Faced with a tied game with just over 5 minutes left the Irish found a way to move the ball into field goal territory and defeat the LSU Tigers in the Music City Bowl. Let's recap the win.
Play-Call of the Game: Brindza's 32-yard Field Goal
There were some really good things going on with the offensive gameplan that we'll get to in a bit. One of my favorite things about college sports is being able to see teams and players pick themselves up and offer up some special redemption when their short time of wearing their schools colors is coming to an end.
Victory!!!!! https://t.co/JcBFivSkvl— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 30, 2014
You could say this about the entire Irish team, many of the seniors, and a few others in this game but I really want to signal out Kyle Brindza for shaking off his poor senior season and nailing the last kick of his career. That's a heck of a way to go out. He got iced twice by Les Miles and it was his only attempt of the game. Still put up the game-winning three points.
This was simply a gutsy and terrific performance from both Malik Zaire and Everett Golson. I was very wary of playing both quarterbacks but there wasn't much room for criticism with the way they were handled and outside of a couple missed throws by a cold Golson the juggling didn't seem to affect either player.
Due to his inexperience Zaire deserves a ton of praise for his ability to handle everything that was thrown at him. There were a couple bad decisions on the option read (especially on the second series of the game on fourth down) and he wasn't asked to throw the ball all that much or that far down field. Nevertheless, I can't think of a better way to open his first career start.
Zaire finished 12 of 15 for just 96 passing yards and 1 touchdown. But, no turnovers, his accuracy was encouraging, and he was able to make a handful of key throws while showing off his arm strength. If this were 1976 and that's all he was asked to do in the offense I'd still be thrilled with his play. When you add in Zaire's team-leading 96 rushing yards and another touchdown there's no doubt he made a big statement heading into the off-season.
In a different way, Golson's performance was impressive too. He was put in a situation he has never been in before, sat out for long stretches of the game, and still came through with some key passes late in the game even after playing through an injury that required a shot during halftime.
I don't know what to say about this QB situation--I'm sure we'll spend copious amounts of time in the off-season debating the topic. It's really hard to give up on Golson at this point, it even feels kind of ludicrous. Yet, you can't discount that Zaire is a great football player who might just pass Golson with more time in a competition. I still don't like a two-quarterback system but I want both of these players on the team next year. I don't envy Brian Kelly trying to figure this out!
Turning Point: Prosise 50-yard Touchdown Run
Notre Dame brought a lead into halftime thanks to a controversial goal line stand on a fake field goal by LSU. Then in the third quarter the Tigers took a lead following a pair of big plays, first a 75-yard touchdown reception by John Diarse then a 89-yard touchdown run by Leonard Fournette. If the team was to follow the late season script it would have been goodnight at this point.
The Irish didn't though and answered with their own big touchdown play as C.J. Prosise took a jet sweep, made a nice cut, and turned on the jets for a 50-yard score.
Prosise--who missed the end of the game with a concussion--is one of the players the coaching staff can look back on from 2014 and say they really developed his talent. The converted safety has a legit combination of size and speed finishing this season with 29 receptions, 516 receiving yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns to go with 126 rushing yards on 10 carries with another touchdown.
Surprising Stat: 4 Combined Penalties
While I wouldn't call this a nasty game it was a matchup that saw plenty of physicality and jawing from both sides. So it comes as a surprise that there would be just 22 yards of penalties. That's a credit to both teams for playing with discipline.
Unheralded Star: Malik Zaire (the holder)
God knows Zaire had enough on his plate while making his first career start against a program that almost never loses games outside of the SEC. You have to give him credit for getting the extra points down clean and especially for doing so on the game-winning field goal.
Missed Opportunity: A Pair of Third Quarter Possessions
The Irish failed to put some points on the board in the second half when they were given very good field position. The first occurred following a fumble by LSU and the Irish took over at their own 45 only to see a pair of incompletions by Golson bring a three and out.
Then, after the long Prosise touchdown run the Irish forced a three and out on LSU and got the ball back at their 48-yard line. From there a false start was called on Mike McGlinchey, a counter was fumbled by Folston (and recovered), after which Notre Dame couldn't move the sticks and punted again.
Flag of the Game: Pac-12 Replay Booth FTW!
Okay, technically not a flag but this is always our spot to highlight something controversial or momentum changing coming from the officiating.
Should that have been reversed and called a touchdown? I expected them to do so but those are the breaks. Although the Tigers did score on their very next play from scrimmage anyway--although they'd argue they should have led by a touchdown at that point with this replay going their way.
Red Zone TD Success: 60%
This was about as positive of a 60% conversion rate as you're going to find. Notre Dame scored a touchdown on their first series, and failed to convert on a fourth down right at the LSU 20-yard line on the second series.
The Irish would punch in their next two red zone opportunities before gaining the LSU 14-yard line and setting up the game-winning field goal.
Schemes n Such
Brian "The Chameleon" Kelly does it again. I fully admit I thought playing both quarterbacks would backfire at the worst moment. When Golson came in early in the third quarter and missed a couple throws, I worried. When each guy trotted on and off the field I winced waiting to see that loss of spirit. When Zaire's helmet was knocked off early on the fateful winning drive I thought this would be the worst spot for Golson to make a mistake.
Yet, none of that terribleness came to fruition. Zaire played about as well as possible snatching the game MVP honors while Golson came in to go 4 of 5 for 50 yards on the final drive.
Going back to Kelly's days at Grand Valley State with Cullen Finnerty, Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan, and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati, he's tailored his schemes to quarterbacks who can run the ball a lot. This game against LSU was another example of Kelly being able to rely on a signal caller to add a major dimension to the offense and out-gain LSU without passing for 200 yards. It's not like Zaire ran the ball 12 times on Tuesday evening--he ran it a game-high 22 times!
This will set up a fascinating off-season for Kelly who should look very deeply into seeing if Golson can improve on the option read and physically be a better runner. Or alternatively, if Zaire can improve enough on his full pallet passing skills. I have to admit Zaire's powerful running is incredibly enticing and no doubt the coaching staff and teammates know what this brings to the table. But when the chips are down in big moments you can't rely on the next SEC team only completing 7 passes against you. There still needs to be a good passing attack complementing the running game.
As our own Mouth of the South opined following the game:
I guess. I'm just left thinking... what Kelly did with the two quarterbacks--why doesn't he just do that with one quarterback. Like do what the two guys did but with one guy. Like get one guy to do all the things the two guys did (run, throw, run the zone-read, etc.) but it would be one guy doing it. Not two.
Can we see one quarterback put these things together next year?
There isn't much negative to say about the way the Irish offensive line played. The pass protection was mostly solid during the game and anytime you pave the way for 263 yards at 5.2 per rush against LSU you've done a good job.
Mike McGlinchey on what the run-first game plan let the offensive line do against LSU. "Kick some ass."— Irish Illustrated (@PeteSampson_) December 31, 2014
Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey got his first start at right tackle yesterday, and while I'm not big on making wholesale praises or criticisms on teams with body language, I thought he brought a little extra nasty that (may) have been missing up front. On a couple different snaps he pushed some LSU defenders around after the snap and wasn't taking any you-know-what from the chirpy SEC defenders. We need more of that.
The front seven held their own at least. LSU was able to rush for nearly 300 yards aided by several big chunk runs. We knew the Tigers were going to get theirs but when it mattered most on their last offensive series the Irish held them to runs of 1, 8, 2, and 0 yards before stopping quarterback Anthony Jennings a yard short of the first down marker following a third down scramble.
Notre Dame may never get the ball back, or win the game, without that defensive stop in prime time.
Skipping this due to the official stats not being available at the time of writing.
I usually get ~36 hours to write these reviews so I'll keep this short.
Nearly everyone was down on this team, the program, the coaching staff, and a bunch of the players following the bad ending to the regular season. It was understandable in many respects. However, something needs to be said about a couple of common themes that have become staples of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
One, the team continually keeps coming back from their backs against the wall and delivers a huge roundhouse to whatever opponent stands in their way. Two, they actually stand up--even when things aren't perfect--and can win big games.
That this rarely if ever happened from the mid-90's until 2010 may not mean much to some people. Tallest midget and all that talk. But damn it if it doesn't mean something significant. A lot of people want to keep chipping away at Brian Kelly and his staff because they aren't perfect. Far too many people were saying and thinking that this staff had lost the team but just when you think everything would fall apart they go into a bowl game and physically beat LSU and give the SEC West their only non-conference loss to date.
The off-season just got a little more enjoyable.