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The 2018 Citrus Bowl: What To Watch For

What is it about LSU, Notre Dame and coordinator drama?

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s a shame there isn’t more juice to this matchup. LSU and Notre Dame are similarly ranked teams, relatively evenly matched. While this may not be one of the more aesthetically pleasing New Year’s Day bowl games, if you’re a fan of line-of-scrimmage play, this really is a splendid matchup. The Tigers are a slightly favorite, but will still need a strong effort to come away with this thing with win No. 10.

And a tenth win would be significant. LSU hasn’t won that many games since 2013, and only has a relative handful in more than 100 years of football.

But we all know the score when it comes to bowl games. They rarely matter, unless they do, and usually that’s not evident until a year or so later.

The teams that show up are usually fairly different from what we saw in the regular season. Winning and losing generally comes down to the which team is engaged and interested in playing to win the game, versus enjoying the trip.

Victory is nice for the departing veterans, but the team that will return in 2018 is going to forge its own identity. A loss creates a lot of disgruntled fans, but again, can only have value in as many players are back to learn the lessons of it.

Of course, it’s never quite that simple for LSU, is it?

What To Watch For On Saturday Monday

This? Again?

The obvious comparison with all this Matt Canada drama is to the 2014 Music City Bowl matchup with Notre Dame, during which John Chavis, essentially, breached his contract with LSU to take a similar job at Texas A&M, leading to a completely demoralized defense allowing the Irish to run all over them.

Between the long-standing rumors of Canada’s departure, and the handful of days leading up to the bowl game, I have a feeling the players are a bit insulated here. Now, whether Canada has truly put together his best gameplan? That could be another story. Although it would certainly be in his best interest to try and put on one last show before hitting the job market again.

Still, this marks the third time the Tigers and the Irish have matched up in a bowl game with the transition of a coordinator in the backdrop. Most forget that the 2007 Sugar Bowl featured Jimbo Fisher’s departure to become head coach in waiting at Florida State shortly thereafter.

Helluva coincidence.

Graduation Day

Bowl games are always a great time to say goodbye to players —- and in this case it’s going to be the last go-round for a lot of players that were a lot of fun to watch this season: seniors like Russell Gage, Darrel Williams, Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and D.J. Chark, all of whom squeezed just about every ounce of ability that they had, even if they were never all-conference or all-american types.

And of course, there’s Derrius Guice, who has been as great of a representative of LSU as any of us could hope, and a damn good running back, to boot.

Two more seniors that won’t get that last game will be linebackers Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander. With Arden Key also out, that means the Tigers will be missing three starters out of the front seven, against the best offensive front they’ve seen to date.

Of course, that brings us to the other side of the bowl game coin — a glimpse of the beta version of next year’s team. Some combination of Michael Divinity, Tyler Taylor, Jacob Phillips, K’Lavon Chaisson and Ray Thornton will fill in. If I had to guess, Divinity slides in at Thompson’s F-spot, with Taylor and Thornton starting at Rover and Buck/Bench, with Chaisson coming in on obvious pass downs.

Overall, it’s probably an upgrade in terms of talent, but it also puts a lot of youth on the field against a very good offensive line and in a scheme that, as we will detail, can be challenging. Most believe Chaisson could be the team’s next great pass rusher. Mike McGlinchey will be one helluva test at left tackle.

Stick to Basics

Notre Dame is a run-heavy team that struggles throwing it when it has to — not all that dissimilar to LSU. But first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has done a strong job of crafting his play-calling to his talent: the big, strong offensive line, a workhorse tailback in Josh Adams, and an athletic quarterback in Brandon Wimbush.

The best similarity is probably Auburn, albeit without quite the same pace. Notre Dame wants to pull linemen on power plays, while also using the threat of the QB run to create as many gaps as possible in a front.

For a quick refresher, power running involves pulling extra blockers on the play-side, with one serving as a “kick-out” to the end man on the line of scrimmage, and the other leading the back. Meanwhile, the play-side offensive linemen use double-teams and block down to the next level.

The “-O” and “-G” terminology comes from Paul Brown, who used those designation for his off-side (O) and play-side guards (G). The principles of executing these plays, and defending them, don’t really change all that much whether you run them out of the I-formation with 21/22 personnel, or the shotgun with three or four wide receivers in the set.

For the defensive line, on the play-side, execute “block-down, step-down” principals — follow the offensive line’s hands, if they are attempting to release, settle in and replace them in their gap. The idea being for the defensive front to squeeze as many of the play-side gaps as possible.

Likewise, linebackers and defensive ends encountering the pulling/trapping guards are asked to “wrong-arm” the blocker — engage the opposite shoulder from the direction he wants to lead and disrupt the block.

Neither technique is the funnest for defenders, because it generally just involves eating up blocks to allow pursuit to flow to the ball unhindered. Hence, the concern of having to play a lot of young linebackers. But, keep Devin White free from blockers — especially a future pro like Quenton Nelson, and he should really rack up the tackles in a game like this.

The idea of basic execution also applies to the Tiger offense here as well. Notre Dame’s defense is okay, but not great — and vulnerable to the better running attacks it’s seen this year. Coordinator Mike Elko runs a simplified, modified hybrid of a 4-2-4 and 4-3. It doesn’t ask players to make too many checks or change assignments much, so LSU’s shifts aren’t necessarily going to play too much havoc.

But they can still create different blocking matchups with unbalanced formations — and there’s still the delays and false steps that the jet-sweep motion can cause.

So the recipe for success is the same as its been for LSU all year. Mix in the misdirection runs and passes well to soften up the defense, keep Danny Etling in plus passing situations, and let Derrius Guice do his thing.

LSU may have some big questions that will still need to be answered when this game wraps up, but for now, let’s enjoy our last performance of the 2017 Tigers. They’ve earned that.