2006 Fiesta Bowl Preview
Dec. 22, 2005
#4/4 Ohio State (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) vs. #5/6 Notre Dame (9-2)
Sun Devil Stadium isn't exactly the spitting image of Ohio Stadium, but over the past couple years it has become more and more like an early-January home for No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes make their third trip to Tempe, Ariz., when they face No. 5/6 Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl on January 2. The Buckeyes have won their last three bowl games, including two Fiesta Bowl appearances in 2003 and 2004. Their 2003 win earned the program its first national championship in 34 years.
The Fighting Irish are also accustomed to bowl season in Arizona after playing in the Insight Bowl in Phoenix last year and the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. But while the Buckeyes look to claim their fourth straight bowl victory, the Irish are hoping to end a seven-game postseason losing streak.
The match up pits two 9-2 teams that were a couple narrow setbacks away from competing in the national championship. In the second week of the season, Ohio State hosted Rose Bowl-bound Texas in an epic contest that the Longhorns claimed 25-22. The Irish dropped a 34-31 decision to top-ranked USC, who battles Texas for the national title, in South Bend, Ind., when the Trojans' quarterback Matt Leinart's one-yard endzone sneak ended the game.
The Fiesta Bowl game marks the teams' first collision since 1996, when the then-fourth-ranked Buckeyes beat the fifth-ranked Irish 29-16 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Ohio State's Bowl Record: 17-19
Ohio State on Offense
The Buckeyes' versatile offense has mustered 2,000-yard production from both its running and passing attacks. Although the season began with two quarterbacks splitting time piloting the Buckeyes' offense, Troy Smith quickly took over as the squad's primary quarterback. Smith has thrown for 1,940 yards on 209 completions, including 14 touchdowns. He also leads the conference with a 158.4 pass efficiency rating. Smith's capable backup, junior Justin Zwick, has played in seven games and threw for 358 yards and one touchdown.
Santonio Holmes, Smith's most frequent target, leads the Buckeyes with 853 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. His 77.5 yards per games ranks fourth among Big Ten wide receivers. Ted Ginn Jr., who has grabbed 43 passes for 636 yards, and Anthony Gonzales, who has caught 27 for 358 yards, each have three scoring receptions.
Carrying the largest part of the Buckeyes' rushing load, tailback Antonio Pittman ranks fifth in the league with 1,195 yards on the ground and six scores. Adding to the run attack, Smith has also charted 545 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Notre Dame on Offense
Leading their rise is quarterback Brady Quinn, a native of Dublin, Ohio - a suburb of Columbus. Quinn is near the top of the national standings in almost every quarterback category with his season performance of 3,633 yards, 32 touchdown passes and a 65-percent completion rate. He has also only tossed seven interceptions while adjusting to Weis' pro-style offensive schemes.
His favorite targets, Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall, have combined for more than 200 receiving yards per game. The duo has combined for 26 touchdown grabs, while Samardzija is fourth in the country in total receiving yards. Although Notre Dame's offense relies more on Quinn's arm than a ground route, running back Darius Walker has found room for 1,106 rushing yards this season, but in the Fiesta Bowl showdown, he'll face the top-ranked run defense in the country.
Ohio State on Defense
The Buckeyes also feature a solid defensive line, with defensive end Mike Kudla and left tackle Marcus Green each have 34 tackles. Kudla, whose playing time has been cut short in the past with a shoulder injury, has been playing at top condition this year and is second on the team in sacks with 6.5.
In Ohio State's speedy secondary, strong safety Donte Whitner has been the biggest stops-maker this season with 64 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. Senior free safety Nate Salley has 40 stops to his credit and has broken up six passing attempts. Corner Ashton Youboty is the squad's best pass-defender and a proven tackler. With 50 tackles this season, Youboty has also interrupted eight passes and picked off one attempt.
Notre Dame on Defense
In the secondary, defensive back Tom Zbikowski will try to put pressure on Smith's passing game. Zbikowski is tied at seventh in the nation with 5 interceptions, which he has converted into 136 yards and two touchdowns. He also has 62 stops on the season. Victor Abiamiri has been a big factor in set offenses back with negative yardage, making tackles for a total of 92 lost yards and averaged almost 10 lost yards per sack.
Keys to the Game
While Ohio State's offense doesn't have quite the stats Quinn and the Irish have racked up, the Buckeyes' special teams have been a catalyst this season. Josh Huston, who had the enormous responsibility of replacing Mike Nugent at place kicker, ranks fifth in the nation in field goals. He has converted 20 of 24 attempts, including a record five field goals against Texas. Ginn Jr. ranks third in the nation in kick returns, averaging 29.5 yards per return, and he has totaled 230 yards and a touchdown on punt returns.While both squads are physical and skilled troupes, the intangibles will play a significant role in this contest. The game features two gifted coaches who are very familiar with postseason success. Buckeye coach Jim Tressel has guided his team to three consecutive bowl game victories, including a 2002 national title win against Miami. Irish's Weis is coaching his first college bowl game, the Super Bowl veteran hasn't lost too many postseason football games. Ohio State is riding the wave of a come-from-behind classic win against conference rival Michigan that sealed its fate at co-Big Ten Champions. The Buckeyes have to dominate the momentum swings between these two teams in order to secure their fourth straight bowl game win.