Who, and What, to Watch: ND vs. LSU

O'Malley's pre-game handful of questions sets the stage for today's tussle between the Tigers and Irish in Nashville.

1.) Welcome to the Real World, Malik Zaire: Everybody's favorite player is about to be exposed. Or star. Or shine. Or a reasonable facsimile therein.

The life of the backup quarterback is good work if you can get it: make a few plays in mop-up duty, receive requisite plaudits from your head coach for practice habits and "your bright future," and of course, have bouquets tossed at your feet by an adoring fan base that's never seen you play when it matters most.

Then suddenly, it matters, you're the starter, and it's LSU's defense -- fully engaged, not staked to a six-touchdown lead -- that faces you in a bowl game at the end of a broken season.

Such is the new life of Notre Dame redshirt-freshman quarterback Malik Zaire, one that begins today.

"I just think we want to put Malik in a position and really challenge him," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "I’m very pleased with what Everett (Golson) has done over the past two weeks. He’s made very good progress. We still have a great deal of confidence in his ability or we wouldn’t have just named one starter obviously. We’re going to play both of them.  But I wasn’t to challenge him (Zaire) and put him in this kind of environment. He’s playing against a great defense in LSU and we’ll learn a lot about him (Tuesday)."

Now the heavy lifting, begins.

2.) Wither Everett? -- Golson will play, of that we can be sure, but how much? There has to be an initial entry plan in place for Notre Dame's 24-game starter at the position, but the more you read the tea leaves, the more it seems this is Zaire's game to win or lose, and that Golson will merely be placated.

If that's the case, his future at the program is surely in doubt. While the goal for Notre Dame, the program and its fans, is a victory, it's nearly as important that both triggermen simply play well, because every game played next season matters (at present) more than this one, and the 2015 squad -- one I've touted here as a national contender for the better part of 13 months -- will be stronger with both Golson and Zaire available to it.

3.) Greg Bryant: he's there, you need him, why not use him? Notre Dame cannot win today if its defense is asked to carry the load. It cannot win without a ball control attack that relies on more than the read-option machinations of Zaire and starting tailback Tarean Folston.

Fortunately for Irish fans, another weapon exists in the form of backup running back Greg Bryant. Unfortunately, it's not clear that he'll be utilized to his fullest potential.

"I don’t know that the role expands as much as he’ll definitely be part of what we’re doing," said Kelly when asked directly about Bryant. "But we’ll see Folston and Cam (McDaniel) and Greg continue in a similar role. As you know, we’ll play the guy that seems to be having some success, and (Bryant) played well against USC, and if he continues to do that I can see him getting more carries."

Playmakers are needed. Difference-makers. Bryant is among them -- and presumed to be in good health after battling an ankle injury in the season's second half -- it makes little sense not to use him in consistent support of Folston.

More than 35 rushing attempts are essential for the Irish Tuesday. Giving Bryant 10-12 would suffice.

4.) Can Day and the pups hold up? Our month-long barometer for bowl game success, junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day, appears ready to play. Can he make it through 50-plus snaps facing a rushing attack that will pound relentlessly at the vulnerable Irish middle?

If Day plays exceptionally well, his best, the Irish can win. If Day remains upright and reliable, it allows the rest of the youth-filled defensive front to compete at a work volume (10, or 15, or perhaps 20 plays) that could yield success. If Day is up to the task, freshman middle linebacker Nyles Morgan has a chance to succeed, to do what he does best: react, explode, and hit the guy with the ball.

But if Day -- not yet two months removed from a sprained MCL -- breaks down, so too will the Irish. And it will get ugly.

5.) Will the wide receivers party like its Oct. 18? The scene remains familiar, though time erodes its plausible reality.

October 18, 2014. Notre Dame trails undefeated national champion Florida State by four points with under 1:10 remaining, the Irish offense staked to a new set of downs after a remarkable fourth-down conversion courtesy Golson and sophomore receiver Corey Robinson.

The Doak Campbell crowd roars, the stadium rocking towards a delirious climax.

And Robinson's classmate, Will Fuller, raises his arms asking for more. More noise. More vitriol. More, because he's thriving not shrinking from the moment.

The ball is snapped and Fuller beats one of the nation's best cornerbacks, former Irish pledge Ronald Darby, for 17 yards. It was his eighth catch of the day, one of 29 recorded that evening by five Irish wide receivers -- a unit at its apex against the best secondary it had faced to date.

Enter the new best secondary its faced to date, the LSU Tigers.

"I believe that we have to be on the field offensively," said Kelly. "I have to keep that physical offense that LSU has off the field as well. So certainly we have to take our shots (downfield). We have some perimeter guys that are going to have to make some plays against some very, very good players at LSU."

Though they were part of a team-wide laid egg in the regular season finale, the wide receivers are capable. They're potential difference-makers in a game where one or two big plays can provide the difference.

Will Fuller hasn't been covered successfully this season -- he needs to embrace that Tuesday when faced with his toughest test.

Attrition, Reality, Remain

I have little doubt that victory-starved Notre Dame prepared itself to play well in this game. But I have less doubt that a defense playing without its MVP and its starting nose tackle, and with a handful of half-healthy bodies, can hold up for 60 minutes against LSU's relentless rushing attack.

Look for red zone failures to again riddle Brian Kelly's offense as the Irish hang in, but ultimately fall to a team it would have likely beaten had the game been played in October. Better days lie ahead for Irish fans. Tuesday isn't one of them.

LSU 31 Notre Dame 17

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