January 2, 2018
By John Heisler
Remember those questions the Citrus Bowl between Notre Dame and LSU (both 9-3 in the regular season) figured to answer Monday at Camping World Stadium?
Here are responses Irish fans uncovered on New Year’s Day in Orlando:
1. Who will catch passes for the Irish? It’s safe to say now—and say it emphatically--that the answer is junior Miles Boykin. The long-limbed Irish junior has toiled mostly in the background this year (nine regular-season receptions, one for a score), while receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson made the highlight reels. With Claypool and Stepherson not in uniform Monday, Boykin stepped into a starting role, made the biggest individual play of the game with the result on the line—a play that will go down as maybe the greatest clutch reception in Irish bowl history—and won game MVP honors. Not bad. While they may have done it in relative obscurity, imagine how many times in practice backup quarterback Ian Book and Boykin repped what became the game-winning play. Way too many to count. On Monday it counted for real. Boykin apparently was such an unlikely hero that the Baton Rouge Advocate spelled his first name Myles in two different stories in its Tuesday edition.
2. Who will make tackles for the Tigers? LSU missed a trio of key defenders in the Citrus Bowl, but that did not seem to have a huge effect on the contest. The Tigers, like a handful of late-season opponents, loaded up against the Irish run game, did their best to make life difficult for Josh Adams and generally dared the Irish quarterbacks to make enough plays to win. Notre Dame prospered with 31-yard runs by Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams and a key 21-yard scramble by Book, while Adams was limited to 44 yards on 15 carries (his longest an 11-yarder). Adams also had three receptions--and no Irish player had more.
3. Which Notre Dame team will show up—the one that roared through October or the one that lost two of its last three games in November? It was a slow start for the Irish, but the end result probably was somewhere between their October showings and the November slide. Both teams obviously had done their defensive homework and that result was a 3-0 halftime score. The last two series of the game—one on offense that produced a touchdown and the other on defense—won the game over the final two minutes for Notre Dame.
4. Will the Irish clean up their turnovers? Notre Dame didn’t win the turnover battle. LSU, after only eight regular-season turnovers, had none against the Irish. Meanwhile, Notre Dame had two—a special team gaffe on an LSU punt and a Book interception in the third period. But it didn’t matter. Book and Boykin took care of that.
5. Will Josh Adams resemble his October version again? Adams still didn’t look like he had the explosiveness Irish fans came to love during his midseason run into the Heisman Trophy conversation. The problem is that once Adams gained the attention of opposing defensive coordinators, game plans generally began with the intent of stopping him and figuring out what other Notre Dame players could cause problems. With all due respect to the Notre Dame depth chart, it’s unlikely the Tigers spent (any?) time worrying about Book and Boykin.
6. What do the rumblings about LSU offensive coordinator Brian Canada mean? Reports from Baton Rouge after the game suggested Canada’s future at LSU remains uncertain. Frankly, the final score made the subject irrelevant to the Notre Dame faithful.
7. How will this football game impact Notre Dame’s offseason? With the Irish victory, a 10-win campaign (second in three seasons) looks like a great springboard to the future. And in a meaningful and public way it certifies all the offseason changes made at Notre Dame. Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have to like the idea that for the next year in recruiting conversations they can talk about Notre Dame coming off a New Year’s Day bowl victory.
8. If the Irish have had more than a month to find their juice and get healthy, what will that mean Monday? Bowl games are complicated. Football teams hardly ever are the same ones fans saw a month earlier in their most recent previous on-field appearances. In between came time off, final exams and a handful of pre-bowl practices. Then there’s the on-site challenge of meshing bowl prep workouts and film sessions with trips to Universal Studios, go-kart racing and other fun and games—a mixture players don’t experience during the regular season. Kelly made certain his team knew how important getting to 10 wins was to the Irish program. It was all about finishing, a word Kelly used constantly.
9. How much does this game mean to Notre Dame’s players? The Irish weren’t going to suggest they were desperate to win the Citrus Bowl game, but it’s not hard to gauge the level of disappointment that would have wafted through the program today for veterans like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson if Notre Dame had come up short. But anyone anywhere near the Irish locker room after the game could not have missed the noise level of the celebration that ensued. It seemed eminently appropriate that McGlinchey and Nelson and the other Irish seniors got to leave that locker room with Citrus Bowl champion hats and shirts. They won’t take those token gifts for granted. As Kelly noted, at New Year’s Day bowl games, the winners “get good stuff.”
10. What does it mean that LSU is back in the same bowl game for a second straight year and that the Tigers stayed late in Baton Rouge and didn’t come to Orlando until Thursday? Again, the final score suggested Notre Dame fans spent zero time worrying about this subject.
11. How much will this game mean to Danny Etling? For a while Monday it looked like the fifth-year LSU quarterback and Hoosier product (Terre Haute), with all his Notre Dame family ties, might end up some sort of storybook hero. He might well have ended up the game MVP had the Tigers prevailed. Etling completed 19 of 33 passes for 229 yards and two TDs, added 21 rushing yards and ran the Tiger offense without a turnover. After the Irish took their late lead, Etling still had a chance to lead his team to victory. He threw six passes over 56 seconds and none of them found their mark.
12. How much has Brandon Wimbush improved his game? This question remains difficult to answer. Wimbush completed a bomb to St. Brown for 35 yards on the game’s first play and he ran for 31 yards on Notre Dame’s second possession. But not much else good happened for the Irish junior. After three straight Wimbush-led three and outs by the Notre Dame offense, the Irish coaches went to Book and Wimbush never saw the field again. Kelly said after the game the Irish intended to play both quarterbacks, yet Book and his bootlegs clearly proved more effective, at least on this day. Book’s 14-of-19 passing numbers (164 yards) were as efficient as those in any Irish game in 2017 (and 2018).