The snickering started early. After choosing to receive, Notre Dame fumbled the opening kickoff. They burned their first timeout before running a play. And when Malik Zaire got tracked down in the backfield on his first attempted run, a tidal wave of social media chatter left the Irish for dead.
But the next 59-and-a-half minutes told a different story.
Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl may have only pushed the Irish to 8-5, a slightly better than mediocre finish to a season that started with such high hopes. But after Kyle Brindza’s field goal tucked inside the left upright after Les Miles attempted twice to recall the ghosts that haunted the Irish’s senior kicker throughout most of the season, the outpouring of emotions from a young Notre Dame team told a much different story.
The Irish won perhaps the most important eight-victory of a season in recent memory, sending Notre Dame into the offseason on a high note as they prepare to mount a playoff run in 2015.
Let’s find out what we learned.
With Notre Dame’s offense needing to win in the trenches to have any chance at victory, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line carried the day.
Much has been said about the up and down performance from Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. After losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt from the 2013 unit and reshuffling the starting five in September, the front five hasn’t played with the aggression many expected from a young but talented group.
That wasn’t the case on Tuesday afternoon.
Against the SEC’s top defense, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line helped the Irish possess the football for an astounding 37 minutes, controlling the clock, the football and dictating terms to one of America’s most physically impressive defenses.
Notre Dame ran for 263 yards against LSU, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That’s a number that would’ve been assuredly a typo had you not seen the game, but behind 51 attempts — both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston breaking the 20 carries — the Irish offensive line showed a physicality that took even the broadcast crew by surprise.
“Say what you want about Notre Dame failing against the SEC and the SEC being too physical,” ESPN’s Rod Gilmore said. “Not up front with this offensive line today. Notre Dame’s offensive line has been dominant with the big boys of the SEC.”
After the game, Notre Dame’s head coach said it best.
“We dictated the outcome by controlling the football,” Brian Kelly said.
Who cares about what comes next? Paired together, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson found a way to win the football game.
Want an idea of how much this game meant? After leading his teammates to victory in his first start, Malik Zaire brushed away tears as he did his first postgame interview as a winning quarterback.
Zaire talked about those emotions after the game.
“Just the whole season, being a little bit frustrated in terms of pondering my place on this football team,” Zaire said, when asked about his mindset as he basked in the victory. “Being able to still stay focused, still stay tuned in even when things around me weren’t going the way that I felt I could contribute to the team.
“Life is about these opportunities that we get each and every day and taking advantage of them. I’m thankful for that lesson and I didn’t want to ruin it for this football team coming off the losses we have.”
While Golson certainly took a backseat to Zaire on a chilly afternoon in Nashville, he played a critical role in the victory as well. The senior returned to the field to help drive the Irish offense to a game-winning drive, returning to the field after taking a nasty hit on a wild third-down conversion to Will Fuller that required a medical injection to help numb the pain.
“I thought Everett was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Nobody really knows this, he got hit pretty hard on the play that he made. He had to go in and get a shot, the first time he’s ever done that since he’s been here at Notre Dame. To come back out and play, I was really proud of him.”
While the idea of a soap opera-like quarterback controversy is catnip to a media that needs something to talk about over the next nine months, it’s worth taking what Kelly has said for the past month at face value: He built a game plan to beat LSU.
“This really was just about this game,” Kelly said. “Playing both of them, my focus was about winning this game. And we’ll figure out the quarterback situation come January.”
That was made possible by both quarterbacks putting the team first and trusting the guy that brought them to South Bend.
“I thought they played very well and I thought they played well because they played together and they played unselfish,” Kelly said. “They trusted what we called. The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there. I thought that was pretty evident from Everett and from Malik.”
While it wasn’t always pretty, Brian VanGorder’s defense got the stops it needed and helped win the football game.
After getting sliced and diced by just about every offense it faced since Florida State, Notre Dame’s much-maligned defense did enough to win the football game. Held together by duct tape and glue, Brian VanGorder’s young unit made enough big plays to help the Irish emerge victorious.
Every little play mattered. An opening three-and-out after the Irish scored first? Critical in winning the time of possession. Getting a big stop before halftime? Game defining (even if it seemed mighty close on replay).
Sheldon Day returned to recover a critical fumble. Max Redfield emerged from the doghouse and made a team-high 14 tackles. If the defensive performance was about finding a way to win, then getting too wrapped up in Leonard Fournette’s dominant performance is missing the point.
The defense made the plays they needed to make, keeping an opponent under 30 points for the first time since VanGorder’s unit led the Irish to victory over Stanford in early October. And the return of Day and Cody Riggs, a month off — not to mention a change in coaching strategy — clearly helped.
“We were beat up and tired late in the season. Getting a break really rejuvenated our football team, particularly our defense,” Kelly said. “And quite frankly, we kept our defense off the field. We did a better job, I did a better job coaching. And I think that helped in this respect, we didn’t have to put our defense in some tough positions.”
Brian Kelly outcoached Les Miles.
While some Notre Dame fans spent the day pining for Michigan’s new head football coach, the guy roaming the Irish sidelines put together one of his finest performances since coming to South Bend. Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit from his hat, putting together a masterful game plan as the Irish completely outfoxed Les Miles and his coaching staff.
Kelly hit every right note en route to the tight victory, utilizing multiple personnel sets on offense, two quarterbacks perfectly and a game-winning drive that reframes the next nine months completely. While Irish fans spent December wondering if a mutiny was on the horizon, the football team they had left for dead pulled out a victory against a team that took Alabama to overtime and didn’t lose a football game outside of the SEC West.
While the massive adjustments to the schematic game plan came too late to salvage 2014, those that wondered what Notre Dame could possibly get from playing in a bowl game saw clearly just how well the much-maligned staff prepared their football team.
“That’s all we talked about. We really talked about this more being a life lesson for handling adversity,” Kelly said about preparing his team. “We had some adversity. Everybody was down on Notre Dame and our kids and we can’t do this and we can’t do that. I said, ‘That’s going to happen in life.’ You just have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and trust what you’re doing.’ And if you do that, you’re going to be okay.”
Against a college football coach who has done a better job than anyone assembling talent outside of Tuscaloosa, Brian Kelly reminded all those who hadn’t already left him for dead that he didn’t forget how to coach.
After a season of heartbreak, a win in the Music City Bowl feels like poetic justice for the 2014 Irish.
If you’re looking for a perfect season finale, even the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t have anything on the ending of Notre Dame’s 2014 season. In letting Kyle Brindza boot the game-winning field goal after struggling so mightily throughout this season, an Emmy-winning writers room couldn’t have scripted a better finish for an 8-5 season.
Nothing came easy for this team. Not even summer school.
But while this team might not have known well enough how to win, it certainly didn’t know how to quit. And the victory over LSU was proof of that.
And while most eyes turn immediately to 2015, it’s worth tipping your cap to a senior class that did the little things needed to make sure Kelly got an eighth victory, making him Notre Dame’s first head coach to win eight or more in his first five seasons.
In his final collegiate game, Cam McDaniel’s one carry came on a blown audible by Malik Zaire. But you saw the senior captain going head up with Leonard Fournette on kickoff coverage, making a tackle early in the game by stepping in the way of a freight train.
Ben Koyack finished his career as well. After struggling as a blocker at times this season, Koyack held his own in the trenches when the Irish desperately needed him, then came through with a clutch third-down conversion to move the chains with under two minutes left in the game.
Cody Riggs returned for a game that could only hurt his professional chances. But there he was nearly intercepting a pass with one hand on the opening drive and making one of the underrated plays of the game, tracking LSU’s John Dairse across the field in man coverage and forcing him out of bounds before the goal line with seconds remaining in the second quarter. (The Tigers would fail to convert their fake field goal attempt.)
Christian Lombard gave his health to this football team. So did Austin Collinsworth. Justin Utupo went from bottom of the depth chart to the bottom of the pile after being called to action as the defense lost man after man.
A four-loss November and dropping five of six to close the season is still difficult to conceive. But this team deserves every bit of celebration tonight in Nashville, closing out the year with the most improbable of wins.