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Ohio State returns to Fiesta Bowl once again

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For the third time in four years, Ohio
State has a date in the desert.

The Buckeyes (9-2) accepted an invitation on Sunday to meet
Notre Dame in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, also their bowl destination
in the magical championship year of 2002 and again in 2003.

"The main thing about it is we're going to feel comfortable out
there," safety Nate Salley said. "It's almost like our second
home and that's an advantage for us."

The battle against the Fighting Irish (9-2) will take place at
4:30 p.m. on Jan. 2 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

It's a dream matchup in many ways, pitting two teams on a roll
who could easily have been playing in the national championship
game had a play or two gone their way.

Ohio State has won its last six games, thanks to a defense led
by linebacker A.J. Hawk and a versatile offense featuring
quarterback Troy Smith and tailback Antonio Pittman.

Notre Dame is one of the biggest surprises in college football
in Charlie Weis' first year as head coach, making a dramatic
turnaround from last year's 6-5 record. The Fighting Irish came
into this season 11-16 in their previous 27 games.

"He's done a tremendous job," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel
said of his Notre Dame counterpart. "Charlie and his staff have
come in and taken them to the next level."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was on the Fiesta Bowl
board when he was the AD at Arizona State. He said he was in steady
contact with seven or eight people currently on the board to lobby
for the Buckeyes.

"I'm a life member of the Fiesta Bowl board," Smith said.
"Unfortunately for them -- or fortunately for me -- I had all their
cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses and I was working them
pretty hard last week."

This will be the fifth time the Fighting Irish and Buckeyes have
met, the first time at a neutral site or in a bowl.

Notre Dame won the first two meetings, 18-13 in 1935 in what
many historians have referred to as one of the greatest college
games ever. The Fighting Irish also won a year later, 7-2.

After a 60-year gap, the teams met again in back-to-back years
in 1995-96, with Ohio State taking both games, by scores of 45-26
and 29-16.

Smith, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1977 and played
defensive end on the Fighting Irish's 1973 national championship
team, said his allegiance has changed.

"I'm not a dues-paying member of the Notre Dame Alumni
Association," he said.

Tressel said when he was growing up his two favorite Notre Dame
players were quarterback Joe Theismann and Smith.

"I'll get a few brownie points here," Tressel said with a
laugh.

The Fighting Irish and Buckeyes share many similarities. One of
the biggest is that, although neither team beat any elite teams
this season -- neither has a win over a team currently ranked in the
Associated Press Top 25 -- both came close to perfection.

Notre Dame's only losses came to then-unbeaten Michigan State,
44-41 in overtime on Sept. 17, and to No. 1-ranked and two-time
defending national champion USC, 34-31 on Oct. 15. The Trojans'
Matt Leinart sneaked across -- Fighting Irish fans said he was
pushed across by tailback Reggie Bush -- from a yard out on the
game's final play.

Ohio State lost 25-22 to No. 2 Texas on Sept. 10 and then
dropped a 17-10 decision at Penn State on Oct. 8. The Buckeyes
ended up tying the Nittany Lions for the Big Ten title, but Penn
State earned the conference's automatic BCS berth by virtue of
winning the head-to-head battle and having a better overall record
and BCS ranking.

The Fighting Irish are led by a quarterback who grew up not far
from Ohio Stadium. Brady Quinn, expected to be among the top five
in the Heisman Trophy balloting later this week, is from suburban
Dublin. The 6-foot-4 junior has completed 65 percent of his passes
this season for 32 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions.

"Brady was a great high school quarterback and we were very
interested in him coming here," Tressel said. "He's done a great
job. He took the opportunities at Notre Dame and has grown with
them."

The Irish have lost seven straight bowl games.

"That's something that obviously needs to end," Quinn said.
"It's been going on far too long."

For weeks -- ever since the Buckeyes ended their regular season
with a last-minute, 25-21 victory over rival Michigan on Nov. 19 --
there had been speculation that Ohio State might end up paired with
the Fighting Irish. The losses Saturday night by LSU and Virginia
Tech, two of the teams ahead of the Buckeyes in the Bowl
Championship Series standings, put the final stamp on the matchup.

Ohio State and Notre Dame both ended up as automatic BCS game
qualifiers.

Richelle Simonson, Ohio State's athletic ticket director, said
the Fiesta Bowl had allotted 16,000 tickets to each of the
participating universities.

"We anticipate tremendous demand," she said.

A lottery will be used for students and for faculty and staff.
Ohio State will not offer any tickets for public sale.

The Fiesta Bowl conjures up sweet memories for Ohio State and
its fans. The Buckeyes' 31-24 double-overtime victory over
top-ranked Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl gave them their first
national championship in 34 years.

They came back to the Fiesta Bowl the very next year and beat Kansas
State 35-28 to cap an 11-2 season.

This will be the Buckeyes' 37th bowl game and fourth trip to the
Fiesta. They have won their last three bowl games after losing nine
of 12.

The Buckeyes will meet on Thursday to begin preparations, will
be off from Dec. 21 through Christmas Day, and then will depart
Dec. 26 for the game.