1. Notre Dame had some very impressive wins this year, but closed out with some sour notes against Miami and Stanford. What happened in those two games?
This is the million-dollar question, and I don't think anyone knows for sure. There are a few likely factors, though, that probably contributed to that rough final stretch of the season.
First, although Notre Dame was lucky not to have basically any major injuries this year, by the time they got to the last quarter of the season, a number of Irish players were banged up, including running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, wideout Equanimeous St. Brown, tight end Alize Mack, cornerback Nick Watkins, etc. The schedule ND played this year was ridiculous, with games against teams ranked Nos. 3, 8, 10, 13, 16, and 24 this year. Furthermore, the defense certainly looked worn down after having played really well for the first eight games, which can probably be attributed to a steep-ish drop-off in talent after the starters at positions like defensive line, corner, and safety. The starters just got banged up and had to take too many reps.
Secondly, offensive coordinator Chip Long seemed to get away from what was working for the first two-thirds of the season. ND's offense rose to prominence in 2017 behind a top-10 rushing attack, mainly running quick-hitting, north-south plays with Adams and backups Williams, Tony Jones Jr., and Deon McIntosh, while giving QB Brandon Wimbush a lot of designed running opportunities and being very selective about when and how they were going to pass the ball, considering Wimbush's struggles all season with consistency, accuracy, etc.
The Wake Forest game was the turning point, as the offense seemed much more focused on passing than usual (38 passing attempts to 46 rushing attempts in the game, with some of those rushing attempts definitely being Wimbush scrambles on designed passing plays), and luckily Wake Forest's defense just wasn't up to the task, allowing the Irish to finish with 710 total yards and win a high-scoring affair. But then, against Miami, Navy, and Stanford, it seemed like Long ditched the power running behind his All-American linemen, calling slow-developing running plays, lots of passes, etc. Miami's speed destroyed that, Navy nearly took down the Irish on Senior Day, and Stanford used the additional ND turnovers (because of the increased pass attempts and Wimbush's dwindling confidence) to run away with it in the final quarter.
Finally, this is more or less just what we have come to expect from a Brian Kelly-coached team at this point. At least personally, I've resigned myself to it. Obviously last season was a disaster, but even in other, more successful seasons, Kelly's teams have had a tendency to collapse more often than not at the end of the year, or have failed to finish in their bowl game (or both):
- 2015: ND was a "playoff contender" who barely beat a bad BC team and then blew a close one to Stanford with CFP chances on the line, all before getting pounded by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl
- 2014: ND lost four straight, including a loss to Northwestern at home and an absolute drubbing in the final game against USC
- 2013: ND lost two of their last three, including a loss to a Pittsburgh team that was 4-4 at the time
- 2012: This was obviously a good finish considering ND went 12-0, but we all also know how that season ended in January against Alabama
- 2011: ND lost their season finale and their bowl game
- 2010: Kelly's only strong finish to a season plus postseason, winning three straight and clobbering Miami in the Sun Bowl — but that was 7 years ago and followed a 4-5 start to the year
So, none of us are exactly sure, but injuries/playing a super tough schedule, a sudden cuteness in offensive scheme, and just having Brian Kelly as coach seem to be the big factors here.
2. How are the Irish faithful viewing this matchup?
I think most fans are pretty excited for it. When you have such a disappointing end to the season, you begin to get very pessimistic about the bowl game. This was only magnified by all the rumors that ND was destined for a bowl called the Camping World Bowl.
So, when we found out that our Irish would be playing a good SEC team like LSU in the Citrus Bowl, that was about the best we could ask for (after, of course, the CFP and NY6 bowls that we thought we'd make just a few weeks ago).
I'm excited for the rematch from the Music City Bowl, and think both teams are better than they were that year. It should be a lot of fun to see if ND can run the ball on that Tiger defense, and if the Irish defense can revert to early-season form to stop the LSU rushing attack.
3. What can you tell us about the Irish offense, and who are some of the key players to know?
The running game is everything for this ND team. Josh Adams, when healthy, is an absolute force. He's a tall, lean, strong 6-2 and 225 pounds with an incredible ability to break tackles and pick up yards after contact (one of the best in the country, in fact). Furthermore, the guy has a second gear when he gets through a hole. He led the country in runs of 60-plus yards this season, racking up 1,386 yards total on 7.3 yards per carry, with 9 touchdowns. He's absolutely the guy LSU must contain.
After Adams, there is still a whole stable of backs who have run very well. That can at least partially be attributed to All-Americans like tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson — the latter, in my opinion, being the best offensive lineman in the country this year. But still, there's talent past Adams, so if guys like Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr., and Deon McIntosh (924 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns combined), can get going, the ND offense will still be okay.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush is also fantastic running the football. With 766 yards and 14 TDs (ND single-season QB record), he's easily one of the best running QBs in the country, and can really make defenses pay when he decides to tuck it and run it himself.
Passing the ball, there isn't much of a threat at all. Receivers Kevin Stepherson, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Chase Claypool are all very talented and all can be great vertical threats with their speed (Stepherson), size (Claypool), or both (St. Brown), but without a consistent passer throwing them the ball, LSU DBs shouldn't have to worry too much. They do need to fear Wimbush's raw abilities a bit, though. For how much he has struggled, he has a cannon for an arm and has made a few randomly-beautiful passes this season.
4. How about on defense?
Up front, Jerry Tillery is a behemoth in the middle and should provide a great test for the LSU interior offensive line. Defensive ends Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara are all young, athletic sophomores who have been good at getting to the QB and wreaking havoc on passing downs (at least, relative to ND pass rushers the last few years).
In the middle, Te'von Coney is definitely ND's best linebacker, with great speed and strength and a nasty streak that made him the team's leading tackler. Drue Tranquill plays "Rover," a linebacker-safety hybrid position that allows him to stuff the run, help in coverage, and generally fly around the field making plays, which he does very well. Finally, Julian Love was a star at cornerback this year for ND, with 17 passes broken up, 3 interceptions (2 returned for touchdowns), and 62 tackles, which led all non-linebackers for the Irish.