Notre Dame must run, then run more

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Whoever takes the first – or for that matter, last – snap under center for the Notre Dame football team’s offense is irrelevant.

Whether it’s Everett Golson or Malik Zaire getting the bulk of the playing time against LSU Tuesday in the Music City Bowl, the mandate will be the same.

The Irish have to establish the run and make it be a factor in the final outcome.

That’s hardly been a trend for Notre Dame this season.

The Irish are averaging a very pedestrian 150.8 rushing yards this season. During their last four games – all losses – either circumstances of the game or a temptation to lean heavily on the pass often altered coach Brian Kelly’s play-calling.

Only against Northwestern (40 rushes, 211 yards) did Notre Dame make a successful, concerted effort to allow the ground game to work. Arizona State (38 rushes, 41 yards), Louisville (29, 99) and Southern Cal (25, 104) were feeble attempts to control the ball and the line of scrimmage.

LSU has the sort of offense that is going to chew up yards and the clock with its ground game. The Tigers’ average time of possession is 33 minutes, 59 seconds, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for the opposition to match the production.

Notre Dame’s best chance for success is to generate a running game that will keep the ball away from LSU.

“There’s a lot on our offense,” said Kelly. “We have to do a great job controlling the football, and we have to do a great job putting points on the board. We can’t just control it and not score points. We have to be able to finish drives.”

The Irish don’t have a track record for sustaining long drives recently. In the last four games, they’ve had only five drives that lasted double-digit plays.

“When we get the ball, we’ve gotta score points,” said Irish right guard Nick Martin. “We’ve gotta put together some long drives and put the ball in the end zone.”

It won’t be easy. Notre Dame has three running backs – Greg Bryant, Taurean Folston and Cam McDaniel – who have had their positive moments this season. But none has lived up to the preseason promise that came with the position.

Letdown in the backfield? Liabilities on the line? Even a personnel re-shuffling three games into the season failed to bring the cohesiveness that it takes to be efficient.

Tuesday won’t get any easier. LSU has a stout defense that yields just 143.5 yards on the ground and 162.3 in the air. The Tigers have the No. 1 pass efficiency defense in the country.

“We expect it to be a physical ballgame,” said LSU’s 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle Christian LaCourture. “We’re going to try to bring that mentality. We’ve prepared very well.”

The Tigers will also bring a powerful defensive front that includes LaCourture (37 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks); 6-4, 298-pound tackle David Godshaux (34 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss); 6-6, 240 end Danielle Hunter (64, 12, 1.5); and 6-3, 247 end Jermauria Rasco (63, 6.5, 4).

“We’ve scratched and clawed all the way through (this season),” LaCourture said. “We never wanted to get too high or too low.”

While the popular morsel of news during the bowl prep period has been the nod toward an Irish quarterback, maybe even a bigger but less advertised switch could be Mike McGlinchey’s move as the starter at right guard ahead of the injured Christian Lombard (back).

“From my perspective, we’re not going to see a drop-off with (McGlinchey) in there,” Kelly said. “We should be in pretty good shape.

“We definitely dipped a little bit relative to November in terms of … we would have liked to have run the ball better; more effectively.

“The two games that hit you, where we didn’t finish off drives – Northwestern and Louisville – it wasn’t attributed to one thing (like). It wasn’t, ‘Hey, the offensive line couldn’t grind it out.’ We fumbled the ball here; fumbled the ball there. I’m pretty confident with this group, and with (McGlinchey) in there, we’ll be able to control the ball when we need to.”

Confident? Wonder why?

Tarean Folston and the ND run game will be key against LSU. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)