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Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

Notre Dame’s leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, heads to the NFL

Associated Press
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Notre Dame junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown will heed his father’s advice and head to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Each of the past two seasons, St. Brown led the Irish in receiving yards and receptions, also leading in caught touchdowns last year while finishing second in that category this season to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“Three years ago I decided to attend the best University in the world, Notre Dame,” St. Brown posted to Twitter on Thursday. “I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities given me and the lessons that the coaches taught me. I’m a better person and player because of it.

“I also want to thank my professors, who challenged me to be a better student, and my mentors, who helped me take the right path. To my teammates, I love you guys. I’ve formed friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. It’s been an honor to play by your side.

“Last, and certainly not least, I want to thank my family for supporting me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Thank you for everything.

“I’ve wrestled with this decision, but I’ve decided to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft! While my Notre Dame playing career has come to an end, I will come back to complete my degree. That’s a part of this process that was never in question.”

St. Brown ends his Irish career with 92 catches for 1,484 yards and 13 touchdowns, highlighted by a sophomore campaign of 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, a rare bright spot amid the dismal 4-8 season. His final Notre Dame touchdown will be a drag route sprung for 75 yards at Stanford in this regular season’s finale.

St. Brown’s length will make some NFL teams at least consider him, though he is not yet a highly-touted Draft prospect. A strong combine and workout season could certainly change that.

Losing St. Brown compounds an Irish issue already apparent, with the odds highly unlikely Stepherson is with the team come fall, currently suspended indefinitely following a shoplifting arrest. Stepherson finished as the third receiver this season in both yards and receptions, and the two playmakers combined for 52 catches, 874 yards and nine touchdowns.

That will leave current sophomore Chase Claypool as the offense’s only proven receiver. He finished 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, breaking loose for nine of those receptions, 180 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest at the start of November.

After Claypool, attention could quickly turn to freshman Michael Young and junior Miles Boykin, they of the two fourth-quarter Citrus Bowl touchdowns.

St. Brown has a younger brother, Amon-Ra, highly-rated in the recruiting class of 2018 who has Notre Dame among his three finalists, along with USC and Stanford. The tea leaves continue to point toward the youngest St. Brown becoming a Trojan.

And one last time, the full name is Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep J. St. Brown. No, the “J.” is not technically short for anything.

The Irish continue to wait for NFL-or-stay decisions from four juniors: running back Josh Adams, tight end Alize Mack, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney. They have until Jan. 15.

Things We Learned: Kelly is open to a Notre Dame QB competition; WRs emerge

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Notre Dame did not intend for sophomore quarterback Ian Book to lead the offense throughout all of Monday’s second half in its 21-17 victory over No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl. If anything, Irish head coach Brian Kelly expected to give opportunities to both Book and junior quarterback/season-long starter Brandon Wimbush.

“We went in with the idea of both of them playing,” Kelly said afterward. “This wasn’t a surprise to Ian. Brandon knew as well that both of them were going to play.”

Book’s effectiveness to close the first half, after three consecutive stalled Wimbush drives, showed the reserve would provide the best path to a season-ending victory. Much as he did when starting for an injured Wimbush at North Carolina, Book showed he is a more than capable collegiate passer. He is composed in the face of pressures big (a top-flight defense on national television) and small (an effective pass rush), and he works through his progressions well when needed.

“He really is extremely accurate in throwing the football,” Kelly said. “We took advantage of what his strengths are. … He’s a [redshirt] freshman, so he’s going to learn more within our offense.”

Book finished with 164 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-19 passing.

Learning he could perform against a defense as strong as the Tigers’ is notable knowledge moving forward. What is more ground-shifting is Kelly willingly opening the door to a quarterback competition simply by planning on playing Book in the first place. Following the regular season-ending loss at Stanford, Kelly declared Wimbush his starter with hardly any prompting. He left no room for qualifiers or wonderings otherwise.

“He’s our starting quarterback,” Kelly said then. “He’ll be starting in the bowl game.”

Technically, that was true, but something changed between Nov. 25 and Jan. 1. Book entered the gameplan. A conversation was started.

Perhaps that began with migraines keeping Wimbush out of two practices during bowl preparations, allowing Book to take every first-string snap those days. That may have been his moment to shine, forcing Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long to recognize he deserved a New Year’s Day opportunity.

Brandon Wimbush (Getty Images)

Considering that at all, and then following through on it, means Kelly, Long and the Irish expect a quarterback competition to unfold over the next eight months. Whether that expands beyond Book and Wimbush to include current freshman Avery Davis and/or incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec is a conversation for another day.

Brandon Wimbush will need to earn the honor of starting against Michigan on Sept. 1, 2018. He will not be the only one vying for the distinction.

Yes, Wimbush still deserves to be in the competition. He missed throws again on Monday, most egregiously throwing too high for junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a drag route. Even if throwing over the defensive line, that ball needs to be within St. Brown’s range on a pattern designed for yards after the catch, a la his 75-yard touchdown reception at Stanford.

Wimbush also accounted for 30 touchdowns (16 passing, 14 rushing) this season. Kelly used that fact to illustrate Notre Dame’s depth at the position.

“We’re very talented at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “Ian showed today. Brandon showed that he’s very capable of running. … We are just very deep at the quarterback position and very fortunate that we have [Book].”

That depth will produce a starter in the next eight months. It is no longer an assurance it will be Wimbush.

Junior receiver Miles Boykin‘s Citrus Bowl performance, including the game-winning touchdown catch, sets him up well to be a contributor in 2018. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

That starter better be ready to throw to Miles Boykin.
The junior receiver finally broke through in the Citrus Bowl. With two of the top three Irish receivers sidelined, someone needed to step up. Boykin did so in such a manner his name will be in Notre Dame lore for decades to come. Three catches do not make for a great afternoon, but when the last of those is a one-handed, tackle-shedding, 55-yard game-winning touchdown, the spectrum shifts.

Boykin’s highlight reel catch also happened to lend itself to many fantastic photos. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Boykin’s frame makes him a threat. It was why he was considered a likely starter throughout all of spring practice and a good portion of preseason practices. That range made him an excellent counter to LSU’s excellent coverage cornerbacks.

“One of the things that was really important in this game was to get him the ball in a position where — their defensive backs were outstanding — that they couldn’t make a play on the ball,” Kelly said. “… That’s something that [Boykin] and Ian and Brandon work on.”

There is little-to-no chance sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson is with the Irish when the Wolverines arrive in South Bend. There is still a chance St. Brown declares for the NFL this month. New targets will be needed, and Boykin finally showed what he offers in a competitive environment.

Michael Young will also be in that conversation.
Kelly predicted the freshman receiver would be heard from. Indeed he was, even if to the tune of only two catches for eight yards and a touchdown. Young saw plenty of snaps, very much a part of Long’s planning. That faith alone indicates Young has moved up the depth chart enough to be involved from the outset of next season.

Same goes for Nic Weishar.
The senior tight end has already indicated he will return for his final season of eligibility. His two catches for 13 yards may be underwhelming, but they came within the scheme and demonstrated he may be a perfect fit as the attached tight end offering a large target in short-yardage situations. Twice on the same third-quarter drive, Book turned to Weishar along the sideline. Weishar caught both passes cleanly, converting a third down with the second grab.

Losing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe could be a step backward for the offense. He put together an exceptional final season. Instead, Weishar should be able to step right into that role.

On the other side of the ball, freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath joined what will be an active spring conversation.
Notre Dame needs better safety play. That is undeniable and, again, a topic for further discussion yet this week. Genmark-Heath saw extended action for the first time this season, making five tackles and avoiding any catastrophic mistakes.

Facing LSU is not a situation to trot out an inexperienced safety. Tigers offensive coordinator Matt Canada uses more motions and misdirections in one day than some teams do in an entire season. Genmark-Heath needed to be properly prepared to not be embarrassed, and Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko had him ready.

Revealing a gem like that is one of the purposes of bowl practices. Notre Dame did not need 15 sessions to focus on LSU. Instead, some of those were used to work on fundamentals and basics. That aspect moved Genmark-Heath into a spot where he could be counted on.

He may not start at safety in 2018, but as that position enters eight months of utter uncertainty, Genmark-Heath will get his chance.

Quenton Nelson is heading to the NFL, obviously.
The senior left guard removed any naïve hopes of him returning for another year of college football after the Irish victory.

“It was my last rep at Notre Dame and this week was sentimental,” Nelson said. “I’m so happy we finished strong.”

He is a presumptive top-10 NFL Draft pick. He should go.

Notre Dame senior left guard Quenton Nelson, left, will head to the NFL with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

No other decisions were announced immediately after the bowl game. The likes of St. Brown, junior running back Josh Adams, junior tight end Alizé Mack and junior linebacker Te’von Coney have until Jan. 15 to make up their minds.

Kelly will once again hold one-on-one meetings with each and every player in the coming weeks.

Kelly credited that implementation for sparking many of the program-wide changes following last season’s 4-8 debacle. He intends to do it again.

Book and Boykin heroics give Notre Dame a Citrus victory

Associated Press
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Notre Dame had not put together a successful two-minute drive all season until sophomore quarterback Ian Book found junior receiver Miles Boykin for the winning score in Monday’s Citrus Bowl, topping No. 17 LSU, 21-17. The 55-yard touchdown delivered Notre Dame its 10th win of the season and first New Year’s Day victory since 1994.

“To get to 10 wins in two of the last three seasons, it’s really a nice mark for our football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.

Suffice it to say, sophomore quarterback Ian Book was an unlikely hero for Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Book took over for junior quarterback and season-long starter Brandon Wimbush late in the second quarter. The three preceding Notre Dame drives all failed to gain a first down, netting a total of five yards. Book preceded to lead an 11-play, 51-yard drive for a field goal four seconds before halftime, breaking a scoreless tie.

“We have confidence in Ian,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football, but we threw him right into the fire and he leads a winning drive in a game that was on the line. He has that ability. It doesn’t surprise us that he’s able to do that.”

Kelly said he intended to play both Book and Wimbush all along in bowl preparations, but that plan was apparently shelved at halftime. Wimbush never saw the field again, finishing the day 3-of-8 for 52 yards passing and 38 rushing yards on four carries.

After that initial success, it took Book a bit to find a sustainable rhythm. He threw an interception to end the first Irish drive of the second half, and then turned excellent field position into only another field goal toward the end of the third quarter.

In that interim, Notre Dame’s defense held the Tigers in check, barely. Though LSU gained 399 yards and averaged a strong 5.3 yards per play, the Irish forced three field goal attempts in the red zone, including two on drives that reached the one-yard line.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Book took one snap in the first-quarter, throwing an incomplete pass on a third-and-10. When he returned to the field to lead the two-minute offense, it seemed he would take that opportunity and then Wimbush would return after halftime. Book went 3-for-4 for 33 yards on the drive, rushing for 27 more.

He should not have taken a sack on a third-and-four at the end of the drive, but the six-yard loss did not knock Notre Dame out of junior kicker Justin Yoon’s range, and there was hardly time left to take more than one more shot at the end zone, anyways.

The first signs of production from the Irish offense ensured Book would remain at quarterback the rest of the afternoon.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
LSU missed two first-half field goals. Those were hardly defensive successes. What was a defensive accomplishment, though, was tackling Tigers junior running back Derrius Guice inches from the end zone in the fourth quarter’s closing minutes.

Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath brought down the future early NFL Draft pick on a third-and-goal from the three-yard line, but LSU going for the last few inches on fourth down seemed a certainty. Instead, head coach Ed Orgeron sent out his field goal unit, a questionable move on a good day but an even more surprising one given the two misses earlier.

“Obviously, you think about it, but you go ahead,” Orgeron said. “You go ahead with two minutes left to go. Your defense had played well. I didn’t think they were going to score. I thought we could stop them. I wanted to give our team a chance to win.”

Orgeron will now have eight months to second-guess that decision.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, Boykin’s game-winning, one-handed, tackle-shedding touchdown will be the moment to remember.

Book and Boykin gelled from the moment Book took to the field. Two of his five first-half pass attempts went toward Boykin, completing one for 18 yards and a first down on that drive for Yoon’s first field goal. Boykin finished with three catches for 102 yards, earning Citrus Bowl MVP honors.

“We were in practice, and we knew we were going to have to get a couple of one-on-one matchups on the outside, and I told Miles, you’re going to win the MVP trophy,” Kelly said. “He looked at me like I had two heads, but I felt like he had a chance.

“He has the ability if we can get him the football.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book may have had a stronger claim to the postgame hardware. For that matter, his first touchdown may have been more impressive than the deep ball to Boykin. Six yards from the end zone with five receivers and an empty backfield, Book had plenty of time but no open targets. When pressure did start to develop, he rolled out while keeping his eyes moving, surveying his targets.

Finally, he found a window to freshman receiver Michael Young.

Book finished the day 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns passing, also adding 64 yards on seven rushes (sacks adjusted). His ability to genuinely consider both the run and the pass in run-pass options made life more difficult than LSU had expected.

“[Book] made a difference,” Orgeron said. “We had a plan. He came in and scrambled. Zone-read gave us problems. [He] extended plays.”

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
Junior linebacker Te’von Coney made 17 tackles Monday, underscoring Notre Dame’s hopes he will return for his senior season, a decision he said he has not yet made.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish offense lacked three of its top four pass-catchers from the regular season, with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and junior tight end Alizé Mack both suspended and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool out with a shoulder injury. Freshman tight end Brock Wright, used as a situational blocker, was also sidelined by a shoulder injury, and sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, the team’s third-leading rusher, was suspended, as well.

“We were a little shorthanded out there,” Kelly admitted afterward. “… Young players out there that I think started on scout team.”

Yet, Notre Dame averaged 6.07 yards per play against one of the country’s best defenses. For context, the Irish offense averaged 6.42 yards per play in the regular season.

With Book taking snaps, Notre Dame worked even more efficiently. Book’s offense gained 267 yards on 40 plays, an average of 6.68 yards. Wimbush’s time in the game gained 103 yards on 21 plays, an average of 4.90 yards.

SCORING SUMMARY
Second Quarter
0:04 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 3, LSU 0. (11 plays, 51 yards, 2:00)

Third Quarter
11:37 — LSU touchdown. Derrius Guice 20-yard reception from Danny Etling. Jack Gonsoulin PAT good. LSU 7, Notre Dame 3. (5 plays, 43 yards, 2:16)
2:47 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 49 yards. LSU 7, Notre Dame 6. (5 plays, 18 yards, 2:20)

Fourth Quarter
11:13 — LSU touchdown. Guice two-yard reception from Etling. Gonsoulin PAT god. LSU 14, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 75 yards, 6:34)
7:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Young six-yard reception from Ian Book. Two-point conversion good. Josh Adams two-yard reception from Book. LSU 14, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:24)
2:03 — LSU field goal. Gonsoulin 17 yards. LSU 17, Notre Dame 14. (12 plays, 76 yards, 5:46)
1:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 55-yard reception from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, LSU 17. (3 plays, 73 yards, 0:35)