Know Your Foe: Notre Dame

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley stops by to answer a handful of questions regarding LSU's Music City Bowl matchup against Notre Dame.

1. How has Everett Golson been such a different quarterback down the stretch of this season than he was to open it?

O'Malley: The regression can be traced directly to his maddening penchant for turnovers, and unlike most quarterbacks, Golson's fatal flaw has been the fumble. He's lost eight, dropped 12 altogether, and those miscues, combined with a whopping 14 interceptions, helped waylay what was a promising 7-1 season entering the home stretch.

(It's important to note that Golson's 22 turnovers referenced above have occurred in a nine-game span. He didn't suffer one over the first three outings. Golson has fumbled at least once in each of the last nine save for a win over Navy, and he was picked off at least once in each of the final nine.)

The cause? Most Irish fans believe a few series on the bench in favor of promising backup Malik Zaire might have forced Golson to cherish the football -- and his playing time. Instead, with no repercussions other than constant sideline conversations with Brian Kelly, Golson turned it over with impunity.

Remarkably, Notre Dame's remaining players accounted for just three turnovers over the 12-game slate.

2. Considering running quarterbacks have enjoyed some success against LSU this season, how much, if any, do you expect Notre Dame to turn to Malik Zaire in packages or for series at quarterback?

O'Malley: I expect Zaire to start, actually. Golson's epically-long leash was finally pulled in the humiliating loss at arch-rival USC on Thanksgiving Saturday and Zaire provided a spark, albeit too late to matter in the outcome.

The redshirt-freshman's not a polished passer as is Golson, but Golson's accuracy waned over the last two-plus outings as he sprained his throwing shoulder in an overtime loss to Northwestern. The injury clearly impacted him in overtime when he bounced two dead-to-rights throws. (Earlier in the season, Golson's arm ranked second-to-none in the college game.)

Both will play, and in my opinion, both should play often. If Kelly wants true competition heading into 2015 it should come from facing LSU, not with quarterbacks facing a broken-down Irish defense in the spring -- one that's not allowed to hit the quarterback anyway.

The Tigers will have to prepare for both -- a focused Golson gives Notre Dame it's best chance to win, but that player hasn't been present since the Irish were one flag away from beating Florida State on Oct. 18.

3. What’s the latest on defensive tackle Sheldon Day and his injury? And, if he’s unable to go or limited, what are the Irish alternatives at the position?

O'Malley: Kelly said he's "hopeful" Day will play. If Day is out, it's open season for Tigers freshman Leonard Fournette and anyone else head coach Les Miles would like to offer a 100-yard day in Nashville. Day ranks among the nation's undervalued players -- he's Notre Dame's top football player and can fill any role along the defensive front. The true junior suffered an MCL sprain in the fourth quarter of the aforementioned loss to Northwestern and the Irish rush defense was murdered thereafter.

Exacerbating the issue is that starting nose tackle Jarron Jones -- the team's most improved player since last season -- is out for the year after foot surgery. (Jones went down on the first play against Louisville on Senior Day.)

The injuries don't stop there as backup nose tackle Daniel Cage -- a true freshman -- sprained his knee against Louisville and will be limited. So too will freshman defensive end Jay Hayes -- a high-ankle sprain suffered at USC the cause. Add to that third-string nose tackle Jacob Matuska (lost vs. USC with a chest/neck injury) and starting middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (out for the season with a dislocated ankle) and it's not easy to discern Miles' game plan for Dec. 30.

(Notre Dame hasn't won without Schmidt, 0-4.)

The defensive ends are healthy (two true freshmen, one sophomore, one junior) and Isaac Rochell could move inside. Former special teams blocker Justin Utupo is Day's replacement -- he was solid in a 10-12 snap role in relief of Day when the defense was rolling over the season's first eight games. Once he was asked to play 65 plays, his production obviously waned.

With Day (remember, Schmidt and Jones are out, regardless), the defensive line's bit players can fill in with 20-30 snap voids around him. Without him, it's lights out. Tigers players will be lining up to get a piece of Notre Dame's broken middle.

4. LSU likes to stranglehold possession and has been in a number of low-scoring games lately, relying heavily on defense. What type of pace or scoring range gives Notre Dame the best shot at winning the bowl game?

O'Malley: The Irish are going to be forced to play similarly because they can't expose their freshmen backups defensively. The fewer offensive snaps executed by LSU, the better. When Notre Dame was at its best, it was an offensive machine, led by Golson's arm and quick feet, plus a host of sophomore playmakers (the team's best players are sophomores and freshmen).

But Kelly noted in his bowl press conference that the Irish will likely have to get "out of the fast lane" to help contain the offense's turnover issues.

In 2012, Kelly was at his coaching best playing the 2014 Tigers style. He's going to be forced to re-embrace that approach to keep this interesting entering the fourth quarter.

If the Irish win, it will likely be because sophomore Tarean Folston makes the most of 20 carries and his backup -- either captain Cam McDaniel or redshirt-freshman Greg Bryant -- augments his efforts with 10 more.

5. How would you characterize the confidence of the team at this point? From the outside it’s easy to see things went south following the tight loss to Florida State, but what’s the feel within the program heading into bowl season?

O'Malley: They're broken.

Notre Dame never wavered in three consecutive losses, first to Arizona State -- they came back from a 34-3 deficit to trail just 34-31 with four minutes left before all hell broke loose -- then to Northwestern (OT shocker) and Louisville (drove to first-and-goal for the win; shanked a field goal to tie). None of it seemed to break them.

But USC and the team's absolute inability to compete with the Trojans turned the fan base's perception of "hard-luck Irish" to that of an underachieving, rudderless ship. (The current perception is true, but denying the impact of defensive injuries is foolish.)

No Notre Dame fan that analyzes football believes the Irish, as currently constructed due to injury, can beat LSU.

However, the Irish offense is healthy. They can score on anyone when Golson protects the football. The receivers relish competition, the 'backs are hungry, and the offensive line had its moments (they were great against FSU). The offense has no excuses and Kelly has stated that.

The defense? At season's end, it was among the nation's worst, and statistically, it gave up more points over a seven-game span (291!) than any in program history -- and that was after holding its first five foes to a combined 60 points.

In short, if LSU scores the first 10 points, the Irish are in trouble, and if it's the first 14, it'll get, and stay, ugly.

The point spread, LSU -7, is either Vegas' way of giving away money for the holiday season or they know something we don't.


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