The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this addition, the Music City Bowl Preview.
WHAT: Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
WHEN: Tuesday, December 30 – 2:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: LP Field – Nashville, TN
Notre Dame and LSU enter the Music City Bowl looking to end disappointing seasons on a positive note. The Fighting Irish, ranked 17th by the AP to start the year, got out of the gates quickly, fueling hopes of a playoff berth. Entering an October 18 matchup with top-ranked Florida State, Notre Dame stood 6-0 and ranked 5th in the country, but lost by four after having a last-minute touchdown overturned due to offensive pass interference. Unfortunately, the uneven play of redshirt junior quarterback Everett Golson over the second half of the season did the Golden Domers in, and they lost four straight games to finish the year unranked at 7-5.
LSU went through a rollercoaster of a season, with their 3rd-ranked defense seemingly battling their 74th-ranked offense to see which team would show up on a given week. The Tigers started with a 28-24 win against 14th-ranked Wisconsin, coming back from a 24-7 second-half deficit. LSU picked up a big win on October 25th against 3rd-ranked Ole Miss, but a tough SEC schedule that included losses to Mississippi State, Auburn, Alabama, and Arkansas proved their undoing.
When LSU Has the Football
LSU’s passing offense is best described by the word “lackluster”. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings completed only 48.8% of his passes this season, with 10 TDs and 7 picks en route to 1,460 yards. LSU throws the ball only when they have to ‒ outside of leading receiver Travis Dural (37 receptions for 758 yards), there is no other Tiger with 20 catches or 400 yards. However, the team possesses a strong running game that allows them to control the clock and rely on their defense.
LSU employs a multi-headed running assault led by Leonard Fournette, who has picked up 891 yards on 176 carries. Two other backs help shoulder the load: Senior Terrence Magee has 107 carries for 545 yards on the season, and his classmate Kenny Hilliard has rushed 87 times for 431 yards. The Tigers average 48.5 rushes per game, so expect to see all three of these backs over the course of the afternoon as their ball-control offense looks to keep Golson and the Irish off the field.
Colleague Andrew Pina wrote a terrific breakdown of the inventive LSU rushing attack:
On defense, Notre Dame has a unit that has struggled this year, giving up 29.3 points per game (86th in FBS). They rank 81st against the pass, but with LSU’s weak passing offense this is unlikely to factor in this matchup. More concerning is a run defense ranked 61st nationally, a weakness ripe for exploitation by the Tiger rushing attack.
Against the run, the Irish will look for linebacker Jaylon Smith to lead the charge. Smith, with 8.5 tackles for losses this season, will work with linemen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones to contain the Tiger running backs. Against the pass, cornerback Cole Luke has been their strongest presence over the course of the campaign, with 15 passes defensed in 12 games.
Luke was in coverage on this pass by FSU’s Jameis Winston, a perfectly thrown ball that no corner short of Darrelle Revis could disrupt:
Luke also was involved in this legal pick play against Arizona State, as running back Demario Richard was able to race down the sideline to set up the go-ahead score:
When Notre Dame Has the Football
Expectations were high early on, with Golson returning from a season-long academic suspension. The QB had a strong freshman year in 2012, leading his team to an eventual championship matchup in which the Irish lost in a blowout to Alabama. This season Golson saw improvement and achieved career highs in a number of categories including completion percentage (60.2), passing yards (3,355) and touchdowns (29). However, Golson also displayed inconsistency, tossing 14 picks including at least one in each of his last nine games. Nowhere was this more evident than in a 55-31 loss to Arizona State in which Golson yielded four INTs despite throwing for 446 yards.
The Irish were expected to start Golson, but head coach Brian Kelly surprisingly announced Monday afternoon that redshirt freshman Malik Zaire will get the nod instead. Zaire is unproven and largely a mystery at this point, having come on in relief of Golson during a blowout at the hands of USC in the final week of the season. He went 9 for 20 with 170 yards, but is untested and a wild card. It is an unusual move for Kelly, and shows he is likely looking as much to next year as he is focused on winning this game.
Zaire’s primary target is William Fuller, a sophomore receiver out of Philadelphia who racked up 71 catches for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Corey Robinson and junior Chris Brown join Fuller in Zaire’s primary receiving corps, accounting for 75 completions and 1,038 yards between them. C.J. Prosise also factors into the passing game, with 26 receptions for 482 yards, and has also been used out of the backfield seven times this year.
Tarean Folston handles lead back duties for the Irish, rushing for 816 yards on 154 carries, good for a 5.3 YPC average. Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel also factor into the running game. Zaire rushed for 18 yards on six carries and a TD against USC. Running the ball is not a strength of this Irish team, as they ranked 84th in the country in rushing yards, compared to 16th in passing yards. They will look to move the ball through the air while supplementing with runs to keep the Tigers honest.
On defense, LSU lacks a true pass-rusher, which could be an issue against Zaire. Jermauria Rasco leads the Tigers with only four sacks on the season, and the entire team accrued just 19 sacks in 12 games. However, what the Tigers lack in pass rush, they make up for in run-stuffing on their line and pass coverage in their secondary.
Danielle Hunter leads LSU with 12 tackles for losses on the season, with Kwon Alexander picking up 7.5 as well. The Tigers’ rush defense ranked 47th nationally in stopping the run, despite facing a number of outstanding running backs this year in Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson, and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon.
The true strength of this team is in the secondary, where LSU had 66 passes defense this year en route to holding opposing quarterbacks to a 98.7 ranking, the lowest in FBS. The Tigers allowed only 9 passing touchdowns the entire year, which makes the matchup against Zaire an incredibly intriguing one. Leading the charge for the Tigers is Jalen Mills, a superb cover corner with top-end skills to shut down opposing receivers. Ronald Martin and Jalen Collins are also effective, both notching 10 passes defensed on the season.
For the Tigers, this is a relatively quiet year in terms of prospects, with Mills likely the most talented of the bunch. Unfortunately, Mills has a number of question marks off the field that may keep him from being a first-round pick. Offensive tackle La’El Collins is also a potential first rounder, though he may slip into the second round as he lacks prototypical height for an NFL tackle.
Notre Dame lacks any truly elite prospects this year, but tight end Ben Koyack should hear his name called in the middle rounds of the draft. Koyack is 6’4” and 255 pounds, and his size could be attractive to a number of teams despite his lack of production at the college level.
Zaire makes a few electrifying plays, but the LSU defense keeps the Irish in check en route to a Tiger victory.
LSU 27, Notre Dame 17
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.