Notre Dame bowls into matchup against LSU with plenty of questions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Now the real tough questions come.

Like who starts at quarterback, how Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly concocts depth at safety, how the fractured offensive and defensive lines will be addressed.

At least Kelly and the Irish (7-5) know where all that will unfold.

That question was answered Sunday afternoon, when Notre Dame learned its bowl destination will be in Nashville, Tenn. There, the Irish will take on AP 22nd-ranked LSU (8-4) from the SEC on Dec. 30 at the Music City Bowl. Kickoff time is 3 p.m. EST.

It will be Notre Dame’s 34th bowl appearance and fifth straight under Kelly. The Irish have never played in the 17-year-old Music City Bowl.

“We wanted to be challenged again,” Kelly said of the matchup that pits ND against an SEC team for the first time since a 42-14 drubbing from Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. “There's no sense going into this bowl game situation and feeling like you're not going to be challenged.

“I feel like there are matchups there that don't give you the same kind of challenge. This is one that we wanted. Again, they're a formidable opponent, a very good SEC team. You can see what their record indicates and what they can do.”

Beyond triple-option-heavy Navy, LSU presents to Notre Dame the best rushing offense the Irish have seen this season (ranked 27th nationally) and the first other than the Mids ranked in the top 55.

The Tigers also sparkle on special teams, hog the ball (fourth in time of possession), and they took the nation’s No. 1 team (Alabama) to overtime.

Most daunting and compelling, either senior Everett Golson or sophomore Malik Zaire — or both — will face the nation's No. 1 pass-efficiency defense.

Kelly benched Golson, the starter for the first 12 games, in the second quarter of ND’s 49-14 smackdown from USC, Nov. 29 in the regular-season finale. Zaire finished, and now Kelly has opened up that competition, and theoretically at all positions.

ND’s first of eight practices on campus, with a handful to follow at the bowl site later in the month, is Friday. His timetable for a decision at QB is fluid.

“It may be eight practices. It may be a year,” Kelly said. “But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them.

“There's a way I want that position to operate, and it's going to operate the way I want it to operate. If you operate it the way I want it done, you'll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.”

Golson has faced two top 10 pass defenses earlier this season —recording a 104.29 pass-efficiency rating against No. 9 Stanford and 168.43 against No. 8 Louisville. His season rating is 144.1, 31st nationally. Zaire’s 116.4 in a small sample size would rank 87th if he had enough attempts to qualify.

In the big picture, the QB situation is a much smaller headache than what Kelly is dealing with on defense.

At least he’ll get some missing pieces back, including backup linebacker Greer Martini (quad), starting cornerback Cody Riggs (stress reaction in foot), backup defensive tackle Jay Hayes (ankle) and, surprisingly, reinstated starting safety Max Redfield (broken rib).

“We’re hopeful to get Sheldon back as well,” Kelly said of star defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who absence has made the Irish vulnerable to the run, even against average or worse running teams the final three regular-season games.

The Irish still have to clear an eligibility hurdle with senior safety Eilar Hardy, who was reinstated to play in ND’s final four regular-season games after being part of the school’s academic fraud investigation from late August to late October.

“We believe so,” Kelly said of Hardy’s availability at ND’s thinnest position group on the team. “We still have some work to do with that. We're still in uncharted territory with this matter. We're going to have to get some further clarification on that.”

No clarification is needed about what all the extra practices without games could mean for the young, defensive players, like middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, who were pressed into action because of the injuries.

After putting up stunningly positive defensive numbers in the first half of the season, Notre Dame enters its matchup with LSU ranked no higher than 62nd in any of the major defensive categories.

“It’s frustrating,” sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, a Butkus Award finalist, lamented of the regression. “But you learn from each experience. You don’t remember the lowest moments, and really it’s how you respond. That’s really the focus.

“There’s no fear.”

The Music City Bowl matchup will be the 11th time the Irish and the Tigers have met in football, with the series tied 5-5. Two of those games have taken place in bowl games — the Sugar and the Independence — both won by LSU.

Franklin American Mortgage has been the title sponsor since 2010 of the Music City Bowl, which will be televised by ESPN. It’s the 15th different bowl the Irish have played in.

Smith admitted there are a lot of unknowns about the matchup. He’s never seen LSU play on TV, amazingly wasn’t recruited by the Tigers, doesn’t like country music, and is in for a rude awakening when it comes to the game day climate conditions.

“Tennessee, I believe that’s warm weather?” he said.

Well, the forecasted high for game day is 47 degrees with a low at night of 31.

Bowl bits

• Kelly voted Florida State No. 1 in the final coaches poll, followed by Oregon, Alabama and Ohio State. It’s the same four teams the College Football Playoff selection committee ushered into the first-ever national semis, but in a different order.

“When you win 12 games and you go undefeated, no matter how you do it, you cannot overlook that kind of work,” Kelly said of the 13-0 Seminoles, who edged the Irish, 31-27, Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, Fla.

• Kelly seemed almost relieved/excited when a media member fumbled the pronunciation of sophomore nose guard Jacob Matuska’s last name at the Sunday night press conference.

Especially considering Kelly has more than occasionally referred to him as “Matuszak.”

“First time that I've ever really been able to correct anybody,” Kelly said with a laugh. “A slew of e-mails from his parents will get you to get his name right.”

Kelly then lost his train of thought and asked to have the question repeated.

• Smith was well aware of Kelly’s plans to open up the quarterback position to competition. He missed the memo about all positions theoretically being up for grabs following the loss to USC in the finale.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked the questioner.

When the media member explained Kelly wanted an open competition for every job,” Smith responded, “Like coaching?”

Then he gathered himself and spewed the company chorus.

“I feel like competition is always great. It really is,” he said. “It allows the individual within to work harder.”

• Kelly said four players with college eligibility in 2015 (or beyond) have requested to have paperwork submitted to the NFL Draft Advisory Board for evaluation.

Those players are left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, left offensive guard Nick Martin, Day and Golson.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame's Everett Golson (above) will battle Malik Zaire for the starting quarterback job when ND faces LSU in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)