Notre Dame produces a redeeming victory

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For now it sits as an isolated moment in time, a shock-the-college-football-world counterpunch that could turn into something more powerful.

Redemption is nice. Resurrection is sweeter.

And Notre Dame’s plagiarizing 22nd-ranked LSU’s identity and using it against the Tigers in a 31-28 triumph in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field Tuesday gives the Irish a shot at both.

“It certainly allows us to recruit down in this area without having to apologize for who we are,” an almost giddy ND coach Brian Kelly remarked.

And who the Irish (8-5) were Tuesday, playing tag-team quarterbacks against the nation’s eighth-best defense and most proficient in the FBS against the pass, was nothing like the one hemorrhaging respect and hope through the ugliest and longest losing streak (4) of Kelly’s career.

That’s right down to the final detail, a 32-yard field goal as time expired from senior Kyle Brindza, who had made just three of his previous nine attempts coming in. It was the seventh game-winning field goal to end a game in ND history and the first in 11 seasons.

“That’s the way he came into Notre Dame,” Kelly puffed of a player who rightfully came into the season with All-America aspirations and couldn’t even wrangle up the team’s MVP on special teams from a wide receiver (C.J. Prosise) who makes tackles on kickoffs.

In handing LSU coach Les Miles just the third non-conference loss in 48 games over 10 seasons in Baton Rouge, La., Notre Dame still showed plenty of flaws.

Not the least of which was allowing three LSU scores that combined to 38 seconds — a 75-yard pass from passing-challenged QB Anthony Jennings to John Diarse, a 100-yard kickoff return from LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette and an 89-yard burst up the middle by Fournette on a running play, the latter two Music City Bowl records.

But Kelly and his staff came up with a brilliant game plan, which the Irish executed to near perfection that included playing keepaway from an LSU team (8-5) that came in ranked fourth in the nation in time of possession.

The Irish won that battle 37:00 to 23:00, ran up a 77-52 advantage in offensive plays and rushed for 5.2 yards a carry and running up a rushing total (263 yards) that fell just 18 yards short of its season high set back in August against Rice.

The possession dominance included holding the ball for the first 7:56 of the game – the longest Irish scoring drive of the year and culminated by a 12-yard catch and sprint to the end zone by Will Fuller from starting QB and bowl MVP Malik Zaire — and the final 5:41, ending in Brindza’s heroics.

But not until Miles called timeout twice to try to ice him.

“I said, ‘Listen, we’re going to get you into the fourth quarter.’ ” Kelly said to his players. “’Trust the plan. I’ll get you to the fourth quarter. I promise you that. And then you’ve got to go make plays. And these guys make plays.”

That included an Irish offensive line that had been a largely unpleasant surprise for most of the season. Tuesday, with sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey shuffling in or his first start because of an injury to Christian Lombard, they were the soul of ND’s uprising.

They played power, with freshman tight end Tyler Luatua getting his first start of the season as a second tight end, and they pass-protected, keeping both Zaire and senior Everett Golson from getting sacked.

“That’s what we knew we had to do,” said Irish senior offensive guard Nick Martin. “It’s the pride of Notre Dame offensive line football. The talent that’s been going through Notre Dame over the years, it’s been all about pride and that really come out today.”

Until Tuesday most of the positive headlines about ND’s offensive line tradition had to do with Martin’s older brother Zack, a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys who made the Pro Bowl. But Zack’s replacement at left tackle, junior Ronnie Stanley, made an impassioned speech to his teammates before the game.

“He was more vocal that he’s ever been,” Kelly said. “It kind of lit a fire under everybody.”

They also navigated Kelly’s musical quarterbacks, sometimes tagging in and out within series.

“I’ll be honest, there were a few times where we didn’t know who was in the game until we heard the voice on the snap count,” Martin said. “Since we don’t huddle, there were a few times it was like that.

“But those guys did a great job of handling going in and out. One of the biggest things I noticed was when one was in, the other one could barely contain himself on the sidelines in enjoying the other’s success.

“They came in, they were mentally ready. They were playing together. They played as a family.”

Zaire’s first collegiate start began inauspiciously enough with a timeout to sort through some confusion. But 15 plays and 66 yards later, Fuller was in the end zone with his school-record-tying 15th TD reception of the season.

Golson saw his first action on ND’s third series, and both played large roles in the final Irish scoring drive.

Zaire, with 20 career pass attempts on his college résumé coming in, went 12-of-15 for 96 yards in the air and one TD. He was ND’s leading rusher with 96 yards on 22 carries and seven-yard scoring run in the second quarter.

And he threw a block later in the period to spring running back Tarean Folston for a six-yard TD run.

“More like a screen,” Kelly jabbed with a chuckle.

The starter for ND’s first 12 games this season, Golson, meanwhile, was 6-for-11 passing for 90 yards and one rush for six yards.

Each of them contributed to the Irish converting 11 of 17 third downs against a team that ranked 15th nationally in third-down defense (.333 by opponents coming in), and that included all three conversions on the winning drive.

And for the first time since Sept. 13, turnover-prone ND won the turnover battle (1-0). That makes Kelly 25-1 at ND in games where his teams have checked that box and 118-12 in his career.

“We’re going to make that a habit,” Kelly vowed.

A controversial goal-line stand by the Irish helped ND hold onto a 21-14 lead heading into the half.

On fourth and 2, LSU lined up for an apparent 19-yard field goal with 12 seconds left and Kelly screaming from the sidelines, “Watch the fake.”

Idaho State transfer Brad Kragthorpe, the son of LSU QBs coach Steve Kragthorpe, was the holder. And true to Kelly’s prediction he took the snap, stood up and lunged for the end zone, extending the ball toward the goal line as he was tumbling to the ground.

The Pac-12 officiating crew ruled he was down inches short of the end zone. The replay crew confirmed the ruling on the field. Zaire rushed for no gain as the final seven seconds clicked off and the Irish had a stunning 21-14 halftime lead.

“The guy that carried the ball for us said he absolutely scored,” Miles said. “And kids will be kids, but this guy is going to tell the truth.”

When LSU did attempt a field goal for real, early in the fourth quarter, ND defensive lineman Isaac Rochell blocked the would-be 40-yarder from Trent Domingue and the Irish took possession.

LSU would get the ball back one last time and freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan helped coax a punt, holding Jennings to two yards on third-and-three from the Tigers’ 38-yard line.

Greg Bryant fielded the punt on the Irish 15 with 5:41 left.

“We were in the huddle and we said, ‘This is the game right here.’” Kelly said. “ ’We can’t give them the football back. If we do, we’re probably not going to win the football game, so we’ve got to control the tempo.’ ”

That the Irish did and finished with the most points against an LSU defense in a non-conference game since Texas put up 35 in the 2003 Cotton Bowl.

After which, Zaire got emotional on the field as he celebrated with his teammates.

“Just the whole season,” Zaire said of his thoughts at that moments. “Just being a little big frustrated in terms of finding my place on this football team and being able to still stay focused and still stay tuned in when things around me weren’t going the way that I felt like I could contribute to the team.

“Life is about these opportunities that we get and taking advantage of them. And I’m thankful and blessed I got that opportunity. I didn’t want to ruin it for this football team, coming off the losses we had. I think it was important that we took advantage and did whatever it took to get the win.”


Notre Dame players celebrate Tuesday's 31-28 victory over LSU. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)