Aggressive Approach Key to Notre Dame Defeating LSU

(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

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

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  1. I’m not sure I agree with Scott on his analysis of Zaire against USC. Yes, they quickly scored, but by the end of the day ND only managed to score 14 points so it was hardly a close game.

    That being said, at this point, I think starting Zaire is the wiser course. Just because he starts doesn’t mean he can’t be pulled if he struggles heavily. But starting EG would just be insanity at this point (you know, the whole doing the same thing and expecting a different result thing). EG can’t protect the football. That is the first rule in football, PROTECT the ball. You can’t turn the ball over against LSU. Starting EG at this point would basically be seeding the win to LSU.

    Zaire at QB is by no means a guarantee of a win, or even a close game. But as long as they protect the football they have a fighting chance.

  2. Gonna be interesting to see how Malik handles being the starter. More important we’ll see if Golson is able to handle being the back up and possibly coming off the bench and performing.

    1. I think it will depend on how much of the playbook Zaire has mastered.

      Wouldn’t be surprised to see a scaled back, simplified version of the offense.

      Maybe somewhat similar to what we saw when Golson was first starting out.

  3. LSU has two young QB’s that could be rattled by an aggressive young , injury depleted Irish D. Or LSU’s QB’S will have a field day like QB’s from Navy , North Carolina , Northwestern , Arizona State , Louisville and USC. Foremost , Irish D needs to hold down LSU running game led by 6’3″ 240lb freshmen Fournette and the other two backs(1000 yds combined on season). Starting Zaire is fine , although LSU like everyone else knows Kelly wants to run the ball with Zaire. LSU probably stacks the line–until Zaire shows he can pass. Running game depends on O-LINE. What else is new. Kelly says both Golsen/Zaire will play. When? Each quarter , each half , every other series ? Might as well go crazy on being aggressive in this last game and have fun . Even crazier is using Smith at defensive end–he can be all-American at this position next season with added 20lbs. Go Irish.

  4. The powerhouse LSU big wins this year were against Wisconsin, who lost 59 to 0 and to Florida.

    Florida, who like all bad teams,.found a way to lose.

    LSU lone quality win was against Ole Miss(10 to 7), who pretty much limped to the end vs say Bama who steam rolled after LSU.

    So we can all sit around and pretend that Sam Houston, ULM amd ND something or other are quality opponents who LSU blew out, or that AM was not below average. I hear all of this talk about top ten losses and top 20 losses and you once again have to buy in that some writer was granted insights from the gods to be able to rank ANY better than the guy who played HS ball, has watched hundreds of games as well, then OK.

    LSU should win because they have out recruited ND on defense.

  5. Normally, I enjoy Scott’s posts, but this one borders on delusional.
    ” 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.” Plus, ” Malik Zaire looked absolutely lethal executing the read option against USC” . Really? Lethal? What died ? The Trojans chance of a shutout? Then “Zaire proved to be an instant catalyst for the Notre Dame offense against USC, scoring in only three plays . . . Zaire showed a bit of everything against USC, from a beautiful 49-yard strike to wide receiver Chris Brown (that’s one pass), to an athletic 11-yard touchdown run.” If I’m not mistaken, beyond those two plays, with no disrespect intended to Malik’s debut, did anyone else notice that the Trojans haven’t exactly been the D’ juggernaut of college football this year,
    If the ND OL doesn’t improve dramatically, with all of the 15 practices, it won’t matter who the QB will be- this game or next year. Both QBs can scramble, but the pressure due to poor protection for either/both has been consistently inept and IMHO the greatest contributor to both the turnovers and inability to score TDs, especially in the red zone.
    Finally, ” 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.” ‘Making mistakes’, as in handing the ball off poorly? Why would LSU pass ? Who has ND stopped on the ground
    since FSU ? This game is on the LBs and safeties to stop the run that LSU will continue to do until ND shows they can stop it. Eight in the box and bring it, and gamble on our CBs and FS to stop the pass. Other than a recovering Sheldon Day, who left on the DL will make a difference against the run? If Elijah, Jaylon and Niles don’t excel against the run, this game will be over before I can refill my third glass of Absolute Vodka- absolutely.

    1. While Malik hasn’t set anything on fire there is no disputing even from the coaching staff that he runs the read option offense better than Golson. LSU had some difficulties with good read option QBs this season.
      Van Gorder’s defense isn’t surprising anyone these days. There’s enough film now that the element of surprise is pretty much over.
      I hope the Irish can win or at least make a game of it but I have plenty of doubts they can.
      Their last 4 games they beat ole miss, lost to bama in overtime,lost to ark and beat Texas AM.
      You look at ND losses the last four games and how close the games were for teams that blew them out like ASU and USC. Makes me think they may have been even weaker than I believed.
      This should provide a good indication of where this team is really at. I hope it’s better than I suspect.
      Go Irish

  6. Well if Kelly is Kelly, which I assume he will not change his spots, he will be predictable on O and throw and throw and throw. We’ll see at the end of the loss ND ran the ball almost as much as threw but that will once again be all the scrambles the QB will have done with the dozen or more tackles for a loss and including the no real gain scrambles. And all the apologists will say, “see, they were a balanced offense”.

    The obvious packages Kelly will send in will inform the LSU Defense what is coming at them and we’ll wonder why ND couldn’t gain yds or score.

    Many will say, the D was too young and inexperienced – which is true – but nothing will have been done on O to ease the issue.

    I like much of what Kelly does right up until game-day. The talent is at ND and they have a quality coaching staff – it’s just the game day issue of Kelly not knowing the opposition well and not knowing his own players to create plays that work best for them as a team.

    Sorry, but this should be a beat-down worse than the Bama NC game if Kelly remains the Kelly we all have come to know.

      1. at 7 – 5, winning against unranked teams while losing much of the Defense after the first wins

        …and your point is?

      2. For Kelly…

        “not knowing his own players to create plays that work best for them as a team” …

        445 yards per game clearly indicates otherwise…

        as usual.

  7. I too, think Zaire needs to start this game or at least play the bulk of it. I still think Golson gives us the best chance to have a great season next year but that we need to go to Zaire for a shot in the arm for this game. We could get blown out, but I have a gut feeling we will come in with a chip on our shoulder, sort of like FSU, and make a good run and hopefully win. Of course I always take the positive approach. If Everett starts we still may come in with a chip on our shoulder but I believe they are more prepared for Everett.

  8. I believe notredame can win this game but kelly needs to call a creative game use his offensive talent the right way. No long passes on third and 2. No abandoning the run game,etc.~

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