1. Have y'all at One Foot Down been able to identify anything in particular that has contributed to Everett Golson's decline in the second half of the year? Does it really just come down to turnovers or has he and the offense gotten into a bit of a rut?
All of the above is the correct answer. It was mostly a combination of the turnovers getting inside his head plus having too much weight of the offense placed on his shoulders while the offensive line played inconsistently at times. While the regular season ending USC loss was a terrible effort by Golson it's not like the second half of the season was a complete linear line in the negative. Golson and the offense played very well against a Louisville defense that pound for pound might be stronger than LSU's unit. They put 40 on Northwestern -- which isn't anything to brag about--but 40 points is 40 points. So there was still some good things happening down the stretch (save, USC) but at times the cold factor for the offense was really, really cold in the form of bad turnovers.
2. What does backup Malik Zaire bring to the table, and how much should we expect to see him in the Music City Bowl?
Zaire is still a bit of an enigma right now so it's unclear exactly what he'll bring to the table. Brian Kelly has mentioned before that Zaire and Golson can and will run the same playbook but that doesn't exactly seem to be the case. We've only seen Zaire for very brief moments late in three games this year, plus a little over two quarters against USC. With those snaps he's been much more of a runner than a passer. So it's unclear if he came into the game just how much of the passing game the coaching staff is willing to put in his hands.
No one knows how much Zaire will play, but Kelly has said he'll get some time with Golson. It's still difficult to imagine that Zaire will be getting split reps at this point so if you were going to bet I'd do so on the conservative side. The last time Kelly really made an effort to split reps between quarterbacks was back during the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. That evening saw the Irish quarterbacks throw 3 interceptions, the last in the end zone with a chance to win the game against Florida State. It wasn't pretty.
3. On defense, we've heard about all of the injury depletion in the second half of the year. Do the struggles really just come down to that, and how many of those injured starters will be back next Tuesday?
The injuries played a major role there's no doubt about that. But I also think some other things simply caught up to the defense, namely several bodies that were suspended or lost to injury before the season and opponents slowly adjusting to Notre Dame's scheme.
The Irish lost 7 defenders to graduation and/or the NFL then saw a pair of two-deep possible starters never get healthy in fall camp, plus four others players on defense (including 2 starters) were suspended for the year. This was before up to a dozen more players ended up missing time, almost of all those injuries occurring in the second half of the season.
Senior captain safety Austin Collinsworth hurt his shoulder for about the ninth time and won't play in the bowl game. He dealt with a bum shoulder all season and basically never played much. Senior corner Cody Riggs (he was a graduate transfer from Florida) missed a couple games down the stretch with a foot injury but will play. Starting middle linebacker Joe Schmidt is out with a broken ankle. Starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones is out with a foot injury. Plus a pair of young safeties in Drue Tranquill and Nick Baratti are also out with shoulder injuries. Notre Dame will get back starting defensive tackle Sheldon Day, starting safety Max Redfield, plus a few other young players on the two deep who were banged up against USC.
4. How do you see this matchup versus LSU's defense and run-heavy offense? What gives Notre Dame the best chance to win?
I don't think there's anything too creative that needs to be said about the matchup. Notre Dame needs to slow down and hold their own against the LSU run game. If they can do that, particularly in the red zone, then there's a chance to win. On offense they just need to not look like a circus show shuffling in two quarterbacks and never getting into a rhythm. If the offense avoids that self-inflicted mess and protects the ball the game can stay close.
5. There has been some light talk of Brian Kelly and the NFL, and he's expressed interest in making the jump before. Any fire to that smoke, and how would Irish fans feel about it?
That smoke with Kelly is really light and you'll find most of the fan base really isn't engaged in discussing that topic. It's kind of there in the background as a possibility but there's really been nothing of substance to the tiny bits of rumors. So any drama surrounding Kelly to the NFL feels really overblown.
I think most fans would be a mixture of upset or worried if Kelly moved on to the NFL. Upset in the fact that he made the jump to the pros when no active Notre Dame coach has ever done that before. Upset in the fact that the Irish would be scrambling to find a new head coach in a terrible job market which would not be easy.
There'd be some gratitude for Kelly making Notre Dame stronger and going on his merry way, of course. But I believe most fans think Kelly leaving--especially at this point of his career and so late in the process--would be a really bad omen for the football program. However, like I said I really doubt it's happening. I'd put the odds in the five-percent range.