glendale, scoring touchdowns on four of its first five possessions to build a 28-7 lead with 1:48 left in the first half. DeShone Kizer pushed in a one-yard run 29 ticks before the break to pull the Irish to within 28-14, creating a loop where Notre Dame was never really out of the game, but Ohio State was never really threatened, either.
Kizer found Chris Brown for a four-yard score to pull Notre Dame within 28-21 midway through the third quarter, but Ezekiel Elliott answered with a 47-yard bolt, his fourth touchdown of the day. Sean Nuernberger stretched the lead to 17 with a 37-yard field goal at the 12:10 mark of the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame climbed back in the game with an 81-yard catch-and-dash from Kizer (284 passing yards, 21 rushing yards, three total touchdowns) to Will Fuller.
Notre Dame could not muster any offense on either of its final two drives, though. The first ended in a three-and-out after the Irish lost eight yards, and the second in a Darron Lee strip of Kizer.
Two more Nuernberger field goals were enough to provide the final score.
The win pushed Urban Meyer to an incredible 50-4 in four seasons in Columbus with two undefeated regular seasons, a national championship, a Big Ten championship, two New Year’s Six wins and four top-10 finishes. The victory pushed Ohio State to 4-2 all-time in its infrequent but highly-visible series with Notre Dame; the Buckeyes have won the last four, with the last two coming in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes’ five victories trail only Penn State for the most in the 45-year history of the Fiesta Bowl.
J.T. Barrett and Elliott played throughout the game at a level accessible to few, if any, backfield batteries. Barrett hit 19-of-31 throws for 211 yards with a touchdown and an interception while rushing 23 times for 96 yards; Elliott carried 27 times for 149 yards and four touchdowns and caught a 30-yard reception. While it was likely the swan song for Elliott, Joey Bosa (ejected in the first half for a targeting hit on Kizer) and a host of others, there is enough talent remaining and arriving in Columbus to do what the 2015 could not.
Ohio State flashed the ability of a team that could have been at this moment preparing for a much larger game at University of Phoenix Stadium 10 days from now, making its 12th victory of the 2015 season a melancholy one. “It is what it is,” Meyer said when asked by ESPN’s Todd McShay to describe the season.
But take heed, Buckeye fans, there is potential for this story to come full-circle: the Fiesta Bowl is a College Football Playoff semifinal next season. If Ohio State plays like it did on Friday throughout next season, 2016 could end exactly the way it started.