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AROUND THE NATION | FIESTA BOWL

Ohio State Too Fast for Irish

January 03, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — Fourth quarter, Ohio State leading Notre Dame by a touchdown but the Fighting Irish are carrying some momentum and have the Buckeyes in a hole. It's third and nine for Ohio State on its 16-yard line when quarterback Troy Smith skitters in the backfield, eluding tacklers, pumping once, twice, looking left and right, until zipping a 10-yard pass to tailback Antonio Pittman.

Less than a minute later, it's third and 11 for Ohio State at its 25. Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis is waving his arms and screaming his face red as three Notre Dame defenders lunge at Smith. He ducks and weaves, runs back and forth, sees flanker Anthony Gonzalez free and rifles a 15-yard pass straight into Gonzalez's hands.

And on the next play, while Fighting Irish defenders gasp for breath and look at their empty hands wondering how Smith had escaped, Pittman goes 60 yards almost untouched for the final touchdown in Ohio State's 34-20 Fiesta Bowl win.

For the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes (10-2), it was their third Fiesta Bowl title in four years. For the No. 5-ranked Fighting Irish (9-3), it was their eighth consecutive bowl game loss.

"We love it here," said Smith, who high-fived dozens of Ohio State fans who were the dominant red sweater-wearing portion of the crowd of 76,196 -- a Fiesta Bowl record for a non-national championship game. "It feels like home."

Smith hasn't always outrun trouble as well as he did Monday.

Two days before Ohio State played in the 2004 Alamo Bowl, Smith was suspended for accepting $500 from a booster. His suspension also included this season's opener against Miami of Ohio, and he didn't start in the Buckeyes' loss to Texas.

His career seemed destined to be filled with more trouble than touchdowns. When he was a junior in high school, Smith had been expelled for punching an opponent during a basketball game. His freshman year at Ohio State, Smith was charged with disorderly conduct.

"I've made mistakes," Smith said, "and I've learned from them."

He made few mistakes in Monday's game, completing 19 of 28 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns and scrambling for 66 yards.

Notre Dame's Weis said his biggest fear was what Smith might do to the Fighting Irish defense.

"And he didn't disappoint," Weis said. "His best football is ahead of him. He's definitely on the rise."

Before Notre Dame nearly beat USC in South Bend, Ind., Weis instructed his grounds crew to grow the grass long to help counter the Trojans' speed. Weis had no such power over the Sun Devil Stadium grass growers. With the grass short and the field dry, the Buckeyes scored four touchdowns of 55 yards or more and gained 617 yards on offense.

Ted Ginn, the multi-talented sophomore receiver and kick returner, caught a 56-yard pass from Smith for Ohio State's first touchdown and ran 68 yards for the second. Junior receiver Santonio Holmes, who announced after the game that he would turn pro, caught an 85-yard touchdown pass from Smith. And there was Pittman's game-breaking 60-yard run.

"I was disappointed in the number of big plays we gave up," Weis said. "That was one of our big goals going into the game because I thought this was going to be a game of getting big plays."

Even with Ohio State's fleet-footed dominance, the Fighting Irish seemed to have gotten back into the game late in the third quarter.

The Buckeyes led, 21-13, and had moved to the Notre Dame 23 with the help of a 44-yard pass from Smith to Ginn. Smith threw a bullet to Gonzalez who had the ball in his hands, bobbled it and dropped it before he fell to the ground. Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski picked up the loose ball and ran 88 yards for what seemed a touchdown.

But the play was reviewed and officials ruled the pass incomplete. So on fourth and 12, Josh Huston kicked a 40-yard field goal to put the Buckeyes ahead, 24-13.

"It was obviously a big play," Weis said. "What I said to the official on the field was, 'I hope your guys upstairs were right because that changed the whole complexion of the game.' "

That said, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel pointed out, "We had 617 yards so there were some other important plays."

There were some important plays on defense too. The Buckeyes sacked Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn five times for 41 yards. A.J. Hawk, the linebacker who dates Quinn's sister, twice whacked Quinn and also had a game-high 12 tackles.

"I like tackling all quarterbacks," Hawk said. "Doesn't make a difference to me who they are."

As they walked to the Ohio State locker room, Smith had his arm around Hawk's shoulder. Hawk is a senior and will be a well-paid NFL player next season. Smith will be back for another season with the Buckeyes.

"I've still got a lot to learn," Smith said. "This game is over now. Time to study up for next season."

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