After every Notre Dame football game, we talk to a former Irish captain and get his analysis of the action for a story entitled Captain’s Corner.
One of our regular contributors the past two seasons has been former Notre Dame captain Ned Bolcar, who helped lead the Irish to the 1988 national championship, and then returned as a fifth-year senior to captain the ’89 squad. Notre Dame won 23-straight games in 1988-89 under Bolcar’s leadership.
Here is Bolcar’s evaluation of Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl.
I was, like most of Notre Dame nation, pleasantly surprised to see the Notre Dame team that showed up earlier in the season show up for the Music City Bowl. Everybody had us as major underdogs against LSU, including myself, and I think anybody that was honest with himself felt the same way, and in some instances, thought we might not even be able to stay in the ball game.
It was a healthier team and a team that showed a lot more physical toughness. I was so happy to see them win the game, for all the seniors, the coaching staff, for all the guys who went through a tough year.
It started out as a brilliant, overachieving year really, and turned out to be a total disaster at the end of the regular season.
I loved the game plan against LSU. I loved the ball control. We have talked about it a number of times, especially late in the year when the defense was banged up: keep your defense off the field. Coach Kelly and his staff did an excellent job of mixing up the run with the pass.
How many times did we run the ball? Fifty-one times, something like seventy percent of the time, which we haven’t done many times this year. I read a stat that when they run over 60 percent of the time, they win. So obviously something with that formula works where you control the ball and grind it out. The amazing thing is you’re still going to score points. We scored 31 points. The best thing we did was keep the defense off the field.
Obviously when the game started, just like everybody else from Notre Dame, I said here we go again when we had to call a timeout before the first play. Then as the game quickly started progressing, the offense controlled the line of scrimmage nicely, we dictated with the run, and we threw the ball conservatively but effectively.
I love the fact that Malik Zaire threw the ball well when he had to, and when Everett Golson came in, he threw the ball well, too. Above all else, the offense protected the football.
It’s amazing what happens when you keep the turnovers down and you actually have some balance and ball control in your offensive scheme, which often comes with the running game. And we did it against a very good LSU team. Not a great LSU team, but a very good one that like us lost a lot of games by a close score, but still had a lot of talent.
I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and everybody involved in the program. They used the last 20 days to get themselves ready to play a very good ball game against a very good team. Win or lose – and it’s always a lot rosier if you win – you still would have said Notre Dame played a heckuva football game. It showed that they have a lot of heart. They wanted to finish the season on the right note for the seniors and the underclassmen preparing for the future.
Defensively, they played tough and strong. Yes, they were young and inexperienced and it still showed. But next year, they will not be young and inexperienced. The defense played solid when they had to, despite a lot of big plays allowed by the special teams and defense.
But you know what? Instead of saying, ‘Oh, God, we’re still making these big mistakes,’ we made some big plays, too, like the blocked field goal and the long run by (C.J.) Prosise. The kickoff return for a touchdown and the big touchdown run probably would have devastated us in November. But we blocked a field goal and stopped a fake field goal. As long as you can stay in the ball game despite those mistakes, you give yourself a chance to win the game, and that’s what we did.
There’s still work to be done, a lot of work to be done. We’re not a playoff team yet. But I’m very happy. Brian Kelly and his offensive staff really said, ‘We’re going to bolster our offensive front. We can run the ball and force the issue upon LSU.’
LSU is a big, physical team and they like to pound the football. Les Miles is an old offensive lineman himself, and they’re all about technique, getting off the ball, and dominating up front. They’ve done that forever.
I like the fact that our big guys up front on offense showed their muscle and played very well. We were able to control the clock, mainly because of our running game. When our guys had to throw the football, they threw it well and protected the football. I don’t think you could ask for much more from our offense than what they did. They scored early, they scored late, and they put us in a position to win the game.
Going into the year, we knew we had an excellent kicker. To end with a victory on a final kick…I couldn’t be any happier for a kid. I was sitting there and I said a little prayer, ‘Let this guy make it.’ Not just for Notre Dame, but for Kyle Brindza and those kids. He’s had such a tough year and the kicking game has been rough all season.
Going into next year, I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision about the quarterbacks. Obviously, my W-2 says I don’t have to make that decision. That’s not an easy call right now because one is a proven, outstanding player that’s had some tough times. The other one showed he can play on the big stage, has a lot of talent and showed that he can win.
You go into the off-season/next season with both of them. You can’t win with turnovers, so the fact that both played without a turnover was a blessing. It showed that they were coached up and did what they were supposed to do. I believe Everett Golson will come back. I want him to come back.
Can we win with a two-quarterback system? I think so. Teams have found a way to succeed with Ohio State. Ohio State has won with three quarterbacks this year, although not all at the same time.
I don’t know who the starter will be. I don’t if one guy gets a majority of the plays or not. But you want all the talented players you can get because it’s a long season. You can’t have enough quality depth on the team, and nowadays in college football, you play a lot of guys.
The toughest thing with a two-quarterback system is carrying over the momentum from one quarterback to the other. It’s a recipe where you have to be able to play together and work off of each other. It falls on their shoulders, too. Do they want the competition? Can they play together? Is one guy going to play head-and-shoulders above the other? You have to gauge that as you go along.
I still think Everett Golson is a helluva quarterback. I like him and what he can do in the passing game. I hope he continues to raise his game and handle the competition that’s stepped forward. Combined with Malik, hopefully they come out stronger on the other side and Notre Dame benefits on the other end.
Watching the defense trying to stop Leonard Fournette made me think about some of the toughest guys I had to tackle when I was playing at Notre Dame and in the NFL.
For me, it was (Pittsburgh’s) Craig “Ironhead” Heyward – by far. He weighed about 270, and the week before we played them, I had a stomach virus and was down to about 219. (Linebacker) Wes Pritchett had been sick and was down to about 220-something, and Heyward carried the ball 43 times for 140 yards at Pittsburgh.
I think (Notre Dame defensive coordinator) Foge Fazio had me for 21 tackles and Wes had 15. We held Heyward to about three yards a carry. My body hurt for years after that game. We pounded him and he kept getting up and saying, ‘Bring it on!’ Actually, I can’t repeat exactly what he said. But he would come slamming through the line, get up, smack you in the butt, and go back to the huddle to get ready to do it again. He slapped me in the butt so hard and so many times that it hurt for two weeks after that.
I hit him as hard as I’ve ever hit anybody, but he was an absolute load. In the second half, after all those carries, (cornerback) Stan Smagala comes up in run support and he hurdles Stan and gains about 17 yards – even after carrying the ball 30-some times at 270 pounds.
I played against Christian Okoye in the NFL, and he was a load, and I played against a lot of great players in college. But the one that I remember the most is Craig Heyward and the way he kept coming back. I think he played half the game with his shoe untied. I’m not sure he played with a mouthpiece and his chinstrap was unbuttoned the whole game, but he never stopped coming at us.
I’m excited about this Notre Dame team, overcoming so much adversity and giving themselves a springboard into next season. I’m trying to think of a more descriptive word than ‘huge’ as to the importance of winning this bowl game and heading into the off-season.
It’s immeasurable the positive production and the good will that win will do for the program heading into the off-season. The guys coming back can say, ‘See, when we work hard and do the right things, we have the talent to play with an SEC team, and we’re only going to get more experienced and better.’
And then there’s recruiting. You have some good recruits committed, and the ones you’re going after, just when there were questions about so many aspects of the program, suddenly you’re saying, ‘Damn, they’re pretty good. They’ve got a lot of good players coming back. Maybe I want to be a part of that program.’
That performance is great for recruiting, for the alumni, the fan base…Notre Dame fans are always on the bandwagon. Sometimes they’re quiet and restless, but they’re still on the bandwagon. When you’re losing, it’s tough; when you’re winning, the Notre Dame mystique comes out.
The fan base can smile and take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a chance next year,’ and the players can feel awfully good about themselves as they head into their off-season work.
Most importantly, the enthusiasm everyone has now after ending the regular season on a down note is great for the school and great for the fans and alumni. Now Coach Kelly and his coaching staff can hit the recruiting trail extremely hard with a great chance to take advantage of a huge, huge victory over LSU.