Notre Dame report card

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Irish take page from LSU ground game. Special teams eventually come through. Kelly makes all the right moves.

Rushing offense

A+ For an offense that has struggled so mightily since the Lou Holtz era to muster a solid rushing attack against a quality rush defense, there can only be one grade placed on the ground game in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s magnificent 51-carry, 263-yard rushing performance against LSU in the 17th annual Music City Bowl.

It was the Tigers who came into the game averaging 48.5 carries per game – 12.5 more than Notre Dame during the regular season – with 150 more carries than the Irish during the 12-game schedule. Notre Dame completely turned the tables on the Tigers, who averaged a spectacular 7.5 yards per rush against the Irish, but were limited to 38 rushing attempts.

Not only were the 51 rushing attempts by the Irish eight more than in any game during the regular season, but Notre Dame set a Music City Bowl record for most rushing first downs (23, breaking the record of 18 by Wisconsin) while tying the Music City Bowl mark for attempts in a game.

Notre Dame offered a balance that hasn’t been seen, and it was done with what would have been considered unlikely characters during the regular season. Malik Zaire paced the Irish with 96 yards on 22 carries, including a seven-yard rushing score. C.J. Prosise used his 50-yard scoring jaunt to record a 75-yard day, and then came Notre Dame’s leading rusher for the season – Tarean Folston – with 73 yards and a six-yard rushing score.

The Irish had 97 yards rushing in the first quarter alone, which was more than they had in three of 12 regular-season games and just two yards shy of the productivity against Louisville (99). The rushing attack led the way in converting 7-of-9 third downs in the first half and 11-of-17 in the game. It was the ground game that allowed the Irish to forge a dominant 37:00-to-23:00 time-of-possession advantage.

Credit to Notre Dame’s offensive line with first-time starter Mike McGlinchey at right tackle for handling LSU’s young but long and athletic front to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry.

Passing offense

B+Because the ground game was so effective, the passing attack was used judiciously, and for the first time since the Purdue game on Sept. 13, the Irish did not throw an interception.

Brian Kelly did a nice job of keeping inexperienced Malik Zaire out of difficult 3rd-and-long passing situations, usually turning to Everett Golson when the down-and-distance dictated. Zaire was 12-of-15 due in large part to the fact he was throwing on downs that didn’t necessarily require putting the football in the air, again, because of the effectiveness of the rushing attack.

Golson’s job was a bit more difficult – and his 6-of-11 passing indicated that – because he generally was called upon when the Irish were in certain or near-certain passing situations. Still, he averaged 15.0 yards per completion and 8.1 yards per attempt while coming up particularly clutch in the game-winning drive when he completed a 14-yarder to Will Fuller on 2nd-and-15, a 12-yarder to Ben Koyack on 3rd-and-10, a 16-yarder to Tarean Folston, and an eight-yarder to Chris Brown on his final snap of the night. Golson would have been even better in that last drive had Fuller not dropped a catchable ball.

Give a great deal of credit to Notre Dame’s offensive line in this department as well. LSU registered no sacks and rarely put pressure on Zaire/Golson. One of the few times they did, Golson took a shot to the ribs, which required medical attention at halftime.

Notre Dame’s 186 yards passing was its lowest passing productivity in a game this season by far. The previous low was 226 against Michigan on Sept. 6. But 186 was plenty with a ground game as effective as it was against the Tigers.

Rush defense

D-You won’t see a grade like that very often in such a significant bowl victory, but there’s really no other way to rank an individual category such as this – unless you just gave it an F -- when the opponent totals 285 yards on just 38 carries, averages 7.5 yards attempt, and scores three rushing touchdowns by Leonard Fournette, including an 89-yarder.

Fournette finished with 143 yards and a whopping 13.0 yards per attempt. The Irish did a good job with Terrence Magee (26 yards, 3.7 yards per carry), but even wide receiver Travin Dural hurt them with four carries for 61 yards (15.2), including a 24-yarder that completely deceived Notre Dame’s defense and set up LSU’s first touchdown.

There’s only one part of this game that prevents this from being an F, and that’s LSU’s final drive of the game, which ultimately is the most significant drive for the Irish defense. Twenty of LSU’s 38 carries covered at least five yards, and obviously, several of those were for much more than that.

But of the 18 carries that went for four yards or less, four of them came in the Tigers’ last possession when Fournette was held to one yard (tackle by Jaylon Smith and Romeo Okwara), Magee to two (Nyles Morgan) and zero (Okwara and James Onwualu), and Anthony Jennings to two (Smith) on the crucial 3rd-and-3.

Technically, you could give credit to the Irish for stopping holder Brad Kragthorpe’s run on a fake field goal right before halftime, which helps bump it up from the failing grade. That play also falls under the special teams category.

Pass defense

C-Another difficult category upon which to place a grade considering Anthony Jennings averaged 21.5 yards per his seven completions and 10.7 yards per his 14 attempts. Those are abysmal numbers, and yet if you look at LSU’s statistics through the season, they weren’t uncommon because of the commitment to the run an opponent must make to the Tigers’ ground game.

The greatest blunder came on the first snap of the third quarter when Jennings’ well-concealed play-action fake sucked in safety Max Redfield, who released freshman wide receiver John Diarse to support the run, and Diarse took it 75 yards for the score.

Also problematic for the Irish was tight end Desean Smith, who creased the Irish for 17- and 21-yard receptions over the middle, although neither led to scores. Smith, Diarse and running back Terrence Magee were the only three Tigers to catch a pass. Neither of LSU’s top two receivers – Travin Dural nor Trey Quinn, who combined for 54 receptions during the season -- caught a pass, although Dural’s damage came on the ground. Dangerous Malachi Dupre also was shut out.

Special teams

C-Anytime you allow a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, you start at F and try to work your way up the grade scale.

Stopping the fake field goal at the end of the first half – or at least that’s the way it was called because the replay angle apparently couldn’t overturn it – was very significant because it allowed the Irish to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room, which was huge since the Tigers came out and scored the first two touchdowns of the second half.

All things being equal, had Brad Kragthorpe scored on the fake field goal and LSU scored those first two touchdowns of the second half, the Tigers would have had a 14-point lead in a game in which neither team led by more than one score.

Another significant special teams play was the blocked field-goal attempt of Trent Domingue early in the second quarter with the game knotted at 28. Credit goes to Isaac Rochell for getting some push and batting it down, but it was a horrendous effort by Domingue, whose kick hit Rochell in the elbow. It was Notre Dame’s sixth blocked punt/field goal/extra point of the season with Rochell taking over kick-blocking duties for Notre Dame’s best – injured Jarron Jones.

And then there was the game-winning field goal by Kyle Brindza from 32 yards out. It wasn’t a long field goal, but it was pressure-packed, not only because the game was on the line, but also because it was Brindza’s first field-goal attempt since the Louisville game on Nov. 22. Brindza had missed six of his last nine tries.

Brindza also dropped three of his four punts inside the 20 while three of his five kickoffs went for touchbacks. The ease with which he drilled a couple kickoffs out of the end zone made the one that landed at the goal line to Leonard Fournette seem unnecessary.

Coaching

AIf you hold defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder responsible for the busts in pass coverage and against the run, and pin the 100-yard kickoff return on special teams coordinator Scott Booker -- which is how it’s done in this business -- you can’t give the Irish coaching staff the highest grade.

But when it comes to mentally and emotionally preparing his team to play great football against a difficult SEC opponent, devising an offensive game plan with two quarterbacks of varying styles, and then mixing and matching along the way – even within the same series, including the 14-play, 71-yard game-winning drive – Brian Kelly deserves something a higher than A+.

Since the abysmal first-half performance against Arizona State, the disastrous decision to attempt a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter versus Northwestern, and the failure to protect a vulnerable defense in the USC game, Kelly’s star not only had fallen, but had, by some critical accounts, been extinguished.

But there’s too much pride for a man who has risen to the upper level of his profession to accept such failures/judgments without fighting back, and any way you look at Kelly’s performance Tuesday night in the Music City Bowl, one can’t help but applaud one of the truly masterful coaching performances of the bowl season.

Kelly made a commitment to the rushing attack that he stubbornly fights most of the time, and he had the guts to assess the quarterback situation and tab a kid who was completing less than 50 percent of his passes and had never started a game on the collegiate level.

It was the right approach, the right call, and the right balance of two different quarterbacks to go along with a football team that played confidently and motivated to take on an SEC team at its own game and fight until the job was complete.

A five-star performance by Kelly with kudos to Booker for rallying the special teams and VanGorder for pitching a shutout in the fourth quarter. The Tigers failed to score over the final 21:14.


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