Offensive MVP -- Malik ZaireIt was more than the first-time starter's 96 yards rushing -- and 96 yards passing. It was more than the touchdowns the relative rookie produced rushing, passing, and yes, by blocking.
And it was more than unexpectedly navigating his first career start without a turnover, though that was crucial.
All of the above contributed greatly to Notre Dame's victory to be sure, and to Zaire's claim as the 17th annual Music City Bowl Game MVP.
But it was something more.
Zaire, at least for one start, and against one of college football's blue blood program's to boot, showed he has "It."
"My role never changes in terms of being a distributor," said Zaire when asked if he felt pressure to make plays. "When they call my number, I just want to try to get in the best possible position to make plays for the guys. It's my job to distribute. Just being the facilitator and having command of the offense is something that's important to me, and it's important to protect the football and it's important to me to continue to do so."
He'll get his chance.
Offensive game balls: If Zaire gets the win, former starter Everett Golson deserves at least a save (perhaps an assist?). Golson made good on a a trio of third-down conversions during the contest -- two led to Irish touchdowns, the other to Kyle Brindza's game-winning field goal.
Kelly used his disparate quarterbacking tandem expertly throughout the contest.
"Just being familiar with both of them that I felt they could execute and help us move the ball down the field," said Kelly of his vision entering both the contest and game-winning drive. "So I went back to just a feeling of what I believe they could execute in a very crucial situation of the game and that’s kind of how I called the game in that last series. So I really tried to fit it to what I believe that those were plays that they felt comfortable with."
(Golson's overall efforts are detailed in Tuesday's game story, found here.)
Said senior captain Nick Martin of blocking for both: "On a few plays, we didn't even know who was in until we heard his voice. It was just clicking today and that's on them. Their mental toughness, their physical toughness. They did a great job."
-- Running back Tarean Folston provided a consistent between-the-tackles punch, finishing with 73 rushing yards on 21 carries including a six-yard second quarter touchdown.
"We just started mauling them off the ball with a great O-Line, just running hard, getting those tough yards," said Folston of the rushing attack. "Our O-Line comes with it every week. Every down, every snap. I appreciate that. I love those boys. They blocked their behinds off."
-- Slot receiver C.J. Prosise proved to be a difference-maker as a ball carrier, taking a pair of Jet Sweep handoffs for 75 total yards including a 26-yard carry early and a 50-yard touchdown jaunt late in the third quarter, the contest's final touchdown by either team and one that tied the score at 28.
Prosise outran the Tigers elite secondary for the final 30 yards after breaking a tackle at scrimmage. "Yeah, I had to," Prosise said with a laugh of his sideline sprint that culminated in a dive to pay dirt. "We definitely have some top-end speed on this team too. We're not some slack-offs. We proved today we can play with any SEC team and go out there and compete.
-- Notre Dame's offensive line produced its best outing of the season with Martin leading the charge. The captain's most notable block came nearly 10 yards downfield, leading the way for touchdown-scorer supreme Will Fuller for a 12-yard tunnel screen score.
"They brought a blitz, I think they brought their will (linebacker) off the edge so I kind of turned up and saw (the block) on the Jumbo Tron afterwards," Martin said, adding "I was pretty happy with myself."
Fuller's score was his 15th of the season, tying a program record shared with Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, and Golden Tate.
Defensive MVP -- Isaac RochellThe true sophomore's stat line won't earn many post-game plaudits, but it was the usual defensive end's work inside -- at nose tackle in place of injured starter Jarron Jones -- that allowed Notre Dame's defense to compete with the brutish Tigers rushing attack.
"It's different. It's just been weird for the last month playing nose tackle," said Rochell. "I enjoyed it. It was a super fun game so it was cool. My weight was a lot lower than it should have been (for the position) but I knew that if I played fast and stayed low, it would be fine."
Rochell finished with two tackles and a quarterback hurry while also blocking a fourth quarter field goal -- one that helped provide the final margin in Notre Dame's three-point victory.
"I kind of like the middle," said Rochell. "I'm not going to say there's less responsibility. You're in there, you can bang. A lot of it is you can rely on your natural ability."
Defensive game balls: Sophomore Max Redfield combined with junior safety Elijah Shumate for at least one (perhaps two) miscommunications that led to long LSU scores, but the former also saved countless yardage by Tigers runners with diving ankle tackles. Redfield led both teams with 14 stops including 10 solos.
-- Fellow sophomore Jaylon Smith again made an impact, registering nine tackles including a half-sack and a quarterback pressure. Of Smith's
-- Junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day returned to play the majority of the contest despite not yet being fully recovered from an MCL sprain suffered in mid-November. Day recovered a fumble and held the point inside against an LSU squad that looked to win the game by battering the formerly forgiving Irish front between the tackles.
"We knew we were going to play better," said Kelly of the defense. "We got this guy back over here (Day). When you get #91 back on your football team, that helps a lot. Getting him back healthy, moving Isaac Rochell down inside gave us a little bit more inside presence."
Special Teams MVP -- Kyle BrindzaRedemption.
November's unfortunate son shed his late-season goat status with a game-winning, career-ending, season-saving, 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Errant on six of his previous nine attempts including a combined four crucial misses against Arizona State (1), Northwestern (2), and Louisville (1), Brindza made good on the final
"At the end of the day, it’s how you have self-confidence in yourself," said Brindza of he game-winner. "Through these past couple weeks, how hard they’ve been on me, coach Kelly coming up to me and being in my ear and just saying be confident in yourself, you have that confidence in yourself when you came here, these past couple years, don’t let it go to waste.
"So it was just for me to be confident. You put it on the left hash, right hash, either way I knew it was going to go in."
Brindza added three touchbacks among his five kickoffs though a fourth was returned for a 100-yard score by Tigers freshman Leonard Fournette.