Run dimension rules for LSU

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Single-dimension offenses take the guess work out of a defensive game plan.

But when it’s a real good dimension, the challenge can be somewhat monumental.

That’s the situation facing the Notre Dame football team’s defense in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl against LSU.

Everyone from Baton Rouge to South Bend and parts inbetween knows that LSU is going to try to run the ball down the Irish throats. But there’s a rub. Notre Dame may not be physically equipped to keep it from happening.

If there’s any doubt to what the Tigers are going to do, just check the numbers. They’ve run the ball 48.5 times a game this season (heck, for perspective sake, Navy and its option attack that always leads the nation, only ran it 56 times a game), averaging 219.5 yards.

“We have to have the mentality that we know what they’re going to do, their expectations, and try to defend them,” said Notre Dame’s 6-foot-2, 285-pound junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

It’s not going to be easy, if recent history is any indicator. In their season-ending four losses, the Irish yielded over 200 rushing yards in each game. Adding to the dilemma, Day is recovering from a knee injury after missing the last couple games. Also, corner Cody Riggs is better after a foot problem that cost him playing time in those losses.

“It’s going to be improved with Sheldon Day in there, and Cody Riggs helps us a lot, too,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “(Riggs’) ability to play out at the corner position, to play a lot more aggressive on-body (at the line of scrimmage)… Both of those guys help us, without question, in the run game.”

Day considers himself “about 85 percent” healthy right now. Kelly is hoping to get somewhere between 40 and 50 snaps out of him. Nose tackle Jarron Jones (6-5, 315) will be missing after a foot injury earlier in the season. Kelly said Isaac Rochell (6-4, 287) will be used at end when Day is in the game and inside when he’s out. Freshman Jay Hayes (6-3, 265) will also get some work inside.

“We look at (the Notre Dame defensive line) as they’re very well-respected; they’re very active,” said LSU junior left guard Vadal Alexander, 6-6, 320 pounds. “They’re an up-the-field defensive line.”

The Tigers will undergo some re-construction up front heading into the bowl game. Center Elliott Porter will miss the game with a fractured ankle. Sophomore right guard Ethan Pocic, a Chicago-area native who was high on Notre Dame’s recruiting wish list a couple years ago, moves to center, and Evan Washington takes over at right guard.

“That’s just the way the game goes: Next man up,” said Alexander. “We always preach that. Everybody approaches the game as a starter. When it’s time for them to play, they’re ready. Our offensive line doesn’t miss a beat.”

“(LSU’s personnel shift) is something we’re going to have to adjust to during the game,” Day said. “We’ve been trying to get a feel for it during practice.”

The big challenge from LSU’s running game is Leonard Fournette, a 6-1, 230-pound freshman who has been impressive. He has carried the ball 176 times for 891 yards and eight scores.

“(Fournette) is a great back; his power; the way he’s been ascending (late in the season) has been impressive,” Day said. “Seeing him in person is definitely going to be fun.

“I compare him to Karlos Williams of Florida State. I’ve noticed his explosiveness, and his ability to get to the edge and turn it upfield; accelerate; run over people; make moves in the open field.”

Of course, shutting down one guy won’t solve the problem. LSU may be one-dimensional, but that dimension has plenty of options.

Terrence Magee (105 carries, 545 yards, 3 TDs), Kenny Hilliard (87, 431, 6) and quarterback Anthony Jennings (100, 284) are all weapons.

“We like to run the ball,” Alexander said. “We want the burden to be put on us and carry the game on our shoulders.

“It’s a lineman’s dream.”

“We’ve gotta be physical, working our hands and technique on every play,” Day said. “This is a d-lineman’s game.”

This is an opportunity for the Irish to scrape away frustration and restore some of the eroded confidence that were by-products from the last four games.

“Inside is limited for us,” Kelly said. “To get that kind of size to match up with a big, physical LSU football team is important for us.”

Kelly then stumbled onto a tangent, trying to shift the blame for the pasting his team took in Los Angeles.

“There are so many factors involved (in the loss to Southern Cal),” the coach said. “It’s not great to play at noon time (actually 12:30 p.m., PST) from South Bend, Ind...”

That’s about the time it began to sound really strange. Whoa, coach, better not go there. Then, rather than pursuing that train of thought, Kelly re-located to the present.

“I could give you a million reasons why (the bowl game will be better),” Kelly said. “Guys are rested up. They’re a lot fresher. The football team is in a better position than going into SC.”

Better be, or it could be bad.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day (91) will try to turn around the Irish defensive effort in his return from injury. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)