SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It starts with DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s redshirt freshman quarterback is a Toledo, Ohio, native whose first bowl game as a starter will come against the hometown school he never seemed to care for.
“Ever since I’ve been playing this game I’ve been hearing about the Ohio State Buckeyes, and I never really rooted for them growing up,” Kizer said. “The name, to be honest, is a little sour in my head, just from dealing with the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and all that good stuff growing up.”
Go to his coach, Brian Kelly, who cannot seem to escape the Urban Meyer mystique wherever he goes -- be it from coaching at Meyer’s alma mater (Cincinnati), from having three assistants leave Notre Dame for Ohio State (Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Tony Alford), or from getting asked Sunday about the straw men who hope that Meyer, a former Fighting Irish assistant, will one day coach Notre Dame.
“We're going to armwrestle before the game, and whoever wins gets the Notre Dame job,” Kelly quipped. “I think that's just great talk for the fans, and Urban is a great coach. Who knows; I'm not going to be here forever. Maybe he'll get a chance one day to coach at Notre Dame if that's what he wants.”
It will be No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 7 Ohio State on New Year’s Day at the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. The Glendale, Arizona, game is the site of the programs' last meeting following the 2005 season. It is where Meyer coached his finale as the Irish’s receivers coach before taking over as Bowling Green’s head coach in 2001. It is also where Notre Dame clinched its last national title, beating West Virginia in the 1989 game.
The Irish won four major bowl games in the five years after that one, but they stand today 22 years removed from their last significant postseason triumph. So playing the defending national champion -- and preseason No. 1 -- Buckeyes is no small consolation for a 10-2 team that carried playoff dreams down to the final play of its regular season.
Notre Dame has gotten to this point behind Kizer, who replaced another Ohio native, Malik Zaire, in Week 2 following a broken ankle. Both of those quarterbacks -- mostly Zaire -- had shared spring reps with Everett Golson, with Kelly drawing attention then for saying he would take his QB depth over that of Ohio State’s, which was returning a two-time Big Ten player of the year (Braxton Miller), the league freshman of the year (J.T. Barrett) and the national champion starter (Cardale Jones).
Since then, Golson transferred to Florida State. Miller moved to receiver. Barrett and Jones split time for the 11-1 Buckeyes, while Kizer emerged as a revelation for the Irish.
Oh, and Kizer’s position coach, Mike Sanford, reportedly turned down Ohio State last winter before joining Notre Dame’s staff.
“I’ve been around the red and -- the Scarlet and Gray, whatever it is, for quite a bit of time now,” said Kizer, who also added that he rooted for “The Team Up North” when Ohio State faced rival Michigan.
Kizer visited Ohio State regularly this past spring as his girlfriend, Ohio State student Elli Thatcher, underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her neck. Kizer said former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel recruited him early on, but interest waned during subsequent coaching changes before a late push after he pledged to Notre Dame.
Ohio State’s athletic director, Gene Smith, is a former Notre Dame defensive lineman. Notre Dame’s first-year running backs coach, Autry Denson, has referred to Meyer as one of his coaching mentors. Denson, Notre Dame’s career rushing leader, was hired by the Irish after Meyer hired away the previous Irish running backs coach, Alford.
“One of my all-time favorites,” Meyer said of Denson.
Last year, the schools announced a home-and-home series for 2022 and 2023. They will meet much sooner now, at the location -- University of Phoenix Stadium -- that both set their sights on before the season, although they were shooting for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T that's set for 10 days after the Fiesta Bowl.
The stage and stakes might be slightly smaller than anticipated, but consider this rendezvous a silver lining for its many familiar faces.
“This is awesome,” Kizer said. “It’s short of the ultimate goal, but it’s definitely a goal of mine that I can say I’ve checked off. We’re playing one of the biggest games in the country on Jan. 1 and it’s gonna be really fun. I’m completely appreciative of the opportunities that we have as a team, and to be a part of this team, to be able to play in a game this big, I can promise you that I’m gonna try to seize the opportunity, that I’m gonna prepare like no other to make sure that we can end this season on a W.”