Fiesta time

Jerry Bonkowski
Yahoo! Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. – In boxing and concerts, sometimes the under card or opening act winds up putting on a better show than the main event.

This year's Fiesta Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Notre Dame has the same potential.

On the surface, the final Fiesta tilt to be held at Sun Devil Stadium (the game shifts next year to the Arizona Cardinals' new home in nearby Glendale) is what it is: this season's second- or third-strongest BCS bowl game, depending upon how you rank it.

But let's stop for a minute and think about the other two marquee games.

If Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and the rest of the top-ranked USC Trojans (12-0) rev into high gear early against No. 2 Texas (12-0) en route to their third straight college football title, the Rose Bowl could quickly go from National Championship to Siesta Bowl for viewers and game attendees alike.

Likewise, more than 2,000 miles away in Miami, No. 3 Penn State (10-1) could put No. 22 Florida State (8-4) away in the first quarter, leaving three more agonizing quarters to endure for fans and the Seminoles.

And for good measure we'll mention the Sugar Bowl, relocated to Atlanta this year from New Orleans due to damage from Hurricane Katrina. The game pits Georgia (10-2) against West Virginia (10-1). A good game, but definitely not one you expect to stand out from the rest.

Which brings us back full-circle to the Fiesta Bowl. Of all the major bowl games to be played between now and Wednesday, the duel in the desert has the potential to wind up as the most exciting and action-packed game of the bowl season.

The only problem is trying to convince the players and coaches on both sides about that.

When asked whether they're up for stealing the show or upstaging the national championship game, both teams are playing their cards extremely close to the vest.

The Buckeyes don't even want to think about the possibility – or at least they're being coy about it publicly.

"I think that all the people that tune into our game, no matter how good we play or not, are going to tune into that one (Rose Bowl), too," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "Now, maybe when they tune into (the Rose Bowl) and say, 'Oh, you know what, that one where I saw Notre Dame and Ohio State play – those guys were better.' That's wonderful."

Standout Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith refuses to think about anything other than the Irish.

"I don't think about another game; I'm not thinking about the Rose Bowl at all," Smith said. "This is the Fiesta Bowl. Texas is playing USC. Those games are those games. We're playing Notre Dame. I'm not worried about upstaging anyone. I'm sure those two teams playing in California will have a great game, too."

Added OSU free safety Nate Salley, "You definitely want to have a great game, especially with so many of us being seniors. Just because it's the last game of the year, you want to go out stronger than you played all year and play your best game possible. We're going to have to bring our A-game and hopefully that's what we'll do."

With the storybook season first-year coach Charlie Weis has had – bringing the Irish back to respectability and earning a berth in a major bowl game – the Fighting Irish want to get back into the national spotlight. And stay there. That's what they did under coaches like Ara Parseghian (95-17-4 in 11 seasons), Dan Devine (53-16-1 in 6 seasons) and Lou Holtz (100-30-2 in 11 seasons).

That's why Monday night's game is so important to the Irish. Sure, they want to trounce Ohio State. But more importantly, they want to give the huge national TV audience something to talk about – kind of a prelude of things to come next season from the bunch from South Bend.

For if ND's and OSU's players put on the best games of their collective careers, the overall stock and reputation of both teams will go up several levels.

"I don't want to be disrespectful to any of those other teams that are playing in bowl games that might feel the same way about their programs," Weis said. "I think it is an intriguing matchup because you have two Midwestern teams with national exposure with their schools deeply entrenched in tradition."

Look at the 35th edition of the Fiesta Bowl and you can expect a grueling, hard-fought game between two teams that are gritty and middle class. They're not Hollywood like USC. They aren't the cowpokes of Texas. Nor, for that matter, are they the blue collar style of Penn State or the laid-back persona of FSU.

Ohio State was national champion in 2002; Notre Dame was last ranked No. 1 in all the land back in 1989. Ironically enough, both teams' last national titles were earned right here in the Valley of the Sun.

Since it's too late to claim that No. 1 spot this year, both OSU and ND want to get back to that level next year, and even with all the seniors both sides will lose afterward, Monday's game could be the match that lights that flame.

In short, this year's Fiesta square-off could be one that emulates what a great BCS bowl game should be: low-scoring, tough defense and minimal offensive showboating.

"The perfect scenario would be a shutout," said Notre Dame linebacker Corey Mays. "It's going to be a hard-fought game and that's exactly what you want. You prepare for a game for a month; you don't want to just roll over. You want a good game."

That's what we're going to see Monday. While it won't necessarily be a game for the ages, it will definitely be one that leaves plenty of lasting memories, not only with the participants, but those who are watching them, as well.

"It's my last one, it's going to be on national television and it's going to be huge," Salley said. "It's definitely going to be the biggest game we've played in."

And you can bet USC, Texas, Penn State and Florida State will be watching to see if they can pick up some pointers.

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