NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before Kyle Brindza kicked that season-salvaging field goal, Jaylon Smith and Justin Brent were ready. And they were ready before LSU head coach Les Miles tried to ice Notre Dame’s kicker twice. And they were even ready if Brindza missed.
As Notre Dame’s kicker took the field to cap a game-winning drive that was split between two quarterbacks, Smith and Brent grabbed a Gatorade bucket from the sideline and stalked Brian Kelly. Then they lost him in the protracted buildup. Smith even took his helmet with him for safe measure just in case he’d have to throw himself at Leonard Fournette in overtime.
No need. Brindza connected.
Game over. Coach wet.
“We got him, we got him really good,” Smith said.
Long after the Irish departed LP Field as major winners in a minor bowl, remnants of that ice bucket challenge remained on the sideline, the final bit of proof of what Notre Dame can be. And it can be this all next season, not just on a Tuesday afternoon at the Music City Bowl. For a coach bent on proving he can beat you with the pass, this can be the cold shower that makes Notre Dame’s run game more than a complement.
If that happens, if Kelly looks at next season as one where he lets the offensive line “kick some ass” in the words of tackle Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame can face another SEC power in the bowl season. But it might be in the College Football Playoff next time.
Notre Dame was always going to have the talent to make a playoff run in 2015, regardless of who’s at quarterback between Malik Zaire and Everett Golson. The offensive line should make a major step forward if Ronnie Stanley returns. The skill positions are back intact. The defense returns more starters than there are starting spots. But the biggest return will be video evidence Notre Dame can run on anyone when it has the will to try.
“Absolutely. It comes down to consistency,” said Nick Martin. “Really comes down to us. We took our preparation to the field, that was the biggest difference in this game today.”
That line of thinking was all a little sudden for Kelly, who didn’t want to cast his game plan against LSU as Notre Dame’s default moving forward. But if the Irish can play this scheme and become the first non-conference team to beat a SEC West squad all season, shouldn’t it be good enough to beat Virginia, Boston College and Texas? Shouldn’t it be good enough to take to Clemson? Shouldn’t it be good enough to grind down USC?
Yes. Unequivocally yes. Shout it from the top of the Golden Dome yes.
“Look, the most important thing for us today was to win this game. So we had to have a game plan for today,” Kelly said. “We know what we have with both quarterbacks. Zaire’s not going to change … 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.”
This was Notre Dame’s best bowl win since Lou Holtz and can be the most significant victory of Kelly’s regime if it’s allowed to be a template for next season. The Irish return a wealth of talent at running back, offensive line and suddenly quarterback too. It’s fine for Kelly to extend the quarterback competition between Zaire and Golson into spring practice as long as the winner is determined by who can make Notre Dame’s offense the most effective, not just Notre Dame’s passing game.
To put the LSU performance in context, before the Music City Bowl Notre Dame had faced Top 10 scoring defenses 10 times under Kelly. The Irish had scored just 22 offensive touchdowns in those games. The high mark was four against Michigan three years ago. These four touchdowns came against the best defense in college football’s best conference. It’s the same LSU defense that held Alabama to 13 points in regulation.
With Zaire locked in and Golson set to return this spring – he’ll graduate in May and could take his fifth-year elsewhere – what Notre Dame has isn’t a quarterback controversy, it’s a quarterback opportunity. For the first time under Kelly, Notre Dame has two at the position who can run his offense beyond the LaBar Practice Complex.
Zaire was the perfect gateway quarterback for Kelly into the ground game, enhancing Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise as threats while also leading the Irish with 22 carries himself. And none of those were sacks or lost fumbles.
“I feel like it made (LSU) try and defend two great runners,” Folston said. “Me and Malik at the same time. That’s not possible. You had to chose and pick your poison and if you pick wrong, it costs you.”
For most of the season the team punished for picking wrong was only Notre Dame. That was the nature of Kelly’s quarterback-driven, pass-first offense that loaded the position with so much responsibility that it seemed to break Golson and turn this season into a funeral procession of turnovers.
But when Kelly does less with the position Notre Dame gets more. In his five years at Notre Dame he’s 15-1 when starting a freshman or red-shirt freshman quarterback. He’s 30-19 in all others.
“Part of making the decision to start (Zaire) was to find out how we were going to move forward and effectively craft and put together a game plan for both of them,” Kelly said. “Today I think we kind of saw a glimpse of what that’s going to look like. I couldn’t have done that without starting him, playing him and getting a feel for the game. I think we can move forward and look at that and how we can construct that.”
Moving forward the issue is less the quarterback and more what Kelly does with him. If Notre Dame’s head coach can commit to game plans like the one that masterfully carved up LSU, the Irish can deliver on next season’s promise. If Notre Dame reverts to a pass-first scheme without a quarterback who can handle it, beating LSU will be a one-off in the program’s bowl history.
It doesn’t need to be.
“There’s no reason why we can’t play mistake-free football,” Kelly said.
We’re all in agreement there.
Making that happen requires a commitment to make the run game more than an auxiliary part of Notre Dame’s offense. Kelly can evolve in that direction. He has the material. He has the staff. If he buys in, the Irish could finish next season on a much bigger stage.