Dec. 31, 2017
By John Heisler
It's now about 24 hours until football teams from Notre Dame and LSU (both 9-3 in the regular season) take the field at Camping World Stadium for the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day.
Here are the most relevant questions Irish (and LSU) fans hope will be answered Monday afternoon:
- Who will catch passes for the Irish? Notre Dame's offensive lineup is missing productive wide-outs Kevin Stepherson (suspension) and Chase Claypool (injury) and tight end Alize Mack (suspension) who will not be in uniform against LSU. That trio combined for 67 receptions for 927 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017. Behind Equanimeous St. Brown, they qualified as the second, third and fourth pass-catchers in terms of receptions -- and Stepherson led the team in TD catches. In their absence, who will step up to make some plays with Irish signal-caller Brandon Wimbush? Says Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long, "It's an exciting opportunity for these young guys to show what they can do. They know what we're trying to do -- they just haven't been out on the field."
- Who will make tackles for the Tigers? Sticking with that same theme when the Irish have the ball, LSU will be missing junior All-America linebacker Arden Key and senior inside linebackers Donnie Alexander and Cory Thompson. That trio combined for 24 starts, 127 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss (for 80 yards), 11 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries in 2017. LSU's printed depth chart lists three true freshmen as projected starters Monday -- K'Lavon Chaisson (25 tackles, three starts) at linebacker, Tyler Taylor (30 tackles, four starts) at middle linebacker and Grant Delpit (52 tackles, nine starts) at free safety. What does all that mean to Long as he attacks the Tigers? Says Long: "It's another great defense we get to face--and we've faced a bunch of them."
- 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 seems like yesterday when Notre Dame showed up third in the first two weeks of the College Football Playoff rankings. Then came November and a pair of defeats that knocked the Irish out of a chance for at least a New Year's Six bowl game. So, after a month away from competition, who will the Irish be on Monday afternoon?
- Will the Irish clean up their turnovers? Notre Dame made a living at forcing opponent mistakes -- and playing clean itself -- through the first two months of the season (plus-11 in turnovers through eight games). Then the turnover bug came back to bite the Irish in losses to Miami and Stanford (a combined minus-seven in that category). Considering LSU committed only eight turnovers all season (four of those in an early season loss to Troy), Notre Dame shouldn't expect much help in that category -- and it may be incumbent on the Irish to play clean to win.
- Will Josh Adams resemble his October version again? In four October games Adams averaged 167.5 rushing yards per game. In four November games that number dropped to 54.2 per game. So, has a month off recharged Adams' batteries so he can regain that October form? Irish coaches suggest he has looked like his former self in workouts. Said LSU coach Ed Orgeron of the Irish run game, "I can't keep my eyes off the left tackle. Their pulling guards have destroyed some outside linebackers. It's a big offensive line coming right at you. We're gonna have to tackle -- this will be a battle in the trenches for 60 minutes." Adds Long of Adams, "He's a unique back, he's a product of what he does working every day. It's been a lot of fun watching him grow. He's had as good a bowl prep as anyone--the explosion is back in him after finals were over." Says LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda: "You have to backtrack and look at how Notre Dame sees an opponent and why they did what they do--and then infer how they see you. The challenge for our outside guys is both the pass-rush part and setting edges. Notre Dame does a great job of pins and pulls with their big offensive line."
- What do the rumblings about LSU offensive coordinator Brian Canada mean? There have been reports from Baton Rouge this week that this will be Canada's final game as Tiger offensive coordinator. Orgeron has said nothing other than to confirm Canada remains in his current role. If the reports are legitimate, will the LSU players rally around their coach? Will Canada think the Citrus Bowl serves as an audition for his next job? And what does all that mean for Mike Elko's Notre Dame defense, if anything? Says Elko, "Our biggest challenge? You've got to get your feet set in the ground because they're extremely athletic. If you are not aligned properly and not set they will really take advantage of you. Matt Canada drives defensive coordinators crazy. There are lots of shifts and motion--they make it hard to set edges, to make sure you're not getting out-flanked. Their two backs are extremely explosive -- I don't know why they haven't gotten the national headlines. Those two are really, really talented -- big, strong and physical."
- How will this football game impact Notre Dame's offseason? If the Irish win, a 10-win campaign looks like a great springboard to the future. If the Irish lose, critics will point to three losses in the last four Notre Dame outings. Fair or not, there's a certain perception that this game counts for a lot in the Irish camp.
- If the Irish have had more than a month to find their juice and get healthy, what will that mean Monday? It's hard to get a handle on exactly what happened late in the Irish regular season. Did the demanding schedule of games simply wear down the Notre Dame team both mentally and physically? If so, has a month to prepare and regain some measure of health put the Irish in position to look the part of the team that won eight of its first nine games?
- How much does this game mean to Notre Dame's players? These two football teams presumably have enough pride that there won't be a question about the Irish and Tigers playing hard. But, when the football game is on the line, which roster will have that extra push to make some late-game plays when the outcome is on the line? And which team ultimately is more committed to doing what it takes to reach that 10-win mark? Says Irish captain Drue Tranquill: "LSU is a great team. We believe we're a great team as well." Says Irish head coach Brian Kelly, "Our football team has really grown this year -- and put themselves in position to build even after this game. Double digits, getting to 10 wins Monday would be a big accomplishment."
- 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? Notre Dame left for Orlando the day after Christmas, with temperatures in the single digits in South Bend when the team charter lifted off. Meanwhile, LSU, certainly familiar with the Orlando environment after playing in this same bowl game a year ago (and defeating Louisville), stayed and worked out in Baton Rouge for two more days and didn't arrive in town until early Thursday night. Does any of that affect the game? Says Irish offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey of the Tigers, "They have playmakers all over the field and you can see it all over tape. They line up across from you and see if you can beat ‘em."
- What much will this game mean to Danny Etling? The fifth-year LSU quarterback is a Hoosier product (Terre Haute) who played two seasons at Purdue and presumably has some familiarity with Notre Dame football. So, is this just another game for Etling or does it rank as something special to him given his heritage?
- How much has Brandon Wimbush improved his game? Notre Dame's first-year starter at quarterback led his team to nine wins, showed a better ability to be productive running the ball (765 rushing yards, team-leading 14 rushing TDs) than any quarterback in school history and yet maybe was not as consistent throwing the football (.498 completion percentage) as Irish fans might have hoped. Kelly suggested Sunday that a snap of the finger is not going to immediately transform Wimbush into a 75 percent passer. But Kelly also noted that a deep dive into video displays where Wimbush has been most successful in the passing game. Expect Notre Dame to know what those plays are and how to best utilize them. Says Long, "There's great room for improvement with Brandon. And any time you have a chance to run the ball with power the way we did alleviates a lot of other problems. He had some rough bouts and kept his head in it and still found a way to win. His best football is ahead of him." Says Kelly, "He wills his way to make plays -- it's up to us as coaches to put him in position to succeed."