1. Brandon Wimbush has made a lot of plays running the ball, but appears to struggle throwing it a little -- is that a fair assessment, or do stats not paint the full picture?
It's a very fair assessment.
Brandon Wimbush is absolutely one of the best running QBs in the country — he ran for 765 yards (12th in the country among QBs) and 14 TDs (ND single-season QB record for rushing touchdowns) this season. He is a lanky guy with long strides, fantastic shiftiness in the open field, and breakaway speed that allows him to go on long runs but also enables him to beat defenders to the pylon in goal line situations.
With that all said, he had a bad season passing the ball. Through the first 7-8 games, Wimbush appeared to be improving at least a little bit passing-wise as the season went on, finding ways to make just enough big plays with his arm to keep defenses honest and allow the rushing game to take over.
But something seemed to change in the final quarter of the season, as Wimbush reverted back to making HUGE mistakes in blowout road losses to Miami and Stanford, looking like a deer in the headlights at times as things seemed to just spiral out of control on the back of his turnovers. How Shane Falco described his biggest fear in The Replacements seems relevant to Wimbush's end of the season:
Brandon Wimbush has the size, speed, and arm strength to be a complete QB and fantastic leader of offensive coordinator Chip Long's offense. But due to mechanical issues that need to be fixed and a tendency to make some big mistakes in big road games, he just isn't there yet, and it's fair to say that if LSU can slow down the Irish running game, they stand a great chance of forcing some turnovers and controlling this game.
2. What would you say have been his strengths and weaknesses as a player this year?
Wimbush's strengths: Running the ball (particularly his ability to turn nothing pass plays into big-time running plays), red zone efficiency, arm strength.
Wimbush's weaknesses: Accuracy/consistency throwing the football, footwork, mechanics, inability to connect on almost any deep ball.
3. The Irish defense allowed more than 200 rushing yards in three of the final four games this season — injuries, or is that something LSU might be able to exploit with Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams?
I think for the most part, those lesser rush defense performances were due to a combination of players being banged up, some injuries, and general fatigue. The Irish defense had a huge turnaround under Mike Elko, but he still didn't have the depth that he would have liked on the defensive side of the ball. So, guys like LB Greer Martini, CB Nick Watkins, DT Jonathan Bonner, and more suffered injuries, and other guys had to pick up the slack despite already playing probably too many snaps, so the unit just got worn down.
Another factor to consider: I think opponents just finally started to figure out Elko's scheme a bit as well. Earlier in the year, there wasn't much to go on in film besides what he did at Wake Forest with completely different personnel. After almost a full season, however, teams like Miami and Stanford were able to figure out some tendencies and put together game plans to beat it.
Another another factor to consider: the rushing offenses ND faced at the end of the year were simply stronger than those faced earlier in the season — Bryce Love was a monster this year, Navy always tears it up on the ground considering running the ball is all they do, etc.
So, I think if ND played those teams earlier in the season, people would have already realized the Irish run defense is good, but not great, as they had seemed through 7+ games.
Simply put: ND's defense looked better due to the back-loaded schedule it faced, especially in terms of rushing offenses. They've got the horses to slow down Guice and Williams, but I am not confident they will be able to shut them down.
4. A lot has been made of the Irish's transition from Brian Van Gorder to Mike Elko this season — what are your thoughts on the scheme differences and results?
The difference has been huge. Elko's scheme is MUCH simpler, and allows the athletes the Irish have on defense to just go out and make plays -- ND has seen major changes in pass rushing production, turnovers, etc. under Elko. VanGorder's defense, meanwhile, was essentially an NFL-level defense in terms of complexities and what it required of players in terms of making reads and thinking through decisions on the field before the snap. This complexity limited younger players with plenty of talent from seeing the field early in their careers.
For example, Nyles Morgan sat behind former walk-on Joe Schmidt for a couple years despite Schmidt clearly not having the athleticism to be successful. He could make the calls VanGorder needed, though, while Morgan wasn't ready to do so. So Morgan sat the bench for two years.
Mike Elko is the real deal, and as he gets more and more talent into his defense over the next couple years via the stellar recruiting he and his staff have been able to pull off, ND will continue to improve from a pretty good defense to a very, very good one that could be the baseline for a potential ND playoff team.
5. It appears that Brian Kelly remains in this really weird limbo with Irish fans, where nobody seems terribly happy with the guy, but not exactly ready to fire him either. Is that more an internet narrative, or close to the truth? Can this game help change that perception any?
It's very close to the truth, but I think most ND fans are more ready to fire Kelly than other fans realize. Most Irish fans, at this point, are sick of the perpetual "okay-but-not-competing-for-playoff-spots-at-the-end-of-the-year" program that Kelly's put together. He's going, on average, about 8-4 every season, with some outlier seasons tossed in (2012, 2016).
There's still a contingent of Notre Dame fans who think that "Brian Kelly 2.0" has done a great job of turning things around and just needs more time. My personal opinion is that that's bullshit, and that the "turnaround" is from a 4-8 season of Kelly's own making. He's proven once again that he can take a potential playoff contender and run them into the ground in November.
As for this game, I don't think it will change the perception of Kelly for ND fans one way or another. ND fans want the Irish to win a NY6 bowl or better, considering Kelly hasn't won anything significant in the postseason in his eight seasons at the helm. We still aren't getting that this season. A Citrus Bowl win makes this season palatable, as 10-3 with a bowl win over a good LSU team is certainly something to build on. But Kelly also had the No. 3 team in the country in early November and just had to take care of business against very beatable teams in Miami and Stanford. He didn't.
Meanwhile, a loss will just give Kelly yet another four-loss season and a finish that involved losing three of four down the stretch. That, unfortunately, is just the norm under this coach, and so I don't think a loss in this game really changes what we already know or how we already feel.
I sincerely hope ND wins decisively and has something great to build on for next season, but I do NOT have confidence in that outcome.