Irish Offense vs. LSU Defense
The Tigers boast the nation's top-ranked pass defense while Notre Dame counters with an offense that produced at least four offensive touchdowns in eight of 12 contests -- and the Irish scored at least 27 points in 10 of 12 games this season.
Love: Since emerging from a 41-7 loss at Auburn midseason with several personnel and scheme tweaks, John Chavis’ defense has hummed along quite nicely. Perhaps the thing that goes most under-the-radar: Because the offense plays keep-away ball, strangling the possession out of the game (Tigers had the ball more than 41 of 60 minutes in last game at Texas A&M), the LSU defense has been fresh coming down the stretch and the numbers conceded are down simply because they’re not out there as often.
That overall team game plan should again be in effect Tuesday afternoon in Nashville. However, should the Tigers struggle to grind out first downs on the ground offensively, it could put this defense in a tough spot, one it was in late in the season during a 17-0 loss at Arkansas when the offense couldn’t muster anything. That correlation between LSU’s offensive possession and defensive weariness will be something to monitor in the ballgame.
In defending the pass LSU’s only real weakness is its linebackers dropping in coverage, particularly when they get caught man-to-man on tight ends. That will have to be addressed going against Notre Dame’s passing attack. Versus the run the Tigers are a completely different outfit from when the season started. Now complete with Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker, LSU is stopping the power run consistently. Against the Irish, however, it will be crucial for the Tigers to contain the edge and stop designed quarterback runs.
O'Malley: This category is the great unknown for Notre Dame fans heading into the Music City Bowl, and therein lies the rub. The season featured the best offense of the five-year Brian Kelly era this fall and what ranks among the two or three best at the program since Lou Holtz hung up his headset following the 1996 campaign.
But a team-wide face plant in the season finale at USC sullied the season for most observers, and likewise sparked a quarterback controversy -- one that will play out, at least in its initial stages -- on the LP Stadium turf, with starter Everett Golson and his backup, Malik Zaire, both poised to play (Kelly is expected to name a starter, at least in private, on Saturday).
Crucial to the equation will be Notre Dame's running game against a Tigers rush defense that improved immensely as the season progressed. Look for Notre Dame to run at least 30 times knowing full well it can't beat LSU's sticky secondary with a 45-to-50 pass afternoon.
If the Irish can intermix 35 rushes with fewer than 40 passes, they're likely to play this one to the final gun.
But that's a big IF. Advantage: LSU
LSU Offense vs. Irish Defense
Over the season's final seven contests, Notre Dame's defense ranks as the worst in the history of the program in terms of points allowed. The Tigers counter with a rushing attack that carried the day in five of the season's last six outings.
Love: Don’t look for a very diverse approach from Cam Cameron with this offense and this quarterback. Down the home stretch of this season, LSU’s offense would be most aptly characterized as ruthlessly effective (save the shutout at Arkansas when stubbornness and that lack of diversity crippled the Tigers). LSU has run the ball on just shy of 70% of its plays this season, and with three big backs -- possibly four assuming Kenny Hilliard (shoulder) is able to go -- in tow, the formula isn’t likely to change much going against an injury-plagued Irish defensive front.
The biggest key to this game, or any other under a Les Miles-coached offense, is to not turn the ball over. Seriously. They assume, more often than correctly, that their power run game (offensive line plus multiple big tight ends plus a big fullback plus big backs) will weigh on an opponent and that by the fourth quarter that defense that’s been out on the field too long will start to fold. That’s exactly how it happened versus then-No. 3 Ole Miss in a win, and that strategy almost felled No. 1 Alabama two weeks later.
Will they allow Anthony Jennings to throw it? Sure, just not more than about 16-20 times. LSU has won multiple games this season with Jennings completing single-digit passes. It’s not ideal, it’s not sexy, but it’s how the staff has circled the wagons around its personnel in 2014. Look for the Tigers to take one or two deep shots during the course of the game, to Travin Dural or Malachi Dupre, but for the most part LSU will focus on running between the tackles, bootlegs and the short-to-intermediate passing game. If Jennings, who I suspect will take all the snaps under center, attempts more than say 27 passes, LSU is behind and most likely will lose.
O'Malley: Stanford: 47 rushing yards. Florida State: 50 rushing yards. Hold dear to those memories Irish fans, because since those halcyon, Joe Schmidt-led efforts of October, Notre Dame's defensive side of scrimmage has featured a depleted, battered, and broken down version of its former self.
Since? 336 surrendered to Navy, 188 to Arizona State, 263 yielded to Northwestern. NORTHWESTERN! another 229 by Louisville, plus 205 from USC (coupled with 372 and six scores through the air). Yes, that reads "six."
If the Irish hold LSU under 200 yards rushing it will rank alongside the famous Music City Miracle of 1999 as the two most shocking football moments in stadium history. If the Tigers choose to run fewer than 40 times in 60 snaps an investigation should be launched on the spot.
The return of junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day offers Irish fans hope, but Day's full-game effectiveness after a sprained knee sidelined him for the final 2.5 games remains in question.
Decisive, Likely Crippling Advantage: LSU
The all-important third phase of the game could tip the scales on Dec. 30. Who has the edge?
Love: The Tigers usually own special teams under Miles, and while the unit has been occasionally strong this fall, it hasn’t the game-changer or game-winner of years past. The biggest problem is a suddenly sputtering field goal operation. Colby Delahoussaye started his LSU career going 20-of-21 through Oct. 18. Since then he’s 4-of-8 including two misses at Arkansas and another baffling performance at Texas A&M, when walkon Trent Domingue actually replaced Delahoussaye for a stretch.
Jamie Keehn has been one of the SEC’s top punters and is capable of changing field position with regularity, something Miles and Cameron count on with their run-all-day, punting-is-okay approach to offense. He needs to have a big game to put Everett Golson and the Irish offense in undesirable situations to start drives.
As for the return game running backs Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee are deep for kickoffs and corner Tre’Davious White handles the punts. White has a touchdown return on his record this season while Fournette is the lead guy on KO returns. These three, all Louisiana natives, were among the top athletes to come from the state in their respective recruiting years. The capability is there for them to turn a corner, or Fournette to lower a shoulder, and break hearts.
O'Malley: Notre Dame's record-setting senior kicker Kyle Brindza took a career-changing nose dive over the season's second half, due in part to a new holder and poor holds from both his former and current trusted partner in the snap-hold-kick proceedings.
Regardless, the player I often referred to as "the world's most confident kicker" is a shell of his former self when staring down the pipes. (A triple-threat, Brindza remains a strong punter and kickoff specialist.)
The Irish received a late boost in the punt return game from future star running back Greg Bryant, and kick returner Amir Carlisle was solid all season when healthy. The coverage units, especially punt, are solid, though the kick return defense took another hit late as a result of injuries to myriad starters (most of whom should return for this game).
Who has the edge? With Brindza botching six of his last nine, and few of them close, it can't be Notre Dame.
Will LSU run roughshod? Will the Irish offense awaken and put up points aplenty as it did in 10 of 12 outings this season? Or should Tigers and Irish fans settle in for a barn-burner in the Music City?
Love: Do the Tigers have a lead? If so Miles has proven with this team he knows how to salt it out, squeezing the clock like a boa constrictor. If not, and if Notre Dame jumps out to a one- or two-score lead near the end of the first half, very little of what I typed above matters. A scrambled re-direct of a game plan in which LSU suddenly has to open up the offense would be disastrous considering how the Tigers like to play.
The trenches will also tell you a lot about LSU’s chances, especially early. If the offensive line is blowing Notre Dame off the ball in the early going, it’ll be a long day for the Irish as that approach will only intensify late. With the defensive line, look to see if they’re getting a surge. LSU has excelled making tackles behind the line over the last month and a half. So where will the Tigers bring down Notre Dame ball carriers in the first quarter? At or behind the line . . . or into the second/third levels of the defense. Huge difference, and if the Irish have success on the ground early, it’ll unlock a lot in the passing game.
O'Malley: Points. Notre Dame needs points. Points aplenty. The reeling, depleted Irish defense can't stop anyone for 60 minutes and it will take another four touchdowns from what was once an offensive machine to exit Nashville with an ego-boosting victory entering the off-season.
Key to the contest is sophomore running back Tarean Folston. If the emerging sophomore can find running room behind an inconsistent offensive line, it's likely Notre Dame's talented quarterback tandem will enjoy success thereafter. (It's worth noting that Everett Golson is easily the best passer LSU has faced this season, regardless of his penchant for the game-changing turnover.)
On the opposite side of scrimmage, the play of Day is an early indicator. LSU will produce ground game yards, of that there is no doubt, but when in good health, Day is among the nation's best, and a few well-timed 3rd-and-3 stops would stem the inevitable rushing tides.
If Day, cornerback Cody Riggs (stress fracture in his foot), backup-turned starting freshman nose tackle Daniel Cage (sprained knee) and safety Max Redfield (broken rib) can each make it through the game, the Irish defense could occasionally get off the field.
If Day is in good health, Notre Dame could find a way. If not, the front seven will be treated like a turnstile for 60 minutes.
Note: Game predictions will follow as both sites continue to preview the contest with our final column exchange on Dec. 29 in Nashville.