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Seniors may see tears fall in Fiesta

The Arizona Republic

By ANDREW BAGNATO

The Arizona Republic

TEMPE – Notre Dame linebacker Brandon Hoyte had seen seniors weep as their college football careers ended.

“I was, like, there’s not going to be any tears shed out of these eyes,” Hoyte said.

Hoyte upheld his vow until the moments after Notre Dame defeated Syracuse 34-10 Nov. 19 in the home finale. As the game ended, Hoyte urged his fellow seniors to acknowledge the crowd with a lap around Notre Dame Stadium.

“We’re coming back around toward the tunnel and I look up and I see all the fans, and that’s when the tears started rolling,” Hoyte said. “I was like, aw, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Football players are supposed to be tough. But don’t be surprised if there are a few moist eyes in Sun Devil Stadium today when No. 4 Ohio State faces fifth-ranked Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

When it’s over, the seniors on both sides will move on to the next phase of their lives – NFL careers for a fortunate few, degrees and jobs for most of the others.

Notre Dame has 16 seniors. For the eight fifth-year seniors, the Fiesta Bowl marks the light at the end of what, at times, seemed like a five-year tunnel.

They were Bob Davie’s last recruiting class. They had four head coaches. One – George O’Leary – lasted only a few days before resigning amid newspaper reports that he had falsified biographical material.

When Notre Dame replaced O’Leary with Tyrone Willingham, none of the seniors could have dreamed that they would outlast Willingham by a year.

The Irish seniors went 21-15 in their first three seasons, with blowout bowl losses to North Carolina State (28-6 in the 2003 Gator) and Oregon State (38-21 in the 2004 Insight). This season, they returned to the national elite with a 9-2 record, drawing the school’s first BCS bid since 2000.

“For them, it’s got to be even more special,” Ohio State senior defensive end Mike Kudla said. “It’s their first BCS game in quite some time. The stakes on it are huge.”

Notre Dame’s seniors hope to break a dispiriting streak: The past eight Irish classes have failed to produce a bowl victory during their careers. But even if they go out losers, the Irish seniors have been part of a fabled program’s rebirth. Asked how his class might be remembered, linebacker Corey Mays said, “Oh, that’s a hard question. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a lot of great years to come.”

For Ohio State’s eight fourth-year seniors, the greatest year was the first. This Fiesta Bowl completes a circle that began when the Buckeyes beat Miami in the 2003 Fiesta to claim their first national title in 34 years.

Buckeyes offensive tackle Rob Sims has a vivid, and disturbing, memory of that night in Tempe. He gave up a sack to Miami defensive end Jamaal Green in overtime. “Every time I go to sleep, I see it,” he said. “It’s crazy. Still. I’ve given up sacks my entire career but I can’t let that one go. At that moment, I was so young, I thought I had lost the game.”

The Buckeyes’ fourth-year senior class, which includes seven starters, is 42-8 with three bowl victories and three wins over rival Michigan.

“They could be the greatest class ever in Ohio State history, which makes me mad because I came in with them,” said defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock, who has one year left after redshirting in 2002.

The Buckeyes seniors won a second consecutive Fiesta Bowl in their sophomore year but took a big step back last season, losing four games and finishing fifth in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s worst finish since 1999.

As this year kicked off, the seniors seemed to be at a crossroads. Another mediocre season would have diminished their legacy. But by qualifying for a third BCS bowl in four years, they have left a mark.

Center Nick Mangold paused when asked how people would remember his class.

“I hope that they look back with fondness,” Mangold said. “That we fought hard and did the best we could for the university, that we all had the love for Ohio State that we should, and that we left behind the sense of tradition for the young guys who are here now to carry on.”

Fiesta Bowl

No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (9-2)

• When: 2:30 p.m. today

• TV/radio: ABC/1290-AM

• Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe (71,706 capacity)

• Line: Ohio State by 4 1/2

• Payout per team: $14 million to $17 million

• Bowl records: Notre Dame 13-13, Ohio State 17-19

• Series: Tied 2-2. Ohio State won last meeting 29-16 in 1995.

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