Lesar: Notre Dame's best defense is its run offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Smoke and mirrors won’t shut down one of the better running games in college football.

Given the current state of the injury-ravaged Notre Dame defense, that’s about all the Irish will have to challenge LSU in the Music City Bowl.

There’s gotta be a better way.

It will take a big-picture perspective to solve what appears to be a very specific weakness. The other day, Irish coach Brian Kelly seemed to be on to something.

The best defense may be a methodical, time-consuming offense.

Think Navy, minus the steady dose of option, of course. The frustrating part of playing the Midshipmen is that offensive possessions are limited. When Navy has the football, its focus is drives that are composed of double-digit plays that chew up yards and burn the clock.

“We have to protect our defense,” Kelly said. “We’re limited inside. We have to do a really good job offensively controlling the flow of the game. A lot of it will be on our offensive game plan, keeping (LSU’s) offense off the field.”

There’s a hint of what to expect in Nashville: Three yards and a clump of sod.

Whether it’s Everett Golson or Malik Zaire at quarterback (Remember the old saying —When you have two quarterbacks, that just means you don’t have one quarterback), that won’t be the critical factor in the game. It’s more like: Can the line block? Can the backs run?

One way or another, the outcome of this game will be decided on the ground.

The numbers game just adds to the suspense.

LSU is a proven entity when it comes to running the ball. The Tigers rank 27th in the country, averaging 219.5 yards. Leonard Fournette (891 yards, 8 TDs), Terrence Magee (545, 3) and Kenny Hilliard (431, 6) have done the bulk of the damage this season.

The LSU defense is ranked 38th against the run, giving up 143.5 yards.

On the other hand, Notre Dame’s numbers aren’t quite so impressive.

The Irish rank 81st in the country in rushing offense with 150.8 yards a game. In their last four games, losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and Southern Cal, they’ve had only five drives that have had double-digit plays.

Defensively, Notre Dame ranks 62nd against the run (161.7), but in its last three games, when injuries to linemen Sheldon Day (knee) and Jarron Jones (foot) kicked in, it has yielded 697 yards on the ground.

Jones is done for this season. There’s a chance that Day could play, but if Kelly said he’s not 100 percent healthy on Dec. 15, what are the odds he’s going to be in a position to make an impact Dec. 30?

Piecing together enough healthy bodies to try to at least discourage LSU from setting bowl game rushing records is the Irish mission right now. Shutting the Tigers down is hardly a possibility.

What Notre Dame has to do is make a commitment to a running attack.

Kelly said the coaches liked what sophomore Mike McGlinchey did at right tackle when he replaced grad student Christian Lombard against USC. OK, go with it. It’s not like the line has had any sort of amazing chemistry that might be upset.

Greg Bryant had a solid game (79 yards on 7 carries, 1 TD) against the Trojans, while Tarean Folston (14, 4) and Cam McDaniel (11, 3) struggled. Go ahead, give it to Bryant and see what he can do.

The passing game still has to work to some degree, just to open things up for the run.

But, in the best interest of the offense — and the defense — Notre Dame needs to find the sort of running game everyone thought it was going to have before the season ever started.

Now’s the time for it to come to the rescue.

Or else…

Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant finds an opening during the Notre Dame-Syracuse game on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2014, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)