The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program can breath again.
All of the things Notre Dame couldn’t do offensively in the final month of the season, they were able to do against one of the most physical defenses the Irish faced all year. Notre Dame snapped their four-game losing streak with a 31-28 victory over the LSU Tigers in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Brian Kelly and the Irish have been known as a spread-it-out, pass-heavy attack that looks to take deep shots downfield. However, Notre Dame deviated from that plan with a new offensive identity that emphasized the running game for the first time all season. The Irish rushed the ball 51 times for 263 yards, the most for Notre Dame since the opening game of the season. Another key was Notre Dame did not turn the ball over on offense, something they hadn’t accomplished since the second game of the year.
Malik Zaire, who was named the MVP of the game, started for the first time this season and looked plenty comfortable leading the Irish rushing attack. Zaire finished the game with 22 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown, while completing 12-of-15 passes for 96 yards and another touchdown, which came on the opening drive of the game.
Everett Golson, who started all 12 games during the regular season, also played a role against LSU. While Zaire took a majority of the snaps, Golson completed some key passes on third down to set up Kyle Brindza for the game-winning 32-yard field goal. Golson was 6-for-11 for 90 yards and looked confident once again in directing the Irish offensive attack.
Notre Dame will need to shore up their defense during the offseason as they were gashed once again. Freshman Leonard Fournette tore through the Notre Dame defense, rushing 11 times for 143 yards, highlighted by an 89-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Fournette also had a 100-yard kickoff return and looked like an NFL-caliber prospect already.
While the Irish defense struggled, the offense and their new-found identity of pounding the ball controlled the tempo and the tone of the game. Notre Dame has recruited well along the offensive line in recent years and used those big bodies to control the line of scrimmage. The Irish ran 25 more plays than the Tigers and held the ball for 37 minutes compared to only 23 minutes for LSU.
Notre Dame’s new offensive identity should provide a ton of confidence for this team heading into the offseason. A program that was seen as falling apart at the seams now looks like one that can depend on their running game and offensive line to carry them through any situation. The Irish also have two capable quarterbacks that provide different strengths and Kelly appeared more than happy to accentuate both of their strengths today.
The sting of November is now gone for Notre Dame and a potentially program-altering shift in offensive philosophy could propel the Irish to big things in 2015.