Pregame Six Pack: A Music City Finale

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The 2014 season comes to a close on Tuesday afternoon, with Notre Dame playing the role of underdog against LSU in the Music City Bowl. After finishing the regular season on a four-game slide, a date with Les Miles’ young and talented Tigers isn’t the type of opponent that instills a lot of hope in the Irish faithful.

But Brian Kelly said he wanted a challenge for his team and they’ll have one on Tuesday afternoon.

First and foremost is LSU’s defense. With Malik Zaire getting his first start, he’ll meet John Chavis. The SEC’s top-rated unit, Zaire will face a worthy adversary as he hopes to start 2015 in the drivers seat for a quarterback job that should be wide open.

In our last Pregame Six Pack until next September, let’s get ready for the Music City Bowl.

 

Can Notre Dame stop the run?

That’s likely the difference in this football game. And while the Irish are still missing Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones, the month off to restructure the front seven will likely make a difference.

If you’re reading between the lines, a few things seem fairly clear. First, Sheldon Day may be officially healthy, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s able to be the every-down player the Irish need. Kelly tabbed Day’s play count around 40 or 50 snaps, which is roughly the number of carries the Tigers will likely attempt.

Secondly, it appears Isaac Rochell will be asked to take on the bulk of the work inside. After Jacob Matuska struggled in his first significant action, Rochell will slide inside to try and combat the power advantage the Tigers have in the trenches. Matuska battled a shoulder/nerve injury that limited his strength and ability to hold his own against USC, but healthy or not, it’s a tough battle for a first-year player still finding his way.

But that’s what the Irish have to choose from. So Brian VanGorder’s unit will have to patch things together, not their best strong suit this season. LSU will help as well, with a passing game that’s one of the least efficient the Irish have faced. But none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t hold its own against a running game that’s intent on breaking the will of the Irish.

 

What will the Irish get out of Malik Zaire?

There are few better opportunities than the one Malik Zaire will get this afternoon. The sophomore quarterback who finally saw the field against USC gets the start against the Tigers. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.

What that means from a playing time perspective remains to be seen, with Kelly still committed to playing Everett Golson. But if Zaire wants a chance to prove he can be the man driving the Irish offense, there’s no better litmus test than against LSU.

The Tigers secondary is one of the toughest in college football. Their run defense has not lived up to that standard, with Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn all having big games on the ground. Zaire’s skills as a runner are often discussed. Now we’ll see if they’re more than just a talking point, with the zone read key to the Irish’s game plan with the young quarterback on the field.

(And no quarterback playing for Brian Kelly is going to get by as a bad passer.)

After a nice performance against USC, Zaire handled the media well, looking the part of a starting quarterback at a big-time program. If he can move the offense and lead the team against LSU, we’ll have ourselves a very interesting spring.

 

What type of performance can we expect from LSU?

For all the skepticism out there about Notre Dame’s chances right now, it’s worth noting that the Tigers aren’t coming in as world beaters. After ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Ole Miss, the Tigers seemed to have the wind ripped from their sails after Alabama snuck out of Tiger Stadium with an overtime victory.

The loss to the Crimson Tide was followed up by a 17-0 skunking by Arkansas. And while LSU rallied in their season finale to beat Texas A&M, the Tigers haven’t exactly been the best bowl performers the past few years, sleepwalking past Iowa last year 21-14 and losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl the year before.

The Tigers’ passing offense is a mess, with quarterback Anthony Jennings completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. (Three of those TD passes came against someone called Sam Houston.) And defensively, the architect of the LSU attack might have other things on his mind.

John Chavis was offered a three-year extension worth $4 million weeks ago. But while other defensive assistants have signed their contract extensions, the Times-Picayune reports that Chavis hasn’t. An offer to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M seems to be a sticking point.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that after a disappointing four-loss season of its own, the Tigers aren’t exactly happy to be in Nashville, either.

 

Can Will Fuller make a statement — and set a record in the process?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller’s big sophomore season flew surprisingly under the radar on the national scene. With four 100-yard efforts and the best single-season totals for a sophomore in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Fuller has the chance to make an impact against a secondary that’s among the most talented in the country… not to mention catch Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate in the process.

Fuller’s season was the breakout of the year. But it still saw the wispy Philadelphia native go through some growing pains. For all the catches Fuller made, you can’t help but think about the ones he missed. A few drops took some large plays off the board, and likely a few scores off the stat sheet.

Cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White are a talented duo, with safeties Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin excellent as well. LSU has built its defensive brand playing man coverage. If Fuller breaks loose this afternoon, he’ll set the stage for a monster 2015 after a record-setting 2014.

 

Stay or Go? A good performance in the Music City Bowl could be the decision maker. 

Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been discussed as a potential first-round offensive tackle as way-too-early mock drafts begin to emerge. While opinions on where he’ll go seem to vary, Stanley’s talents will be tested early and often against an LSU front that’s combined for 69 tackles for loss.

While the pass rush hasn’t necessarily been the strong suit of the Tigers defense, Stanley will provide another piece of excellent game tape for NFL talent evaluators to pick through, if Stanley decides that three seasons in South Bend are enough.

Brian Kelly didn’t want to discuss the NFL evaluations that Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson received. But multiple sources confirmed to me that Stanley didn’t receive a coveted first-round grade when he heard back from the league.

That’s usually enough to get a return for a senior season. But after losing three players with eligibility left after last season and none of them going in the first round, there’s still a tough decision to make. And while his return would be a huge recruiting victory for Kelly and the Irish staff, Stanley will likely weigh his performance in the Music City Bowl before making any decisions.

 

Can Brian Kelly — and the offensive line — control the game with the Irish offense?

If there was something more disappointing than the Irish’s total defensive collapse against USC it was the brutal start for the offense. While back-to-back turnovers eventually took Everett Golson off the field, starting the game with four straight punts should’ve been even more worrying.

Against the Trojans, the Irish leaned heavily on the possession passing game and struck out. Golson’s inaccuracy, along with a lack of running game, put the vulnerable defense in a tough spot and they certainly didn’t fight their way out of it. (It might have been Paper Bag 49, Irish 14 in the Coliseum that afternoon.)

Kelly has talked openly about the blame he places on the offense for this season’s second-half collapse. And he is the head of that unit. So with one more opportunity to make Kelly the first Irish coach to win eight-or-more games in his first five seasons, he needs to get back to calling the type of game that had the Irish nearly pull off the upset against Florida State.

With Malik Zaire starting, it appears Kelly understands that he needs a strong running game to perch up the defense and possess the football. And after a mediocre season, the starting five has one last shot to prove they’re an ascending position group, not a unit that needs rebooting this spring.

Running the ball won’t just be a necessity to beat the Tigers defense. It’ll keep the ball away from LSU, making it harder for the Tigers to break down the Irish defense with a ground and pound mentality.

But when Golson plays, he’ll also need to run the football, not just drop back and throw it. He’s shown the ability to control the chains with his feet, like he did against Florida State. (He did it even better against Oklahoma in 2012, the ultimate 3rd-and-short weapon.)

Kelly desperately wants to leave Nashville with a victory. He’s going to have to do his best coaching job of the year to do so.