The drive from South Bend, Ind., to Columbus, Ohio, is not that bad, and you can skip the tolls if you take Indiana state route 31 to Indianapolis, then Interstate 70 due east. Elapsed time, 4 hours, 20 minutes, not counting a Stuckey’s stop.
But Knute Rockne never made the 280-mile trip. Neither did Woody Hayes. The Golden Boy, Paul Hornung, did not go. Archie Griffin did not make it, either time.
Jim Stillwagon? Still no wagon.
The lure of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl is the meeting of storied perennial college football powers 1,851 miles removed from the heartland.
No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) and No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2) will meet for only the fifth time in series history at the 35th annual Fiesta Bowl, to be played for the final time at Sun Devil Stadium at 3 p.m. today.
"It surprised me that there haven’t been more matchups, especially with two schools that are so similar and the traditions of each program,’’ Notre Dame junior safety Tom Zbikowski said.
"Ohio is a football state to begin with, and then with Notre Dame’s tradition. . . .’’
The teams have split their four previous games, Notre Dame winning in 1935-36 and Ohio State avenging those defeats 60 years later, in 1995-96.
"I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that there is a huge buzz going around the country surrounding our game,’’ Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said.
The Fiesta could consider itself fortunate to have this matchup, too.
Notre Dame’s losses have been by three points each, one to No. 1-ranked Southern California in the college game of the year, when the Trojans scored the winning touchdown with three seconds to play after converting a fourthand-9 with a long pass earlier in that drive. The Irish’s other loss was to Michigan State in overtime.
Ohio State lost to No. 2 Texas by three points on late Vince Young heroics and to No. 3 Penn State by a touchdown. Undefeateds USC and Texas will meet in the BCS title game in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday.
"It’s kind of like a battle of what-ifs,’’ Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said. ‘’Both teams losing to the teams that are playing for the national championship by such a small margin.
"We probably could be playing each other for the national championship.’’
Quinn is the headliner in this incarnation of the series, setting school season and career passing records in his first year under new coach Charlie Weis, an alum hired away from the New England Patriots after being part of a staff that won three Super Bowls in four seasons.
Quinn has thrown for 3,633 yards and 32 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, and a touchdown pass in every game. He had a school-record six against BYU and had five against Michigan State.
The Irish need seven points to set a school record for points in a season, 32 to set a record for highest scoring average in a season.
Ohio State’s defense, led by linebacker A.J. Hawk, has not given up more than 31 points in any game this season.
The Buckeyes ended the regular season fifth in NCAA Division I-A in total defense, first in rushing defense and seventh in scoring defense. They also led the Big Ten in sacks.
"We have played against two of the top five guys for the Heisman (Trophy) and now we’ve got Brady Quinn,’’ Ohio State free safety Nate Salley said, referring to Heisman runner-up Young and No. 5 finisher Michael Robinson of Penn State.
"I believe it is a great challenge to look back and say we played against all those guys and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t do too bad against them.’ ‘’
Quinn finished fourth, two spots ahead of Hawk, who is dating Quinn’s older sister.
"He does everything right,’’ said Hawk of his potential brother-in-law.
"He gives his guys a chance, and he is in an offense that puts him in a position to make plays.’’
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, who claimed the starting job three games into the season, has passed for 1,940 yards and rushed for another 545 while accounting for 25 touchdowns. He has only four interceptions.
"It’s tough, because they can pretty much do anything,’’ Zbikowski said of the Buckeyes’ offense.
"We want to make a statement. We want to come out and prove a point, too, that we can play defense.’’