Happy New Year’s Eve, everybody!!!
As 2017 comes to a close and 2018 rears its head, it’s important that we all take the time to prepare ourselves for what lies ahead in the new year.
So, considering one of the first things Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fans will do in 2018 is watch the team take on the LSU Tigers in the Citrus Bowl, it’s important that we take a brief look at how the two teams match up so we’re all ready for the game.
Seem fair? Let’s dive into the matchup to see how the two squads match up.
LSU Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
One of the fatal flaws that the LSU Tigers have had over the years has been the lack of a good quarterback. The Tigers have consistently churned out elite defenses and have had a number of fantastic running backs (and even receivers), but performances at the QB position have always held the team back.
This year’s LSU squad certainly doesn’t have a Heisman candidate at QB, but like most LSU teams, they really only needed a decent QB to manage things and not turn the ball over.
They have that this year in QB Danny Etling, a senior QB from Terre Haute, Indiana, who spent two years at Purdue before transferring to Baton Rouge. With Etling at the helm and with the typical fantastic LSU rushing attack, the Tigers have an offense that is 54th in total yardage, 28th in rushing, and 15th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN.com.
Now, that’s not to say that this offense is unbelievable, as LSU is still 85th in the country in passing offense and 71st in scoring. But, Etling is the best QB LSU has had in a while, throwing for 2,234 yards while completing 60.3% of his passes and sporting a very clean TD-to-INT ratio of 14-to-2.
Etling’s stability and efficiency at QB has given LSU just enough production in the passing game to keep the pressure off the run game, allowing a couple fantastic talents in the backfield to have stupendous years.
Junior RB Derrius Guice ran for 1,153 yards in 2017, picking up 5.3 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns as the lead back running behind a very strong LSU offensive line. Guice is a talented back with great vision and decisiveness, and although most of his touchdowns came in red zone situations, he does have some speed to break off a longer run if he gets the hole to do so.
Senior RB Darrel Williams is the #2 RB for the Tigers, and he had a pretty impressive year himself, rushing for 776 yards on 5.7 yards per carry, with 9 scores of his own. Whereas Guice has some afterburners he can utilize to break away, Williams is definitely more of a punishing, bowling ball-esque power back.
The two backs combine for a lethal one-two punch, and will be a handful for the Notre Dame defensive front to contain. Mike Elko’s ND defense has some experience facing great running backs, though, as the Irish faced off with Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Stanford’s Bryce Love, among others, during the regular season.
The Irish defense had mixed results against that level of rushing offense, as they did a pretty good job containing the Georgia backs but got more or less steamrolled by Love and the Stanford offense.
Nevertheless, the Irish defense is 44th in the country in total defense and 49th in rushing defense, while standing as 10th in defensive efficiency according to ESPN.com.
Per usual for the Irish, the key players for the defense’s performance will be the linebackers who have been crucial for making tackles and shutting down offenses all season.
Junior linebacker Te’von Coney had a sensational breakout season in 2017, leading the team in tackles (99) and tackles for loss (12.5) and finishing 2nd on the team in sacks (3). His combination of athleticism and power will be critical for combating the power and downhill running style of Guice and Williams.
Senior Nyles Morgan (83 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 QBH), senior Greer Martini (70 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 FF), and senior “Rover” linebacker Drue Tranquill (74 tackles, 8.5 TFL) will all also be called upon to run sideline to sideline and rack up the tackles as the LSU offense attempts to move down the field on the ground and with short passes.
One playmaker the Tigers offense will try to get involved as much as possible is WR Russell Gage, who is often used on jet sweeps (217 yards, 8 yards per carry, 1 TD) but who is also the #3 receiver for LSU (behind DJ Chark and Darrel Williams), collecting 19 receptions for 270 yards and 3 TD on the year. He’s a guy who the linebackers need to be aware of in the running game, and who the DBs will also need to account for in the passing game.
The go-to receiver for Danny Etling has been DJ Chark, a 6’3” senior who has 35 receptions, 811 yards, and 3 TD on the year while averaging 23.2 yards per catch. He has the size and speed to burn a defense at any time, and is also a standout in the return game.
ND CB Julian Love (62 tackles, 17 PBU, 3 INT -- 2 for TD) will likely be the one attempting to shut down Chark tomorrow, and so it will be interesting to see if Love can stay with him considering Chark’s speed.
Aside from Chark and Gage, other guys the secondary will need to watch out for in the passing game include Williams coming out of the backfield (22 receptions, 327 yards), TE Foster Moreau (20 receptions, 214 yards, 3 TD), 6’6” WR Stephen Sullivan (9 receptions, 195 yards, 1 TD), and sophomore wideout Drake Davis, who only has 3 catches on the year but has the speed to make them count, considering the 134 yards and 2 TD he has accumulated despite the limited action.
With a lot of speed and size in the LSU receiver group, it will be crucial that Notre Dame gets a good pass rush on Etling to force him into making throws he wouldn’t normally make.
DT Jerry Tillery will be leading that charge in the middle, as he’s been a consistent force that breaks down opposing teams’ pockets and wreaks havoc in the backfield. Tillery has 52 tackles from the middle of the defensive line, and has an impressive 8.5 tackles for loss, 10 QB hurries, and a team-leading 4 sacks.
On the outside, young pass rushers Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara will also be key. These guys have the speed and athleticism to get to Etling, and so they will need to put consistent pressure off the edge to rush Etling and maybe even force a turnover or two. That trio has 15.5 tackles for loss on the season, with 7.5 combined sacks and 17 QB hurries.
Guys like Coney and Tranquill will add juice to the pass rush as well, and could be the difference — the Notre Dame secondary, outside of Love, is pretty vulnerable, as guys like Nick Watkins and Troy Pride Jr. at corner and Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott, and Devin Studstill at safety have all shown flashes, but have also had serious breakdowns at times, especially in the final 3 games of the regular season. A good pass rush could really help prevent Etling from exposing some of that vulnerability.
If that pass rush is able to force Etling to make mistakes, look for Love and junior nickelback Shaun Crawford to take advantage and come up with some big, momentum-shifting plays.
Overall, I think the LSU offense stands a tough test for the Irish with an efficient QB and very strong rushing attack, but I also think Elko, with a month to prepare, will have his defense playing at a higher (and more rested) level than it was in the final weeks of the season. It should be a good matchup.
Notre Dame Offense vs. LSU Defense
On the other side of the ball, this matchup is the more compelling of the two. The Notre Dame offense was devastatingly efficient for most of the season, led by the #7 rushing offense in the country. However, the #25 total offense sputtered in the final weeks of the season, as maddening play calling and a glut of turnovers brought about a blowout loss at Miami, a narrow escape at home against Navy, and an absolute choke-job in the season finale at Stanford.
The offense’s most divisive player is also its leader, as QB Brandon Wimbush has been the focus of many frustrated Notre Dame fans thanks to the various struggles and turnovers he suffered in the final 3 weeks.
Wimbush has not been a good passer this season, throwing for just 1,818 yards and completing an abysmal 49.8% of his passes. However, overall, his 16 TD and 6 INT isn’t too problematic — the issue is when those INTs came (4 in the last 3 games).
Wimbush’s passing woes will certainly not suddenly improve tomorrow, either. LSU flaunts the #19 passing defense in the country, featuring a crew of elite defensive backs that LOVE creating turnovers with their speed and athleticism.
The group is led by CB Andraez Williams, nicknamed “Greedy” — fittingly so, considering he leads the team with 5 INT and 10 PBU. That guy is a playmaker, and he will make Wimbush pay if he isn’t careful.
The rest of the secondary is equally dangerous and talented. Safeties John Battle (59 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 INT, 2 FF) and Grant Delpit (52 tackles, 8 PBU, 1 INT, 3.5 TFL) are sure-tackling guys with a penchant for taking the ball away, and Williams’ fellow cornerback Donte Jackson is equally good at breaking up passes (10 PBU, 1 INT). CB Kevin Toliver II is fantastic as well, considering he has also broken up 10 passes, intercepted a pass, and forced 2 fumbles on the year.
Facing that kind of elite secondary is enough to bring any QB’s confidence down. Unfortunately for Wimbush, that isn’t the only obstacle he faces tomorrow.
The Notre Dame receiving corps has been depleted of late — starters Chase Claypool (injury/surgery) and Kevin Stepherson (suspended indefinitely due to being arrested and stuff) will both be out, as are TE Alizé Mack (suspended, reason unclear) and reserve TE Brock Wright (injury).
Toss in a suspension of freshman reserve RB CJ Holmes (arrested with Stepherson shoplifting from a Mishawaka Macy’s) and RB Deon McIntosh being sent home on Thursday for a violation of team rules, and suddenly Wimbush doesn’t have a ton of weapons to throw the ball to against the #13 overall defense being sported by the Tigers.
For those keeping track at home, the Irish will be without 70 receptions, 935 receiving yards, and 8 receiving touchdowns tomorrow. That’s 53% of Wimbush’s completions, 51% of his passing yards, and half of his passing touchdowns — GONE.
The burden of the Irish having any sort of productive passing game will fall on Equanimeous St. Brown and Durham Smythe, the lone starting receivers remaining.
St. Brown had a disappointing season after such a fantastic 2016 year, with just 31 catches and 468 yards to go along with 4 TD. Some of that can be attributed to losing DeShone Kizer as his QB and to Chip Long’s offense being run-heavy for most of the season, but St. Brown has still not performed as expected heading into the year.
This game against elite DBs with NFL futures would be a great stage for St. Brown to show scouts and fans alike that he’s an NFL-caliber receiver himself, so hopefully he steps up and makes some big plays. He will be the focus for LSU’s secondary, though, and thus it may be hard for him to get much separation.
Smythe had a decent year with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown, and he will never be a Tyler Eifert-esque receiving threat. However, with all the attrition, Smythe will be needed as a big, sure-handed safety valve for Wimbush in the middle of the field when that scary LSU pass rush is in his face. If Smythe can catch what’s thrown to him and help move the chains, the ND offense could really produce better than expected tomorrow.
The LSU pass rush is a dangerous one, as the Tigers are tied for 18th in the country in total team sacks with 35 on the year (so about 3 per game). The LSU front will be missing some key talent in this regard, though, with future NFL first rounder LB Arden Key (33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 8 QBH) out for the game, along with fellow starting linebackers Corey Thompson (43 tackles, 7 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 QBH) and Donnie Alexander (51 tackles, 2 QBH, 1 FF).
Those three will be replaced by some very young but extremely talented guys in true freshman K’Lavon Chaisson and redshirt freshman Ray Thornton filling in for Key, true freshman Tyler Taylor stepping in for Alexander, and sophomore Michael Divinity Jr. replacing Thompson. Taylor has already started 4 games this year in relief of Alexander (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and Chaisson has been fantastic in the time he’s gotten (25 tackels, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 QBH).
Losing Key, Thompson, and Alexander hurts, but the LSU defensive front is still plenty strong and talented, and the pass rush will certainly come from other key players still remaining.
LB Devin White leads the team in tackles with 127, and is a menace in terms of getting into the backfield and making plays (12.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 QBH). Defensive linemen Greg Gilmore and Christian LaCouture have combined for 114 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 5 PBU, and 5 QBH, and will provide a very tough test in pass blocking for the Irish offensive line.
Rashard Lawrence, Frank Herron, and Glen Logan add more beef up front and help combine for what is truly an imposing defensive front seven. These guys will be in Wimbush’s face plenty of times tomorrow.
With all the talent LSU will be sending in the pass rush and all the suspensions and injuries to ND receivers, look for a number of inexperienced Irish players to step into bigger roles tomorrow, including Miles Boykin (9 receptions, 151 yards, 1 TD), Chris Finke (5 receptions, 84 yards) and Michael Young (2 receptions, 10 yards), as well as TE Nic Weishar (7 receptions, 39 yards, 2 TD).
WR Cameron Smith might also see extended time, as the Arizona State grad transfer began the season as a starter but ended up, due to injuries and lack of production, only contributing 8 catches for 60 yards and a touchdown while being relegated mostly to the bench this season.
Overall, it seems unlikely that an Irish passing game that was so abysmal down the stretch will do better without key talent and against potentially the best secondary they’ve faced all year, but stranger things have happened, and Chip Long and the ND offense did have a month to prepare. It will be interesting to see how that goes.
With all that said, we all know that the running game is the key to this matchup between the ND offense and LSU defense. Notre Dame is 7th in the country in rushing and has ridden that run game to the 21st-best scoring offense and 12th-best offensive efficiency rating (according to ESPN.com) in the country.
Led by RB Josh Adams (1,386 yards, 7.3 yards per carry, 9 TD), the ND rushing attack has been devastating to the majority of opponents this season, save for Georgia, Miami, and Stanford. Adams was a little banged up by the end of the season, and so the month he had to rest should have him fresh and ready to break off a long run or two, if the likes of Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and Sam Mustipher can open up some big running lanes for him to do so.
Wimbush’s passing may be suspect, but no one can question how dangerous he is as a runner. He picked up 765 yards on 5.6 yards per carry this season, and scored an ND QB record 14 rushing touchdowns. Whether it’s on designed QB runs in the Run-Pass Option offense of Chip Long, or just on scrambles during broken passing plays, Wimbush has the speed, shiftiness, and run-finishing ability to really make a difference against an LSU defense that could get caught over-pursuing with their speed and aggression.
Along with Adams and Wimbush, the Irish have just two other rushing options considering the suspensions of Deon McIntosh (368 yards and 5 TD on 5.7 ypc) and CJ Holmes.
Dexter Williams, who has been hurt a lot of the year but has shown flashes of brilliance while running for 324 yards and 4 TD on 8.8 yards per carry, should be healthy and ready to go as the #2 guy.
Tony Jones Jr., meanwhile, will be his normal, reliable #3 self in relief of those two and in short yardage situations. Jones has 232 yards and 3 TD this season, and picks up 5.4 yards per carry himself.
The LSU defense is 23rd in the country in rushing defense and 16th in scoring defense, so it should be interesting to see how they hold up against such a potent rushing attack. It’s likely they will dare ND to pass and stack the box, and so this game may come down to whether or not Long and Brian Kelly stick to their guns and keep running the ball, or if they abandon the run and try to pass against a secondary very capable of making them pay.
Overall, I think the Irish offense will struggle. LSU knows ND cannot throw the ball to essentially anyone except St. Brown, and will bring a lot of bodies to overwhelm the Irish offensive line and corral Adams and Williams and Wimbush before they can find a crease and get into the open field, where they are most dangerous.
I do think McGlinchey and Nelson will create a few opportunities, but I also think Long and Kelly will abandon the run in the second half due to a deficit and will ultimately push Wimbush into a bad situation where he’s tossing a game-clinching pick to Greedy Williams.
There isn’t TOO much to talk about here, but here are some notes to note:
- LSU kickoff specialist Cameron Gamble is out for this game. Maybe CJ Sanders will get an opportunity to take one back, as he is so sorely due for??
- LSU has had two placekickers see time this season, Connor Culp and Jack Gonsoulin. Culp is 20-of-23 on extra points and 11-of-15 on field goals, while Gonsoulin was a perfect 18-for-18 on extra points but a very poor 4-of-9 on field goals. The LSU kicking game is suspect, folks
- LSU returner DJ Chark is a perpetual threat to take one to the house, and if the Irish punt coverage isn’t smothering, I could see him breaking one tomorrow
- CJ SANDERS IS SO DUE TO RETURN A KICKOFF FOR A TOUCHDOWN, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD...I miss this so much:
With a month to heal and rest and prepare, I think Notre Dame comes out looking much sharper than they did in November. The defense will be crisper, the offense will run the ball somewhat effectively, etc.
However, I think the LSU defense has too much talent for the Irish offense to score enough points to win, and I think LSU makes enough big plays — whether they come on special teams, on turnovers forced by their defense, or on punishing runs from Guice and Williams -- to put the Irish away late in the second half.