NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Every now and then, someone from the out-of-town, non-Notre Dame media will ask a question of a Notre Dame coach and/or player referencing Rudy and comparing their situation to the famous walk-on who hit the big time – for one play -- with the Fighting Irish back in 1975.
Unaware of how cliché and trite such a comparison has become, it often leads to an uncomfortable response from a player or coach.
Following Notre Dame’s magnificently-constructed 31-28 victory over LSU in Tuesday night’s Music City Bowl, Irish quarterback Malik Zaire – who teamed so brilliantly with Everett Golson in Brian Kelly’s well-planned approach – was asked if he felt a little bit like Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger of movie fame in the aftermath of his MVP performance.
“Rudy was like a one-hit wonder, wasn’t he?” smiled Zaire, delivering the line with aplomb.
The line brought down the house, and Kelly – sensing a George Costanza moment to end the press conference on a high note by exiting the stage – led the charge of Zaire, Kyle Brindza and Sheldon Day from the dais.
Kelly and the players left the stage, but what the Irish did to the Tigers on LP Field in Nashville was a stampede. Armed with a punishing running game and a two-pronged quarterback system that kept LSU guessing all night, Notre Dame used the element of surprise to its advantage.
Meanwhile, Les Miles’ Tigers did what they do best, which is pound the football to the tune of 285 yards, led by the Mack truck just a few months removed from the showroom floor -- 230-pound freshman Leonard Fournette.
But when it came down to one final drive apiece, the Irish defense held the Tigers on a 3rd-and-3, giving the Irish 5:41 to achieve Music City glory. Kyle Brindza’s 32-yard field goal capped the game-winning drive and set off a much-needed post-game celebration.
“We certainly couldn’t give the football back to No. 7,” said Kelly, referencing Fournette, who rushed for 143 yards, including an 89-yarder, while scoring three touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return.
“We were in the (sideline) huddle and we looked at each other and said, ‘Guys, this is it right here. We can’t give them the football back, and if we do, we’re probably not going to win the football game.’ We had to control the tempo.”
Control it they did, marching 71 yards on 14 plays to set up Kyle Brindza’s game-winning field goal from 32 yards out as time expired. Finally, for the first time since a win over Navy on Nov. 1, the Irish set a new course after four straight losses to end the regular season.
“We really talked about this being a life lesson for handling adversity,” Kelly said. “Everybody was down on Notre Dame and our kids. We can’t do this and we can’t do that. I said, ‘That’s going to happen in life and you’ve just got to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and trust what you’re doing.’”
Youthful exuberance and the confidence within the hearts and souls of four- and five-star athletes rises to the occasion in such instances, and with a month of preparation and rejuvenation under their belts, a re-created Notre Dame squad from the one that limped to the finish line against USC matched LSU’s physicality and put a new-and-improved offensive game plan to good use.
Whether this ultimately shoves Kelly into the realization that the consistently elite college football programs consistently run the football remains to be seen. After all, his DNA is set on YAC.
But when the Irish can push around a young but high-ranking defense like LSU’s, it makes the passing game a whole lot easier to execute. Point in fact: zero turnovers, zero interceptions for the first time since the third game of the season against Purdue.
“Offensively, we can take care of the football if we practice the right way and if we are committed to that,” Kelly said.
“We had no turnovers against an aggressive LSU defense, so there’s really no reason why we can’t play mistake-free football. We also learned that we can play physical and tough, even if we’re a little bit banged up.”
When the Irish needed it the most – in the opening drive to set a tempo and in the closing drive to win the game – the offense came through.
“They were the best drives we had this season in terms of exerting our will on our opposition against a very good football team in LSU,” said Kelly, referencing the opening series – a 15-play, 66-yard drive – as well as the game-winning drive.
“We dictated the outcome by controlling the football.”
The Irish didn’t just control it; they owned it, possessing the football for 37:00 to LSU’s 23:00. That’s what the Tigers did all season in establishing the nation’s No. 1 time-of-possession team. Kelly determined during the month of preparation that the Irish would have to control the football an average of nine minutes per quarter to win it. Notre Dame exceeded the goal by a minute.
“I don’t think that it was the surprise (of the two quarterbacks) as much as it was that they executed very well,” said LSU head coach Les Miles. “(Everett) Golson certainly was the passer and (Malik) Zaire was the runner. We recognized that, but switching in and out was the difference.”
The balance worked brilliantly. Zaire led the Irish rushing attack with 96 yards on 22 carries, showing burst and brawn while protecting the football on physical running plays in the manner Golson should observe after losing eight fumbles in the last nine regular-season games.
C.J. Prosise – a Z receiver – flashed his running-back skills with 75 yards on the ground, including 50 of them on the game-tying score with 4:15 left in the third quarter. And then came Tarean Folston, Notre Dame’s leading rusher during the regular season, with another 73 yards. Notre Dame’s 51 rushing attempts were eight more than in any other game this season.
Meanwhile, Golson – handling the demotion to super-sub – played an integral role in the game-winning drive while absorbing most of the 3rd-and-long situations to protect the vastly inexperienced Zaire in the passing game.
In the game-winning drive, Golson completed 5-of-7 passes for 59 yards with a drop mixed in. Once the Irish were knocking on red zone’s door, he turned it back over to Zaire, who positioned it for Brindza to put a wrap on his own redemptive story.
CONSTRUCTING A SCRIPT
There is nothing that can happen during the winter, spring drills, summer conditioning and even 2015 pre-season practice – short of injury, off-the-field adversity, etc. – that can propel one over the other quarterback into a solo act come this fall.
The script for a two-quarterback system was written during the 31 days from the USC loss to the LSU victory. Can Kelly make it work, and in the long run, will it serve Notre Dame’s interests to go with two instead of one?
It certainly was the right formula for LSU. The Irish needed a ground game to attack the Tigers, and Zaire was necessary to make it happen. The Irish also needed Golson’s superior passing skills to provide the balance necessary to attack LSU’s sticky press-coverage approach.
“Part of playing Malik and starting him was to try to find out how we were going to utilize him in the game and how to construct playing two quarterbacks,” Kelly said.
“So part of making the decision to start him was to find out how we were going to move forward and effectively craft a game plan with both, and today we saw a glimpse of what that’s going to look like. We can move forward and begin looking at that and how we can construct that.”
It sure sounds like that is the course Kelly plans to choose, and with 20 – count ‘em – 20 starters returning from Tuesday night’s game, with injured nose tackle Jarron Jones and Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt also back in the fold – Notre Dame’s victory may have been more than just a statement that the Irish are back.
It may have been fair warning.
“This year, we got to the fourth quarter and we didn’t make some plays and we lost some football games,” Kelly said. “We lost to Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville in the fourth quarter.
“We got the game in hand in the fourth quarter today and we handled it. We’re going to make that a habit with this football team. We didn’t do that this year. Today we did, and we’re going to make that what we build off.”
LOOKING BACK, FORWARD
Zaire responded so well in his first career start that it makes one wonder why Kelly was so determined to stick with Golson through 22 turnovers in nine games while over-emphasizing the passing attack to the detriment of the ground game as well as the battered defense.
On one hand, getting the Irish to 6-0 -- followed by a dethroning-type performance in defeat against Florida State -- was some of Kelly’s best coaching in his five years at Notre Dame.
Then the injuries hit the defense hard, and Kelly failed to adjust his offensive approach to protect his ailing stop troops. He also made the tactical blunder of the season against Northwestern when he opted for a two-point conversion with an 11-point lead instead of the extra point, and it cost the Irish in overtime.
It’s amazing how quickly a coach’s star can fall during a football season, and Notre Dame’s four-game losing streak in November had previously-unshakeable Irish fans questioning whether Kelly truly was the right leader for the program, even after taking his squad to the national title game two years earlier.
It was a redemptive performance for the Irish head coach, who delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth against LSU on the same day Michigan introduced Jim Harbaugh as head coach.
No, the Irish don’t have the Wolverines scheduled anymore, but the recruiting game among Kelly at Notre Dame, Harbaugh at Michigan, Urban Meyer at Ohio State and James Franklin at Penn State just intensified. Notre Dame’s surprising performance against LSU came at just the right time for what now shapes up to be a tug-of-war to the recruiting finish line on Feb. 4.
While most wonder whether Kelly is committed to the long haul at Notre Dame or simply positioning himself for a jump to the NFL after a huge season in 2015, we can only speculate.
But suffice it to say Kelly and the Irish needed that performance against LSU to once again set Notre Dame’s course toward national prominence straight.
His timing – just as it was leading Zaire and his teammates off the dais after the Music City Bowl – was impeccable.