On second viewing, Notre Dame’s victory over LSU still happened. After watching the Irish find ways not to get it done all November, Brian Kelly’s team handled adversity — and a leaky defense — and executed down the stretch, sending the Tiger faithful (not Notre Dame’s) into the offseason grumbling about the foundation of their program.
A two quarterback system work. So did a ball-control offense. The defense may have started taking on water, but it did enough to get things done. With players young and old making key contributions, let’s run through the final good, bad and ugly of the season.
Malik Zaire. What a gutty performance by the young lefty in the first start of his career. As a ball career, Zaire is a load — a 235-pounder that may serve as the team’s power back. As a passer he was more than competent, showing nice accuracy in a still-developing, complementary part of his game.
But if there’s a reason to fall in love with Zaire after roughly six quarters of football, it’s the presence he cuts almost immediately as an offensive leader. There was no fear in Zaire when he took the stage. Not as a runner, nor as a passer.
That’s not to say it was all perfect. He made mistakes — a fourth-down keep that went for nothing, when Tarean Folston knifed easily through the line for what would’ve been a first down. The overthrown deep ball down the middle into double coverage that got him quickly pulled in the two-minute offense. But it’s tough to get mad at a kid for calling his own number in crunch time.
Zaire’s personality took over the offense, and the young sledge hammer seemed to drive the physicality of the offense.
The Offensive Line. Giving Zaire credit for the physicality is only partially fair. The play up front was outstanding, with Harry Hiestand’s maligned offensive line showing up and taking charge.
In his first start at right tackle, Mike McGlinchey held up just fine. Even better, we saw some nastiness from the young sophomore, unafraid to get into the face of LSU middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith after a run play.
Kelly credited left tackle Ronnie Stanley for getting the team fired up — the junior a vocal leader before the game, something that has yet to happen in his career. Stanley looked the part of a dominant blocker as well, with a stay-or-go decision that’ll likely determine just how good this group can be next season.
The Coaching Staff. You want fired up? Rewatch Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand jawing after LSU lands a big hit on Everett Golson. For those that thought Notre Dame’s bowl game was an exercise in futility, good thing the staff didn’t treat it that way.
As mentioned last night, Kelly flat outcoached Les Miles. An LSU staff with one of college football’s elite defensive coordinators and a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator came up short to a staff that many fans wanted to see rebooted.
The Moxie. A team that came in as losers of five of six and four-straight had no business being as confident as they were. Yet this Notre Dame team found a way to live under a rock this month, not falling into the echo chamber that escalates from simmering discontent to four-alarm fire.
Do you want to see safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield talking trash? Probably not. But it’s much better than seeing them play with their tails between their legs. Does it make sense for a first-time starter at right tackle to mix it up with one of the SEC’s best linebackers? Not really. But that’s the exact attitude needed to win and the Irish displayed the confidence of a champion.
Quick Hits: He didn’t play perfectly, but it was nice to see Max Redfield active and aggressive as a tackler. The pop pass that got behind the secondary may have been on Redfield, but mistakes of aggression are a lot better than late reactions.
* Converted wide receiver James Onwualu went head-up with Leonard Fournette and lived to tell about it. Making that tackle is all about attitude, and says quite a bit about Onwualu’s evolution as a linebacker. It’ll be fun to watch that position group evolve in Year 2 of BVG.
* Downhill running by Tarean Folston is a thing of beauty. His numbers may not have been that impressive, but everything Folston does is.
* An active game by Jaylon Smith reminds you that Smith falls second to no athlete, even the best of the SEC. Now he’s got to learn how to take on blockers against a downhill scheme.
* Good for Kyle Brindza. I probably would’ve given the game ball to Malik Zaire, but what a great honor to a senior leader who struggled mightily this year.
* The more I watch C.J. Prosise, the more I wish I ranked him even higher in my final rankings. He’s going to be a dynamic weapon next season.
* This should get Irish fans pumped up:
Big Plays Given Up. It’s hard to poke at Brian VanGorder’s Scotch Tape defense, but the big plays very nearly sunk a really admirable effort.
The Irish defense played with a lot of heart, but a long touchdown run by Leonard Fournette and a broken coverage touchdown pass to open the second half could very well have been back-breakers.
(I’ll lump Fournette’s 100-yard kickoff return here as well. That might have counted in a two-hand touch league as well.)
As the Irish move into 2015 mode, finding a middle ground is a necessity for this group. Splashes of dominance won’t matter if the big plays continue to haunt. Playing on a tight rope and contesting everything will remain a part of this defense’s DNA. But situational awareness is a key to development.
It’s Over. We’ve got nine months until Notre Dame hosts… TEXAS!
It’s hard to find anything to complain about after Notre Dame’s stunning victory. As mentioned in the Five Things, this is as much of a season-salvager as you could ask for.
Beating a name-brand opponent from the SEC West. Doing it by playing a physical brand of football that the SEC wants to monopolize. Watching a group of young players emerge as team leaders for 2015, adding to a strong veteran group.
Notre Dame started 13 true underclassmen in the victory. Kelly incorporated the future as well, getting in tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua along with a non-stop rotation of young defenders.
Just as important, Kelly showed the blueprint for successfully mixing and matching quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Everett Golson, opening up the offensive inventory and giving opposing coordinators nine months of headaches in the meantime. While two quarterbacks seems to scare everybody else, the duo the Irish have brings you back to 2006, when Urban Meyer matched Chris Leak and Tim Tebow to win a national title.