If the 2012 championship game against Alabama was a yardstick applied with gusto to the backside of Coach Brian Kelly’s Irish, the 2014 Music City Bowl victory over 23rd-ranked LSU was yet another sort of measure in Notre Dame’s journey from relevance to validation. Trading gaudy, gash-y runs and kick returns for shattering, clock-consuming drives, the unranked and injury-riddled Irish bested a ranked-SEC squad for the first time since 1992, unless you count back-to-back wins over A&M in 1993 and 1994. In so doing, Notre Dame displayed considerable discipline and drive and upended many fair-weather-fans’ notions that this team, and staff, had been exposed since the aching loss to Florida State.
In yesterday’s win, the Irish managed 31 points against the SEC’s best defense while holding the Tigers’ offense to 28 points, none of which came in the game’s fourth quarter. Given that a total of three Irish defenders on the field against LSU started every game during the regular season, Notre Dame’s ability to hold when needed was, frankly, remarkable. That points were surrendered to LSU’s Leonard “Heisman 2015” Fournette via a 100 yard kick return and an 89 yard run from scrimmage may have actually helped the Irish by getting their defense off the field and putting LSU’s back on the field where Notre Dame’s punishing drives took their toll.
Though one hesitates to dial a cliche, the old saw that “the best defense is a good offense” rang true in Nashville, for the Irish executed a masterful offensive game plan. They dominated the time of possession 37:00 to 23:00. Though they only out-gained LSU by 13 yards (449 to 436), the Irish put together grinding drives and, importantly, converted those drives into points. That this was done via a two-quarterback system speaks volumes to the talent of youngster Malik Zaire, the resurgent maturity of former starter Everett Golson, and the charms of a coaching staff able to effectively run both signal-callers through scripted and unscripted moments with nary a turnover.
Though Kyle Brindza deserves all the credit for kicking the winning field-goal in the game’s waning seconds, if kudos and laurels must be heaped upon one position-group, they clearly must be heaped upon the quarterback, for, whether Lucky Lefty or Erstwhile Everett, the Irish signal caller was able to convert and complete when needed. Going 11-17 on third down, the Irish extended drives, exasperating the Tiger defense, who could simply not get off the field. Zaire, the better runner of the two, threw for 96 yards and ran for 96 yards, while Golson threw for another 90 and ran but once, and then for only six yards.
Six Irish receivers caught passes, including a crucial gainer to Ben Koyack. For LSU, Fournette was everything, running for 143 yards on, get this, 11 carries. Honestly.
In all, this was a huge win for Notre Dame, as it both cauterized the nasty wound that 2014 had become and silenced the critics who brayed that Notre Dame, with its recruiting challenges and academic rigors, could never, really, compete with the nation’s new elite programs within the SEC.
Here are your highlights, courtesy of our conference overlords: