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Bowl futility continues for Irish, even with Weis

Notre Dame coach outmaneuvered by Ohio State's Tressel in 34-20 defeat

Bowl futility continues for Irish, even with Weis
Someday, you figure, Notre Dame will get this bowl stuff right. Someday postseason futility will stop and the Irish will bask in the joy of a well-played season-ending game.

For now, there is no joy. For now, there is coach Charlie Weis wearing the expression of a man who has dined on Castor oil. For now, there is the cold-hearted truth of Monday night's 34-20 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

"There are two ways to go after a loss," Weis said. "You can feel sorry for yourselves or you can take the bitter taste and decide you don't want to taste it again."

Gouging the Irish

The Irish's 9-3 resurrection season will be defined with an eighth straight bowl loss and the kind of defense no title contender can withstand, although the Buckeyes (10-2) had a lot to do with that. They were 8-of-12 on third-down conversions, generated 617 total yards and had four plays of 56 or more yards.

"It was about keeping it alive," quarterback Troy Smith said. "Just keep it going and get some points."

One day after being named the FWAA/Eddie Robinson national coach of the year, Weis faced the fact he was the second-best coach on the field. Ohio State's Jim Tressel's postseason success has spanned Division I-AA (four national titles at Youngstown State) as well as I-A (a 4-1 bowl record with the Buckeyes including the 2002 national championship).

"I was thinking about what everyone was saying about giving Coach Weis four weeks to prepare," Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "What about giving Coach Tressel four weeks to prepare? He did a great job in finding the perfect balance."

Ill-advised gamble

For imbalance consider Weis gambling when facing a first-half field-goal-or-touchdown choice. It's his nature. It got him to this point and if it blew up in his face twice - first when Ohio State stopped Notre Dame on fourth-and-2 at the Buckeye 6-yard line, then when fast-as-you-don't-want-to-catch Ted Ginn burned the Irish with a 68-yard TD run, 60 yards longer than his previous season best, three minutes later - then take your best second-guess shot.

"It's easy in hindsight," Weis said. "I'm not big on second-guessing myself. Our plan was to take a lot of chances. That was our mentality. The team understood the risk."

Offensive risk is necessary with an Achilles heel defense. The only one getting more exposed than the Irish secondary was Laura Quinn, who seemed to spend most of the game getting interviewed by ABC. Quinn, for those who have spent the last month on the same island as the cast from "Lost," is the brother of Brady the Notre Dame quarterback and the girlfriend of Hawk, the defensive MVP who sacked Brady twice. That she also is the hottest Quinn on TV since Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman left the air is, we assume, pure coincidence.

The on-field heat was left to Smith, who positioned himself for a Heisman Trophy run next year after throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 66 yards and winning the offensive MVP honors.

"He's very passionate about being a great quarterback," Tressel said. "We've got a lot of work to, but he wants it."

The game began with immediate intrigue. The Irish would start on offense. The Buckeyes would attack on defense. Strength against strength, and who would blink first?

Weis started with his usual flair - a deep pass that a diving Jeff Samardzija couldn't quite catch.

No matter. Samardzija would get other chances, including an eight-yard catch on the next play. That was part of a six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in just two minutes - tailback Darius Walker slashed through for a 20-yard scoring run - that was so easy you'd swear Ohio State's vaunted defense had been replaced by imposters.

Defensive lapses

So that answered the first question - could Notre Dame score on the Buckeyes. Next came the second - could the Irish's sometimes shaky defense contain Ohio State and Smith?

Not even close. On the Buckeyes' first possession Smith scrambled for a first down on third-and-9, then threw a 56-yard TD strike to Ginn, who had blown past corner back Ambrose Wooden as if he were John Wooden.

Then the Buckeyes ratcheted up the defensive pressure and forced a punt. Then the Irish ratcheted up the defensive pressure and forced a Smith fumble (linebacker Corey Mays caused it, defensive tackle Ronald Talley recovered it on the Buckeye 14-yard line).

Momentum change

Notre Dame passed on that easy field goal with its fourth-and-two gamble. Quinn was sacked for an eight-yard loss, the Buckeyes had the momentum and exploited it when Ginn nearly broke cornerback Mike Richardson's ankle with a cutback en route to his touchdown run that gave Ohio State a 14-7 lead. It became 21-7 two minutes before halftime when Santonio Holmes beat Wooden, Chinedum Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski for a Fiesta Bowl-record 85-yard touchdown catch.

Walker scored two more touchdowns around a pair of Ohio State field goals. With five minutes left, Notre Dame trailed 27-20 and had a chance if the defense could make a stop.

You might as well have asked for rain (the Phoenix-area drought is now at 77 straight days). The defense twice couldn't stop third and long, and then it couldn't stop the Buckeyes at all.

So there was Weis, reflecting on a future that offers no guarantees.

"I told the players they can count on me," he said. "I'll be there for them, but they have to make the decision. They have to make strides. They have to take it to the next level. Obviously this wasn't good enough."

Not at all.