Notre Dame, Ohio State put legacies on line in Fiesta Bowl
By Bob baum
By Bob baum
TEMPE, Ariz. — Think college football, and these two storied programs are sure to come to mind: The Big Ten brutes of Ohio State and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
Just a couple of hundred miles apart, they have met only four times — twice in the 1930s and twice in the '90s — and never in a bowl game. Against that backdrop, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes face the fifth-ranked Irish today in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I think it adds a lot to this game," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said yesterday.
Charlie Weis has the Irish back among the elite in one year and he's already dodging questions about a possible national title run next season. The perfectionist that he is, though, makes a 9-2 season not good enough.
"I'm content with the progress the team has made. I'm content and I'm happy for my staff and I'm happy for the players," Weis said. "I'm happy for our administration and I'm happy for the university. But to be honest with you, I think I blew the two games we lost. So I'm not happy personally."
The Irish losses were 44-41 to Michigan State in overtime and 34-31 to No. 1 USC on Matt Leinart's 1-yard run with three seconds left.
"When you play two games that you lose by three points, when you're the head coach you better take that responsibility," Weis said. "So if you're looking for me to do cartwheels, you'll be waiting a long time."
Each team will receive about $14.5 million for appearing in this BCS game. Ohio State must share its money with the rest of its conference. Notre Dame, as an independent, keeps it all.
As for the game itself, on the surface it would seem the big matchup would be Notre Dame's strong offense, directed by junior quarterback Brady Quinn, against Ohio State's powerful defense, anchored by A.J. Hawk, winner of the Lombardi Award as the nation's top defensive lineman or linebacker.
Interestingly, Quinn's sister Laura is dating Hawk, a relationship serious enough that Hawk spent the Christmas holiday at the Quinn home.
"Laura has given us all sorts of information on what Ohio State has done," Weis joked. "She's done a great job of feeding us information."
Seriously, though, the Buckeyes' defense is the best Notre Dame has faced, Weis said.
"We have gone against some good defenses," he said. "It's no secret that the University of Tennessee's defense was very, very good this year. Ohio State is good on all three levels. Sometimes you have a dynamic front four, or a rock solid secondary, but they're good on all levels."
While little has been said of Notre Dame's defense versus Ohio State's offense, Weis singled out Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith for concern.
"He worried me most of anybody on their team," Weis said. "What scares me is anytime you have a quarterback, and especially a quarterback who started out with a reputation of being a runner first, and a thrower second, and now has reversed those roles, you have a problem."
Smith, suspended from the Alamo Bowl last year and the opener this season for accepting $500 from a booster, has come back to lead his team with improved production as the year progressed. In the regular-season finale, a 25-21 victory at Michigan, Ohio State trailed 21-12 with 7:49 to play, but Smith engineered touchdown drives of 69 and 88 yards.
He completed 7 of 8 passes on the winning drive and finished with a career-high 300 yards passing.
"He knows he's a passer first and runner second, and that's the toughest thing to teach a quarterback that has athleticism to realize that," Weis said. "I think he's learned that, and you can see him evolve from the beginning of the year to the end of the year where he now understands that he'll run when he has to, not when he wants to."
Tressel said Smith has that undefinable something that makes him a natural leader.
"He's got something about him that people enjoy following," the Ohio State coach said. "I don't think you can be followed if you don't produce, and he produces."
The quarterbacks are both from Ohio, Smith from Cleveland and Quinn from Dublin, a short drive from the Ohio State campus. Smith is sixth nationally in passing efficiency, Quinn fourth.
Quinn emerged from two years of struggle under Tyrone Willingham to thrive in the Patriots' complicated offense installed by Weis.
"This system has allowed us to play to a lot of the strengths of our players," Quinn said. "Coach Weis has brought a lot of guys along. I think you've seen so much more productivity out of Maurice Stovall than in past years, and Jeff Samardzija and different players like that."
Ohio State is a 4 1/2-point favorite.
Weis said that's baloney.
"We're no underdog," he said. "We got two great football teams. I don't worry about underdog, point spread, those things are irrelevant to me. You have two teams that both have an equal chance of winning."