LSU boasts one of the country’s top defenses. There is no denying that, no matter how hard one may hope to manipulate the data. The No. 17 Tigers have the country’s No. 9 defense as far as passing efficiency is concerned and gave up only 311.7 total yards per game this season. Led by sophomore cornerback Andraez Williams’ five interceptions, LSU picked off opposing quarterbacks 11 times.
Suffice it to say, No. 14 Notre Dame will need an efficient yet productive performance from inconsistent junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to prevail in Monday’s Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m. ET; ABC)
The Irish expect as much. That may seem impractical following a season with a less than 50 percent completion rate lowlighted by a November swoon, but the bowl practices have offered Wimbush a different focus than the regular season could provide. Rather than prepare for specific defensive schemes changing each week, sessions could be spent working solely on mechanics.
“He’s done a great job,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “It’s just with the way he grips the ball, the way he’s rotating his hips and shoulders and elbow, just all the little things that we were able to get back to in bowl prep.
“As the season goes on, you just don’t have time to get into the mechanics each week. You’re so busy preparing for the next opponent. It enabled us to step back and really work through those kinks.”
An accurate Wimbush may not be enough to spark the Irish passing attack, with three of its top four receivers (by catches) sidelined due to either injury or suspension. Without sophomore receivers Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson and junior tight end Alizé Mack, Notre Dame will turn to a few unproven commodities.
Much like Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly earlier in the week, Long made specific mention of freshman receiver Michael Young as a Citrus possibility.
“I think more of it as an exciting opportunity for these young guys to get out there and kind of show what they can do,” Long said. “To see [junior] Miles Boykin go out there and he’s been working extremely hard each and every week.
“… I’m excited to see those young guys. [Junior] C.J. Sanders get an opportunity, [junior] Chris Finke, more reps, Michael Young, young freshman getting out there and show what [he] can do, and take that excitement and channel it and go play well.”
To perhaps give those inexperienced receivers less coverage to contend with, the Irish will welcome back a sight rarely seen in the season’s second half: healthy running backs. All three primary backs — juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones — battled nagging ankle injuries for much of the season. Some time not getting tackled obviously helped those causes.
“It’s been fun seeing these guys, once the exams and all that got over, just to see the explosion back in them,” Long said. “Tony Jones is finally healthy, seeing him back to where he was in the spring and [preseason practices]. People forget, he was one of the most explosive players, especially when I first got here in the spring and fall camp.”
Speaking of running games …
LSU boasts a pair of running backs some might argue should be in the same conversations as Georgia’s seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel or Stanford’s juniors Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett. That might be a bit much, but it cannot be argued junior Derrius Guice is one of the country’s best and senior Darrel Williams is about as good a backup as any team could hope for.
Guice finished the season with 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns on 216 carries in 11 games, a 5.3 per attempt average. Williams managed 776 yards and nine touchdowns on 136 rushes, a 5.7 average.
“Those two backs are extremely explosive,” Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko said. “I don’t know why they haven’t quite gotten the national headlines as a pair. As we look at them, they’re as good as we’ve seen. I don’t want to make comparisons to other teams, but they are really, really talented and they’re both very similar.
“They’re both big, strong, physical backs that can get downhill, can stick a foot in the ground and change direction well, can hit the explosive plays.”
The one-two combination is only part of the Tigers’ ground game, though. The offense as a whole averaged 5.45 yards per carry in gaining 2,687 yards on 493 carries (sacks adjusted). For example, senior receiver Russell Gage is LSU’s third-leading rusher with 217 yards on 27 carries, many of which came on jet sweeps typical to offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme.
“They do a really good job of creating different surfaces, which make it hard for you to set edges,” Elko said. “You’ve really got to spend a lot of time focusing on how you’re going to set the edges to the defense to make sure you’re not getting outflanked and out-leveraged.
“It almost is an option style running attack where guys are going to be assigned to certain pieces of this thing and they’re going to have to be disciplined for four quarters to do their job.”
On Canada, Elko was exceptionally complimentary, noteworthy as LSU and the offensive coordinator will reportedly be parting ways next week.
“What Matt Canada does is drive defensive coordinators crazy.”
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