Ohio State returns to Fiesta Bowl once again

Updated: December 4, 2005, 9:16 PM ET
Associated Press

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.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press