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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. LSU

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For the second time in three years Notre Dame will play a SEC team in the post-season. This time there is far less on the line.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

tiger helmet

Notre Dame (+7.5) at LSU

LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee

Kickoff: 3:00 PM ET

Date: Tuesday, December 30th

Television: ESPN

Series: Tied 5-5-0

Here is the One Foot Down preview for tomorrow's bowl game against the Louisiana State Tigers.

5 Factoids

  • 45-2

Not only has LSU been neck and neck with Alabama for winning percentage within the SEC over the past decade but the Tigers have been super dominant out of conference, as well. Since Les Miles took over in 2005 the Bayou Bengals are 45-2 against non-SEC teams. Perhaps more impressive LSU is 17-2 in that time frame against non-SEC Power 5 conference teams. The lone losses were to Penn State in 2009 (since vacated, but whatever) at the Capital One Bowl and a loss to Clemson during the 2012 Peach Bowl.

  • Louisiana Boys

A number of years ago it was a good kept secret that Louisiana was one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Since the LSU revival beginning in the early parts of this century the secret has been out. The Pelican State has the most players per capital in the NFL right now and maybe even more amazing is that 69 players on the current LSU roster hail from in-state. All of those NFL players and almost 59% of your roster coming from a state with 4.6 million people is astonishing. Notre Dame approached a pipeline like that back in the day vis-a-vis the metro Chicago area but no more.

  • Lack of Sacks

Notre Dame came into this season hoping to improve its ability to get after the quarterback and even with the late-season swoon on defense the Irish have 3 more sacks in one less game heading into the bowl as compared to 2013. From an outsiders perspective it may be somewhat shocking to learn that LSU only has 19 sacks in 12 games--their lowest sack per game rate since 2009. So this game will be between the 70th ranked (ND) and 100th ranked (LSU) teams in terms of sacks.

  • Young Receivers

Irish fans know about the younger receivers making plays this year as true sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson are the top two pass catchers on the team for 2014. The Tigers are also working with some very young wideouts, as well. LSU's leading receiver Travin Dural is a redshirt sophomore but the next three leaders are Malachi Dupre (true freshman), John Diarse (redshirt freshman), and Trey Quinn (true freshman).

  • Third & Short

Notre Dame ran 174 plays on third down this season with 44 of those snaps (25.2%) coming on third and short. The Irish picked up 61.3% of those first downs on 15 rushes and 12 passes. As you would expect, LSU runs the ball a lot and puts themselves into situations where they have to pick up third and short on the ground. The Tigers ran 168 plays on third down with 41 of those snaps (24.4%) coming on third and short. LSU picked up 68.2% of those conversions by running the ball 26 times and passing just twice. If you want to get the LSU offense off the field the goal is staring you right in the face.

4 Players to Watch

  • RB Leonard Fournette

The Composite top recruit in the country came into Baton Rouge this year with major expectations. After a bit of a slow start Fournette has started 5 out of LSU's last 6 games and finished the season leading the Tigers in carries (176), yards (891), and touchdowns (8). Although he doesn't catch the ball out of the backfield all that often with just 7 receptions this year, LSU gets him the ball as their kick returner. Fournette has 22 returns for 504 yards so far this season. Although senior tailback Kenny Hilliard missed the final two games of the season with a shoulder injury and is expected to be back for the bowl game you will still definitely see plenty of this freshman phenom.

  • WR Travin Dural

Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jeremy Hill all declared early for last spring's NFL Draft which left LSU heading into 2014 without their top three pass catchers. This forced rising sophomore Travin Dural (mentioned above) to rise to the occasion with twice as many receptions as the the second best Tiger on the roster. LSU doesn't throw the ball all that much but Dural's 758 yards on just 37 receptions provides some big playmaking ability.

  • OT La'el Collins

Collins is a senior from Baton Rouge who was one of the Tiger players to famously not leave school early last year. It has paid off for him as he was named team MVP while garnering several All-American honors in addition to being awarded the Jacobs Trophy as the top lineman in the SEC. With jumbo guard weight and tackle height he will be a major obstacle for the Irish on Tuesday afternoon. Collins is now expected to go in the 1st round of the NFL Draft in a few months.

  • CB Jalen Collins

Collins is a big corner at 6-2, 198 pounds and will offer a major challenge to the Notre Dame receivers who are likely to see a lot of man coverage tomorrow. The redshirt junior from Olive Branch, Mississippi has only started 9 games going back to 2013 but he's played a lot since his redshirt freshman and currently leads LSU's defense with 9 pass breakups this season. According to reports, Collins will forego his fifth-year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft this year so he'll be playing in his last college game this week.

3 Concerns

  • Defensive Health

As I started this preview shortly after the regular season this looked like a major problem although during bowl prep the Irish have been able to get several players back in the lineup. Starters in safety Max Redfield, corner Cody Riggs, and defensive tackle Sheldon Day are expected to play while backups in linebacker Greer Martini and defensive tackle Jay Hayes should be available, as well.

Plus, safety Eilar Hardy will be allowed to play thanks to whatever murky ruling the school decided on before he transfers to another school. It's still not ideal depth but for one bowl game it is a lot better than what Notre Dame was facing late in the season against USC.

  • Holding Up Against the Run

LSU has a very Impose Your Will™ type of offense but it's one that isn't terribly explosive or even productive. In other words, it's the ideal offense for certain Notre Dame fans. If the Tigers win this game 17-6 you can bet that'll be treated as if the Irish were blown out, physically embarrassed, and mentally destroyed.

Be that as it may, LSU has rumbled for 2,634 yards this season which is just outside the top 25 nationally. However, their 4.52 yards per carry is pretty average. Then again, Southern Cal's YPC average was even worse and they had their way with Notre Dame to close the season. That can't happen again against LSU in the bowl game.

  • Inconsistency on Offense

We already know Notre Dame will be playing both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire at quarterback. We also know that head coach Brian Kelly has mentioned slowing things down on offense after implementing the quickest pace to date since he arrived in 2009. Additionally, despite facing some of the nation's best rushing attacks (Wisconsin, Auburn, Alabama) the Tigers are only giving up 143 yards per game on the ground, including just 102 yards per game over their last 6 games in SEC play.

Let's do the math here. Multiple quarterbacks playing, messing with the tempo, and a staff that has a difficult time staying patient with the run game against a stiff defense. Is that a good combination?

2 Sides of the Line

We've already mentioned La'el Collins (6-5, 321) and he'll be making his 38th and final career start this weekend from the left tackle position. Collins started at left guard as a sophomore and has been at left tackle over the last two seasons. At left guard the Tigers have junior Vadal Alexander (6-6, 320) making his 35th career start.

At center 5th-year senior Elliott Porter (6-4, 297) came into 2014 as the returning starter but was suspended for the Tigers' first two games due to discrepancies with a summer job. In his place sophomore Ethan Pocic (6-7, 301) made the two starts. For game 3 through 11 LSU went back to Porter before he injured his ankle against Arkansas. He's not expected to play so look for Pocic to start at center again.

LSU began the season with JUCO senior Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 330) making the first 3 starts at right guard before Pocic moved to guard when Porter was back in the swing of things at center. Fifth-year senior Evan Washington (6-6, 334) made a couple starts to finish the season and is now expected to start at right guard tomorrow. At right tackle redshirt sophomore Jerald Hawkins (6-6, 309) has been the starter for the past two seasons and is making his 26th straight start on Tuesday.

On defense the Tigers are led at the end position by senior Jermauria Rasco (6-3, 247) and junior Danielle Hunter (6-6, 240) both of whom started every game in 2014. Hunter has been a starter since the early part of 2013 while Rasco has been a full-time starter for two years. These two have combined for 127 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks this season.

Adding depth at defensive end will be sophomore Tashan Bower (6-5, 237) with 16 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. A pair of freshmen in Deondre Clark (6-3, 244) and Sione Teuhema (6-4, 232) get some snaps and have combined for 16 tackles.

On the interior true sophomore Christian LaCouture (6-5, 300) has started every game at tackle after filling in a backup role last season. He's totaled 37 tackles, 4 TFL, and 2.5 sacks in 2014. At the other tackle spot redshirt junior Quentin Thomas (6-4, 303) started a few games early in the season while dealing with a torn bicep suffered in fall camp. He then tore his other bicep and has played sparingly since week 5 as true freshman Davon Godchaux (6-4, 298) has been inserted into the starting lineup and made 34 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

LSU will also utilize a handful more of tackles including sophomore Lewis Neal (6-1, 255) and a trio of redshirt freshman in Greg Gilmore (6-5, 305), Maquedius Bain (6-4, 299), and Frank Herron (6-4, 278). These four backups have combined for 15 tackles and 2 tackles for loss.

1 Prediction

There are 3 big picture goals that need to be achieved if the Irish are going to win this game.

Keep LSU under 250 rushing yards

Sometimes total rushing yards aren't a great benchmark for a defense, for example when you're playing the Naval Academy. With LSU the higher their rushing total the longer they are holding the ball and likely sustaining drives. Notre Dame has given up 200+ yards in their last 3 games. Something in and around the 200 yard mark isn't likely to kill the Irish given that the Tigers are bound to rush it about 50 times. However, if LSU is able to creep towards 300 yards that probably means they've scored enough points and put Notre Dame's offense in a position where they'll have to be scoring on very few series.

Force Field Goals on LSU's Offense

There's been a never ending discussion for years about Notre Dame lacking a power run game in the red zone. If the Irish being just one spot below perennial power run team Wisconsin in the red zone touchdown conversion rankings doesn't convince you that it's not just about pounding the ball then LSU's 86th ranked TD RZ percentage just might do the trick.

The Tigers totaled 112 plays in the red zone this year and ran the ball 72.3% of the time. And while their quarterback(s) threw 8 touchdowns to zero interceptions deep in enemy territory their stat line against Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Texas A&M read 5 of 15 for 34 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 sacks. Yes, just 5 red zone completions across 6 games. The Tigers scored touchdowns on 5 out of 19 red zone opportunities in those contests--just 26.3% of the time. LSU was also 0 for 2 against Arkansas, for good measure too.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats Following the Regular Season

STAT IRISH TIGERS
S&P Overall 37 17
S&P Offense 24 35
S&P Rush Offense 31 27
S&P Pass Offense 17 49
Standard Down Offense 20 47
Passing Down Offense 22 38
S&P Defense 56 8
S&P Rush Defense 48 15
S&P Pass Defense 84 5
Standard Down Defense 63 2
Passing Down Defense 67 12
FEI Overall 44 27
Offensive Efficiency 39 89
Offense Available Yards 19 101
Offense Explosive Drives 29 104
Offense Methodical Drives 60 79
Offense Value Drives 14 83
Defensive Efficiency 65 16
Defense Available Yards 61 10
Defense Explosive Drives 70 40
Defense Methodical Drives 63 4
Defense Value Drives 80 11
F/+ Overall 36 18
F/+ Offense 32 48
F/+ Defense 50 11
Special Teams Efficiency 46 19
Field Goal Efficiency 114 73
Punt Return Efficiency 25 29

If Notre Dame can stand up to the LSU rushing attack and combine that with forcing a few field goal attempts instead of giving up touchdowns there is opportunity to raise a bowl trophy Tuesday evening.

Score 3 Touchdowns

Vegas has this game sitting at an over/under around 52 which feels a little high to me. That means a predicted score of 30-22 give or take a half point either way. Then again, perhaps that feels about right. 30 points would be just a little over LSU's scoring average but it would be the fewest points the Irish have given up going all the way back to the Stanford game on October 4th.

Will the Irish be able to put a few touchdowns on the board, though? It'll likely take a handful of big plays because long, clock eating drives virtually do not exist (see 4th in Methodical Drives Defense) against the Bayou Bengals. Keep that in mind if the Irish offense truly tries to slow things down, rely on the run game, and protect the defense. That might shorten the game by a few possessions but it might also lead to a lot of punting and a struggle for just 10 points.

***

The Irish could probably win the game if they achieved two of these goals but that would likely take some really inept offensive performance from LSU, or a couple big special teams plays, or several turnovers from the Tigers. It really must take all three and it's not some Herculean task either.

As short as a month ago I wouldn't have believed this was possible to say but I'm more worried about the offense in this game. The defense has had time to heal up, will get back several players from injury, had double-digit practices to build a gameplan, and LSU runs a very conservative offense with mediocre quarterback play. I'm not saying the Irish are about to shut the Tigers down (believe me after the last month of the season 40+ points wouldn't surprise me in the least bit) but keeping Miles & Co. down in the low 20's is something that is very possible.

You can count me as pessimistic about building, implementing, and executing a good gameplan on offense. I said as much in our OFD Opinions piece from just over a week ago that playing both quarterbacks is asking for more trouble than it's worth. Unless Kelly is being coy, it seems as though Zaire is going to be mostly used to hand off or run the option read and I'd expect LSU to shut that down in short order.

Can Notre Dame win this game leaning on their run game? Does anyone believe that'll happen against LSU of all defenses? If not, then it'll be up to the passing offense to do most of the damage while the Tigers are giving up 50.4% accuracy, 5.4 yards per attempt, and just 9 touchdowns all season through the air. They are giving up an average of 15 completions per game, while Alabama was the only offense to notch 20 completions (they hit 20 right on the dot) and it took the Tide 46 attempts to get there.

I just don't see it, unless we get a dialed in Golson like against Florida State or Michigan. But with the quarterback controversy I'll be shocked if Golson is able to play up to that level coming off his worst career performance in the regular season finale.

LSU's offensive line is just too big and bad when combined with Fournette & Co.

Notre Dame 13

LSU 29