Notre Dame and the rest of college football may be tired of hearing it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The SEC is the best conference in the land and has been for a long time running. The SEC has captured 8 of the last 11 national championships and has had at least one program representing them in 9 of those 11 games, and Alabama’s current status as No. 1 in the first ever college football playoff gives the SEC the inside track on yet another potential championship.
If you’re looking to measure whether or not your program is truly elite, matching up against the SEC serves as the closest thing you can find to an “as the crow flies” result. Notre Dame has just such an opportunity against LSU in the Music City Bowl on December 30th.
If previous history is any indication, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s program has a long way to go. The Fighting Irish were outscored 83-28 in their last two SEC matchups, both of which were humiliating nationally televised defeats. If Notre Dame has any chance to defeat the LSU Tigers in Nashville – which will go a long way in repairing Notre Dame’s image after a poor 2014 season, much the same way Oklahoma’s unexpected defeat of Alabama during last year’s bowl slate propelled them into 2014 – it will have to be through an aggressive game plan.
Notre Dame’s best performances in 2014 occurred when taking on the persona as though they had nothing to lose. The Irish’s unprecedented 31-0 defeat of rival Michigan was largely due to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unrelenting blitz, which held the Wolverines to less than 3 yards per carry on the ground and forced 3 Michigan turnovers. Even when Michigan had the ball at midfield with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, VanGorder sent nearly every Irish defender on a blitz when most coordinators would have dropped their secondary into a Cover 4 look. And VanGorder blitzed for two reasons: Michigan had not proven they could stop it, and Notre Dame desperately wanted the shutout even though the win was guaranteed. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner panicked upon the blitz’s arrival and threw the game-sealing interception to conclude the game.
The Fighting Irish took a similar approach in their best performance of the year against Florida State. Leading the defending national champion Seminoles 14-7 on the road in primetime, Brian Kelly found himself facing a 4th and 1 dilemma on the 50 yard line. Knowing no lead is safe with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Kelly declined to punt and gambled in the hopes of increasing Notre Dame’s lead. While the gamble did not pay dividends, the message was clear: Notre Dame came to Tallahassee to win, and the Fighting Irish were going to actively attempt to dictate terms unless Florida State could rise to the occasion and stop it.
So, what are the keys to Notre Dame’s aggressive approach that could ultimately result in a victory over the LSU Tigers?
Confuse LSU’s Inexperienced Quarterbacks
Notre Dame was executing Brian VanGorder’s defensive scheme nearly to perfection early in the season before suffering a series of critical injuries. Now that the Fighting Irish are forced to play true freshmen and individuals not originally listed on the two-deep, VanGorder needs to find innovative ways to help get the Irish defense off the field. Such an opportunity may come courtesy of LSU’s inexperience at the quarterback position.
LSU’s greenness at quarterback has weighed the program down all season. Sophomore Anthony Jennings is completing less than 50% of his passing attempts, and the LSU offense has been averaging 165 yards passing per game with him at the helm. The Tigers have not fared any better with true freshman quarterback Brandon Harris, a former Rivals 4-star dual-threat quarterback. Harris completed only 21% of his passing attempts for 58 yards in LSU’s loss to Auburn.
VanGorder’s expertise at disguising blitzes and defensive looks – lessons he learned under the tutelage of New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan – could play an instrumental role in the Music City Bowl. The Fighting Irish may not have the depth to stop the LSU offense on a consistent basis, but if VanGorder can confound LSU’s quarterbacks into making mistakes, Notre Dame may have a chance.
Get Creative on Special Teams
Calling Notre Dame’s 2014 special teams unit disappointing would be diplomatic. Senior kicker Kyle Brindza had been making 75% of his field goal attempts prior to slumping this season, hitting only 13 of 23 attempts for a 56% conversion rate in 2014. With dual-threat quarterback Malik Zaire having replaced struggling holder Hunter Smith, an opportunity exists to break tendencies and attempt to generate some big plays on 4th down. And what better time to draw up unorthodox plays than in a bowl game against an SEC opponent?
Start Malik Zaire at Quarterback
At a cursory glance it would appear contradictory to stress an aggressive approach while simultaneously advocating for a quarterback who has never started a game to get the nod against LSU. But in this case gambling with the unknown is the aggressive path in comparison to starting Everett Golson and hoping the light bulb finally flashes.
Zaire proved to be an instant catalyst for the Notre Dame offense against USC, scoring in only three plays after Golson was benched for failing to produce points after six offensive drives. Zaire showed a bit of everything against USC, from a beautiful 49-yard strike to wide receiver Chris Brown to an athletic 11-yard touchdown run.
After dropping five of their last six games, Brian Kelly should abandon his original plan at quarterback and simply go with the hot hand approach. And right now that belongs to Malik Zaire.
Rely on the Running Game
Sophomore running back Tarean Folston has looked like a star in the making when the ball has been placed in his hands, averaging over 5 yards per carry this season. Feeding him the football, however, has simply not been a focal point of the Irish offense thus far. Folston, one of the best playmakers on the Notre Dame offense, only touched the football four times against USC. That is simply not good enough.
The Fighting Irish have the perfect opportunity to catch LSU off guard by featuring the running game. Malik Zaire looked absolutely lethal executing the read option against USC, a running scheme Notre Dame has used infrequently, and one Everett Golson reportedly struggled to operate. Building a game plan centered on pounding the ball with a mixture of Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant would not only take the pressure off Zaire and create passing lanes in the process, but it would also help keep Notre Dame’s young and depleted defense off the field.
Defeating LSU will not be easy, but an aggressive game plan could go a long way in making such a possibility come to fruition. And for Notre Dame, proving it can defeat a powerhouse SEC opponent would go a long way in repairing its image.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.