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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett run wild against Notre Dame defense

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Every time it looked as though No. 8 Notre Dame's offense had played the Irish back into the Fiesta Bowl on Friday, No. 7 Ohio State would respond with two seemingly unstoppable forces: junior running back Ezekiel Elliott and sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The pair of Buckeyes sidestepped, stiff-armed and ran right through the Irish defense to the tune of 245 yards, carrying their squad to a 44-28 victory in the desert.

Irish sophomore defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti tackles Ohio State sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett during Notre Dame's 44-28 loss to the Buckeyes on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
Irish sophomore defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti tackles Buckeyes sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett during Notre Dame's 44-28 loss to Ohio State on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.

Elliott, a second-team All-American and Big Ten offensive player of the year, racked up 149 yards and four touchdowns, tying the Fiesta Bowl record for rushing scores. One of those scores, a 47-yard scamper, came in the middle of the third quarter after Notre Dame had cut the deficit to seven, the closest the Irish would ever get to the Buckeyes the rest of the way. His performance garnered high praise from his head coach, Urban Meyer.

"All due respect to all the great running backs in Ohio State history, my first-round draft pick, I'd pick Zeke Elliott," Meyer said. "What he does without the ball, his work ethic in practice, just his attitude every day, the way he shows up. … He's as good a running back as I've ever been around."

But as impressive as Elliott's performance was, his 47-yard score and a large chunk of his yardage came later in the game, after Irish junior linebacker Jaylon Smith left the game with a knee injury. He was also facing a Notre Dame defensive line dogged by injuries and suspensions.

The problems for the Irish began early in the week, when sophomore Daniel Cage suffered an ankle injury that did not keep him from playing but significantly limited his snaps.

Then, senior Sheldon Day went down with a foot injury so severe the Notre Dame medical staff thought he had broken his foot, according to head coach Brian Kelly. While the X-rays came back negative, Day was promptly hit with a illness that required IVs throughout Thursday night.

Finally, with fewer than two hours until kickoff Friday morning, the Irish announced freshman Jerry Tillery was suspended for a violation of team rules.

That left senior Romeo Okwara, junior Isaac Rochell and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti as the only healthy defensive lineman left with any significant experience this year. Day, with his foot taped, joined them in the starting lineup.

And for the first quarter and part of the second, that line managed to hold up against the rushes of Elliott and Barrett. After 15 minutes, the two had just 39 combined yards, and Elliott did not even touch the ball for 13 straight offensive plays in the second quarter.

But eventually, the offensive line of the Buckeyes, which featured two first-team Big Ten players, wore away at the Irish.

"I would say schematically, they do a great job of creating challenging situations with changing numbers and unique plays," Irish graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt said. "You combine that with Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett's ability to run the football, then their offensive line doing a great job all day."

Elliot gashed the Irish for two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the half, both of which he punched in from one yard out. Meanwhile, Barrett racked up 41 yards in the second quarter alone.

Barrett credited his rushing success to his offensive line as well.

"That's what we strive to do, is definitely dominate the line of scrimmage, those guys definitely did that, which opens up our whole offense when you're able to do that," he said.

Despite the defensive line's struggles to contain the Ohio State run game, however, Kelly said he was proud of how they battled through the absences and reduced roles of key players.

"We certainly needed to execute better, but didn't feel like we were out-manned," Kelly said. "We were shorthanded today, but we weren't out-manned."

One of the few bright spots for the Irish was Trumbetti, who filled in for Cage and tied career highs in tackles (four) and sacks (one), while setting a new career best in tackles for loss (two). That performance bodes well for next year, Kelly said, when the Irish will have to replace Okwara and Day.

"He made some good plays. He made the athletic plays," Kelly said. "The one thing with Andrew is, he just has to let it go. At times … he can go. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting it go. When the light goes on and he goes all the time, I think he's going to be a really, really good player for us."

But Friday, the issue for Notre Dame wasn't who was playing defense, according to Rochell. It was the players on the other side of the ball.

"[Elliott's] just a really good running back. I don't know what else there is to say," Rochell said. "[The offensive line] was good. They were a solid group. But when you have a running back as good as he is, I think that's the dominant force."