Formerly clutch kicker Kyle Brindza regained his finishing form. Heisman candidate-turned goat Everett Golson hit the third-down throws that mattered. Veteran head coach Brian Kelly called a game commensurate with that of a renowned, lifelong winner rather than a November also-ran.
And a little help from a first-time starter-turned-game MVP didn't hurt, either.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Malik Zaire delivered in his first start, a 31-28 victory by Notre Dame over SEC power LSU. Zaire produced both a passing score and rushing score, then threw a block for running back Tarean Folston to clear a path to pay dirt as well. Zaire's overall efforts included a combined 192 yards -- 96 apiece via the air and ground -- en route to the team's first victory since Nov. 1 against Navy.
Most important, he protected the football: zero turnovers while playing the lion's share of snaps leading an offense that possessed the football for a whopping 37 of the contest's 60 minutes.
"In terms of my play today, I was just trying to do my job," said Zaire, of his MVP performance in the 17th annual Music City Bowl. "What the game plan was, what the plan of attack was to try to win a football game and I just tried to protect the football. That was probably the number one thing I tried to focus on doing and just doing my job, not trying to put it all on myself. Knowing the 10 guys around me, especially the offensive line was going to get their job done and they had a big day."
It was the first time in 10 outings Notre Dame didn't turn the ball over and the first time in 10 that said turnover wasn't committed by an Irish quarterback. Tuesday's performance included contributions from the season's defining player, senior triggerman Everett Golson, whose efforts in intermittent relief cannot be ignored.
"I thought they played very well and I thought they played well because they played together and they played unselfish," said Kelly of his dual-quarterback system. "They trusted what we called. The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there.
"I thought they both did a great job. And in particular, I thought Everett was outstanding, even in the last drive where – nobody really knows this, he got hit pretty hard on the play that he made (a third-down conversion in the second quarter). He had to go in and get a shot, the first time he’s ever done that since he’s been here at Notre Dame. To come back out and play, I was really proud of him."
Golson hit six of 11 throws for 90 yards including a 3rd-and-9 conversion of 29 yards to junior Chris Brown that set up Zaire's rushing score. The senior signal-caller likewise converted on 3rd-and-7 later in the half to help set up a Tarean Folston touchdown that staked the Irish to a 21-14 lead.
His greatest contribution though came on Notre Dame's winning drive, finding classmate Ben Koyack for 12 yards on 3rd-and-10 to keep alive a drive that culminated five plays later in Kyle Brindza's game-winning kick from 32 yards out as time expired.
Brindza's boot was just the seventh in program history to win a contest with no time remaining.
"We controlled the ball for the last 5.5 minutes and Kyle Brindza came up with the game-winning kick," said Kelly. "Really happy for Kyle and that’s the way he came in to Notre Dame. We recruited him out of high school on the heels of watching him kick game winners in high school state championships. It’s a great way for him to finish up his career."
Brindza had missed six of his previous nine attempts including fourth quarter and/or overtime boots that contributed to losses against Arizona State, Northwestern, and Louisville.
"It's a life lesson we all learned," said Brindza, echoing the sentiments of his head coach and junior captain Sheldon Day. "I've gone through a lot of adversity -- a great career and then kind of almost ended like that (crucial November misses), it hurt me a lot these last couple weeks. Going into this game it was just me and Malik clicking on all cylinders, trying to figure everything out.
"Going out there, my mind is always clear, clear as day. I finally shook off all the cobwebs and was able to trust this guy (Zaire as a holder) next to me and that's how we got the game done."
Matching Them Between The TacklesA run-only outfit throughout 2014, LSU barely out-gained Notre Dame on the ground, 285-263, and part of the former total was due to an 89-yard sprint-and-score by true freshman running back extraordinaire, Leonard Fournette, who finished with 143 yards on just 11 carries while adding a 101-yard kickoff return score.
Notre Dame's 263 marked the best rushing total by the Irish since posting 281 in the season-opener against an overmatched Rice squad, and eclipsed the combined total produced in losses to Arizona State (41), Louisville 99) and USC (104).
"Look, the most important thing for us today was to win this game," said Kelly when asked if a "run-heavy" offense could be his team's future identity. "So we had to have a game-plan for today. We know what we have with both quarterbacks. (Zaire's) not going to change, so we’re going to continue to utilize his 223 pounds — or is it 225? Or 230? (Zaire is listed at 210; presumably Kelly was joking.)
"We’re going to continue to use his strength. He’s a good runner of the football. We love the fact that both of these guys can make plays. I think it’s fair to say that both of them together can give us some really good balance in both of those areas."
Conversely, three of LSU's four scores came via quick strikes:
-- A 101-yard kickoff return that took all of 12 seconds for Fournette to navigate
-- A 75-yard pass play to open the second stanza (14 seconds off the clock)
-- And the aforementioned 89-yard, untouched scamper by Fournette midway through the third (12 seconds gone by).
At the polar opposite end of the spectrum were the recently scattershot Irish.
Notre Dame's first scoring drive burned 7:56 off the clock over a 15-minute span. Touchdown drives of 11 plays, 10 plays, and four plays followed before Brindza concluded the contest with a game-winner after 14 snaps that eclipsed the final 5:41 from the LP Field scoreboard.
"They were the best drives that we had this season in terms of exerting our will on the opposition against a very good football team in LSU," said Kelly. "Controlling the clock. We dictated the outcome by controlling the football. If LSU has the football with No. 7 (Fournette), he’s a game changer. We certainly couldn’t give them the football back. We’re in the huddle and we looked at each other and Malik was there, there was 5:41 left in the game, we said ‘guys this is it right here. We can’t give them the football back. If we do, we’re probably not going to win the football game.’
"We had to control the tempo."
With it, they controlled the outcome, and ended what appeared to be a lost season on a winning note.
A final record of 8-5 might not be pretty in totality, but this win, one that springboards the program into 2015, certainly has teeth.