Saving the best for last could serve as the mantra for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s dramatic 21-17 comeback victory over the LSU Tigers in the Citrus Bowl. Without the late heroics of wideout Miles Boykin, Notre Dame very likely was headed to their third defeat in the last four games after a rousing 8-1 start.
Instead, they close out the season on a high note and a 10-3 mark, matching their 2015 record, a season that ended with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The win against LSU also gives head coach Brian Kelly his third double-digit season in the win column. It also temporarily chases away the portion of the fan base that wanted him gone after last season’s 4-8 debacle.
Below are some of the reasons that Irish luck took hold in the new year:
With the exception of the North Carolina win in October, sophomore Brandon Wimbush has been at the helm of the Notre Dame offense. The combination of his mobility and potential as a passer were enough to get the Irish back to a prominent bowl, with Ian Book serving as an effective insurance policy.
With the Notre Dame offense stagnant and with no points on the scoreboard, Book replaced Wimbush behind center and drove down to get a field goal before the first half ended. Another three-pointer in the third was just the precursor to a pair of touchdown passes in the final 12 minutes, with Book and Boykin connecting for the game-winning toss with just 1:28 left in the game.
How Wimbush reacts to this change in circumstances could lay the groundwork for a fascinating duel during the Spring. Without a clear winner at that time, the possibility of countless speculation when training camp comes is inevitable.
Fourth Quarter Fireworks
Entering the final quarter, the crowd of 57,726 and a national television audience might have been excused for looking at other options with LSU holding just a 7-6 lead. Those that left missed the two teams combining for 25 points, including the game-winning grab by Boykin that will serve as a solid building block for any collection of great grabs that’s compiled in the years ahead.
Book managed to wipe out a 14-6 deficit by hitting Michael Young for a six-yard score and then finding Josh Adams on a conversion pass that tied things up. What made Boykin’s grab even more impressive was not only the one-handed snag, but the run after the catch.
The Irish might have been staring at a much bigger hole had fate not intervened on their behalf on multiple occasions. During the first quarter, LSU got down to the Irish one, but couldn’t punch it in after the decision to go for it on fourth down got wiped out by a false start. The 22-yard field goal try then missed.
Another missed field goal, this one from 37 yards, came at the end of a 10-play drive that gave the Irish the ball back with two minutes left in the first half. That second miss led to the first score of the game on Justin Yoon’s field goal.
Turning Statistics on Their Head
The debate over the value of a statistic like time of possession is one that will likely surge after the Irish managed to win the game despite having the ball for 15 minutes less than the Tigers. On four separate occasions, Notre Dame had the ball for just three plays on a drive, but that last time turned out to be the game-winner.
Ordinarily, committing turnovers is one of the key ingredients in any defeat. However, even though the Irish fumbled the ball away on a wet afternoon and then threw an interception, they emerged victorious. A fumble on an LSU punt led to the Tigers’ first touchdown, while the interception came on the 11th play of the subsequent drive. In the latter case, no further damage was inflicted.
Running Back by Committee
The Irish managed to collect 154 rushing yards on 33 carries against LSU, yet the numbers point out another disappointing aspect that’s been evident in the team’s last five contests. Instead of Josh Adams delivering another strong performance, highlighted by a breakaway run, he ended the day with just 44 yards on 15 carries.
That yardage was only slightly more yardage than Wimbush, Book and Dexter Williams were each able to deliver. What’s more, Adams could only muster a 11-yard run as his longest carry, as opposed to Wimbush and Williams scampering for 31-yard gains. Even Book, who’s hardly known for his running skills, managed to break off a 21-yard dash.
The Notre Dame recruiting season heads into the home stretch, with Brian Kelly’s staff attempting to nail down all of their prime candidates for the seasons ahead. That will be followed by action during the spring and training camp in August. By the time the 2018 opener for the Irish takes place at home against Michigan on September 1, some of the question marks that are currently in place will be removed.