Eric Hansen, of the South Bend Tribune, has covering Notre Dame since the days of Knute Rockne.
Knute Rockne is a Notre Dame legend. (ABC,com)
Well, maybe not that long. But it’s been a while. Hansen joins us on Pick 6 to answer some questions about the Fighting Irish, LSU’s opponent in the Music City Bowl.
You can follow Hansen at @EHansenNDI and read his work here.
1. Brian Kelly said both quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will play in the bowl game. What different qualities does each of these QBs bring?
One caveat here, Kelly has been known to change his mind, and sometimes in the middle of a game about these things.
If they do both play, Golson brings one of the strongest arms in the country to the equation, big-game experience, a better overall knowledge of the offense and coverages, and the ability to extend plays with his feet. His problem has been turnovers, 22 of them in 2014. That’s as many or more than 85 FBS teams have this season.
Zaire has attempted just 20 collegiate passes and zero of them before Thanksgiving weekend. His strength is running the read option, and he does it with more ease and efficiency than Golson. He also happens to be left-handed, which gives defenses a little different look in the passing game. Above all, he is supremely confident.
If Joe Montana at his peak were on the Notre Dame roster right now, Zaire would sincerely believe that he should be ahead of him on the depth chart.
2. Notre Dame allowed at least 188 yards rushing in six of its final seven games. What’s been the issue in stopping the run?
It’s not been one thing, but the confluence of several factors, beginning with injuries on a defense that couldn’t afford them.
Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, the brains of the defense, has been out since Nov. 1. His value is underscored by the fact he won the team MVP award despite missing the last 4 ½ regular-season games.
Two other injuries left ND exposed in the run game, defensive tackle Sheldon Day (one of only three starters on ND’s team to garner an LSU scholarship offer out of high school) and nose guard Jarron Jones. Day (MCL sprain) is the only one of the three who has a chance to return for the bowl game, and that’s about 50-50 right now. ND was thin at those positions to begin with, and true freshmen have been a big part of Plan B.
Another big factor in the team’s erosion on run defense were teams successfully playing at a fast tempo on offense. ND’s defense was built on niche roles and sub packages. When teams went uptempo, beginning with North Carolina on Oct. 11, the Irish found themselves getting trapped with their pass-rush personnel on the field on running downs, and run personnel on passing downs. It’s a template Notre Dame has been unable to overcome.
3. Kelly has said that several positions are open for competition during bowl practice. At which spots could we expect a starter to be usurped?
Brian Kelly is 44-20 in five seasons at Notre Dame. (NBCSports.com)
This is maybe more bluster than reality, especially considering the cliff in talent/experience differential at many of the positions. But Kelly wanted to set a tone for bowl prep, and I think he’s done that.
Beyond a possible time share at quarterback, sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been pressing third-year starter Christian Lombard. And the safety spots are up for grabs, but there aren’t a lot of choices for Kelly there – just three scholarship players left at a depleted position group. One of those, Elijah Shumate, was demoted before the latest run of injuries at the position. One, Max Redfield, is nursing a broken rib but is expected to play. The third, Eilar Hardy, was suspended for the first eight games of the season and didn’t practice until late October.
4. How do Notre Dame players, coaches and fans feel about the bowl matchup with LSU?
The players and coaches are pretty fired up about the matchup. There’s a lot of respect among them in terms of what LSU has accomplished in recent years, and even this season with a young team. It gives them a shot a redemption that a lesser opponent would not provide.
The fan base’s feelings are more mixed. There’s a segment who feel the problems with this team are unfixable this year and that LSU will just provide more humiliation on the heels of a bad November. Some fans are just so disillusioned by ND’s finish that they’d be disinterested in the bowl game, no matter who the opponent was. But there are fans that appreciate the matchup as an opportunity for Notre Dame to try to start to get better for 2015, when the Irish are expected to be deeper and much less flawed. And then there are those who will tune in just to see if Les Miles eats grass.
5. What LSU player(s) is drawing the most interest with Notre Dame coaches and players?
I’m not sure it’s a player as much as it is the dynamic of playing against the nation’s No. 1 pass-efficiency defense and all that entails. There’s also a lot of respect for the running game, so that brings running back Leonard Fournette and left tackle La’el Collins into the conversation.
6. What’s the one thing Notre Dame must do well to win the game?
Trick question, right? There’s not just one thing. At the top of the list, it’s slowing LSU’s run game – the only top 50 rush offense the Irish have faced this season other than No. 1, triple-option-heavy Navy.
The Irish have got to win the turnover battle. ND is 24-1 under Kelly when they do, and Kelly is 127-12 in his career when his teams emerge with fewer turnovers. But the Irish have only accomplished that three times this season and haven’t done so since September. Notre Dame’s own running game is going to have to be at its best. Kelly will want to play keep-away, so that he can minimize how many plays his defense is on the field.