Analysis: Notre Dame's Citrus Bowl matchup with LSU has the right kind of juice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There was no reason for Brian Kelly to convolute big-picture significance into Notre Dame’s Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl date with LSU.

The Tigers’ elite prowess in pass-efficiency defense — and just about every other way to play and measure defense — is the not-so-hidden gem in the 12th-ever meeting between the two schools, this one in Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

Crisis or opportunity?

That depends largely on how the 15 practices between Saturday and those at the bowl site after Christmas unfold, particularly for scuffling first-year Irish starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Yet for a team that opens its 2018 season Sept. 1 against one of the nation’s best pass defenses in 2017 (third nationally) and an elite defensive coordinator in Michigan’s Don Brown, a run at LSU, its prodigious coordinator Dave Aranda and the nation’s No. 9 pass-efficiency defense in the 1 p.m. ABC-TV showcase will offer Kelly a valuable progress report on the state of the QB position.

“It's really about getting into a consistency of rhythm and throwing the ball on time,” the Irish eighth-year head coach said Sunday of his junior QB, who labored against that nation’s No. 77 pass defense in ND’s regular-season finale, a 38-20 loss at Stanford on Nov. 25.

“And we're going to have to go to work on that over the next couple weeks and get into some form of consistency in the passing game that allows us a little bit more success in throwing the football. I know Brandon will do whatever's necessary to get to that end.”

Wimbush paired a .498 season completion percentage and the nation’s 87th-best pass-efficiency rating (122.3) with the second-most prolific rushing season ever for an ND quarterback (765 yards) and the most rushing TDs by one (14).

LSU represents the eighth team with a pass-efficiency rate of No. 41 or better nationally he’s faced this season. As a team, the 17th-ranked Tigers (9-3) become the seventh team in the final College Football Playoff rankings that No. 14 Notre Dame (9-3) will play this season.

“It's a huge opportunity,” Irish senior rover Drue Tranquill said of ND’s first clash with the Tigers since its 31-28 Music City Bowl victory in Nashville, Tenn., three seasons ago.

“I don't think it's going to make or break or define our season. I think when you look historically, the SEC has been dominant over the past 10 years.

“And so to have an opportunity to go against a second SEC opponent this year — they are going to be physical, they are going to be tough and they are going to have playmakers all over the field. And we're going to have to match that.”

Seven current Irish players saw action in that Music City Bowl victory, including three as starters — offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti and linebacker Nyles Morgan. Those who saw action in a reserve role were cornerback Nick Watkins, tight end Durham Smythe, defensive end Jay Hayes and linebacker Greer Martini.

Tranquill had suffered the first of two ACL tears in back-to-back seasons a month earlier, so he took in the last LSU game from the sidelines.

“I'll say this lightly, because I grew up loving Auburn, so I don't like LSU,” Tranquill, ND’s third-leading tackler, said. “(As) I grew up, my parents always raised me not to like LSU. So to have the opportunity to go against them, it's an honor, and I really look forward to it.”

The Irish do have some familiarity with the Tigers’ quarterback from the 2014 season, but not from the bowl game. Danny Etling was a sophomore at Purdue when he faced the Irish that season.

He went 27-of-40 for 234 yards and two TDs with two picks in a 30-14 Shamrock Series win for the Irish in Indy. Etling transferred to LSU after that season and sat out 2015.

“He is a different quarterback,” Kelly said. “I only got a chance to see him a little bit on some clips, but I like the way they're moving him around. He doesn't stay in the pocket.

“He's much more athletic than people have ever kind of credited him for. But I thought he's done a really nice job this year. I'll get a chance to see more of him.”

When he does, he’ll see that Etling’s No. 13 standing in the national pass-efficiency ratings (155.3) and LSU’s nation’s fewest turnovers lost (8) are the strong suits for a Tiger offense that is a middling 54th in total offense and 72nd in scoring.

The Tigers have an unusual distinction of playing a 12-game schedule in which half of the opposing coaches won’t return to their respective schools in 2018, with five of those six being fired/forced to resign. That includes the last three teams they’ve played —Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

First-year head coach Ed Orgeron appeared to be moving into similar hot water after his then 12-ranked Tigers got blown out, 37-7 at Mississippi State, on Sept. 16, then lost at home to Troy, 24-21, two weeks later.

But a 17-16 escape at Florida the next week, a game in which former Irish QB Malik Zaire was stowed on the Gators bench, kicked off a seven-game surge to end the season, with a marquee 27-23 victory over Auburn included in it, and a 24-10 road loss to Alabama as the only setback.

Alabama’s move from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, and the committee’s steadfastness in believing Stanford (9-4) and weak-résumé Washington (10-2) were better teams at the end of the season funneled the Irish into this particular bowl matchup.

The former development pushed Notre Dame out of a trajectory to play in the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl in Orlando, the rebranded game in which ND played in 2011 against Florida State and lost, 18-14 (Champs Sports Bowl).

ND’s appearance in the Citrus Bowl presented by Overton’s is its first ever in that game and ND’s 16th different bowl among its now 36th bowl appearance overall.

The Irish needed to pass Washington, Stanford and TCU all in the final CFP rankings to get to a New Year’s Six berth. Only TCU among them dropped behind the Irish, largely because of how the Irish were playing in November.

Kelly acknowledged the November fade Sunday and some of the reasons behind it, but said a physical wearing down wasn’t among them.

“I think we were worn down emotionally and mentally,” he said. “We'll continue to make strides physically. There were no questions about where we were physically as a football team. We were emotionally and mentally — we had a long year.

“I remember addressing the team before the Monday of the Stanford week, with so much on the line and a 10th win and a New Year's Six, and it looked like they were in biology class.

“They were staring at me like, ‘Really?’ There was no juice. There was no excitement. It's a long year, and I've got to do a better job of pacing that out for them.”

Kelly said he was already plotting ways to fix that on the plane on the way home from the Stanford game in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I think there are some things that I can help them with in terms of our leaders and our captains to take that on themselves, because it can't come from us,” he said. “They've got to be able to do it. How we can keep them energized emotionally and mentally during the long stretch of games that we had.

“Sometimes you just say, well, maybe if you scheduled better on the back end, you'd be a little bit fresher. So I can't control that. The games are already scheduled. But I have to look at ways in our program where we can keep our guys fresher.”

So far keeping the Irish players invested in the postseason hasn’t been a problem. But former Irish All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith’s career-threatening knee injury the last time the Irish played in a bowl — at the end of the 2015 season against Ohio State — has given a handful of top pro prospects pause about playing in non-playoff postseason games.

“Nobody has approached me about it,” Kelly said of his current players. “I've met with all of my captains (Sunday), and none of them gave me any indication that that would be the case. We'll deal with any individual situations if they arise, but nobody has approached me about it.

“We'll proceed as if everybody's going to play. If there are any individual cases that need to be dealt with, we'll support our players 100 percent.”

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) talks with head coach Brian Kelly after throwing an interception during ND's 38-20 loss to Stanford, Nov. 25 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)