Irish win Music City Bowl on last-second field goal
Brian Hartnett | Tuesday, December 30, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Receiving the ball on its own 15-yard line with 5:41 on the clock in the fourth quarter and the score tied at 28 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field on Tuesday, Notre Dame found itself in a situation it had been in before.
The team had seen three of its last four games — Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville — come down to the final minutes and in one case, even overtime.
Tuesday’s game followed much the same script. In this case, however, the result was different — the Irish (8-5) came out on the winning end, topping No. 23 LSU, 31-28, on a last-second 32-yard field goal by senior kicker Kyle Brindza to end their season on a high note.
“Anytime you get a victory in the manner that we got it because it was an important component that we were not finishing off … when you work so hard at something, you need to start to see the benefits of that,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “And [the players] were working hard, they were preparing hard, but they weren’t seeing the benefits of that. And that was, they weren’t seeing the wins.
“It allows us to continue to do our work, and now they know that if they continue to work the same way, they’re going to see the benefits of their work, and that is winning football games.”
The benefits of Tuesday’s game extended beyond the victory, Notre Dame’s first over an SEC opponent since 2005. The Irish utilized a two-quarterback system, powerful rushing attack and timely stops from a depleted defense to best the Tigers (8-5, 4-4 SEC).
Notre Dame gained 263 rushing yards on 51 attempts against an LSU defense that had allowed the fourth-fewest points nationally entering the game. Of those yards, 96 came from sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire, making his first career start, and 73 came from sophomore running back Tarean Folston, as the two combined to carry the ball 45 times. Zaire added 96 passing yards, while senior quarterback Everett Golson threw for 90 yards in the air.
“Our approach was control the clock,” Folston said. “I feel like that’s what we did. … I feel like we did a great job of ball security, keeping the ball out of their hands.
“… We knew the game plan was going to be run-heavy. We knew that it wasn’t going to be just straight big plays. We had to take the three- and four-yard carries and keep that clock moving.”
The Irish set the tone with their first and last drives, which produced 10 points, 29 plays and 137 yards in 13:37 of game time. Notre Dame held the ball for a total of 37 minutes in the contest.
“They were the best drives we had this season in terms of exerting our will on our opposition against a very good football team in LSU, controlling the clock,” Kelly said. “We dictated the outcome by controlling the football.”
Notre Dame’s first drive, which featured Zaire exclusively behind center, ended with a 12-yard touchdown pass from the Kettering, Ohio, native to sophomore receiver Will Fuller, who tied a program single-season record with his 15th touchdown catch.
The final drive for the Irish featured four quarterback changes before Brindza’s successful attempt. Golson took over at Notre Dame’s 42-yard line and completed passes of 14, 16 and eight yards before Zaire came in for the game’s final three plays.Kelly said the team relished the opportunity to prove itself in the final stretches of the game.
“They played hard, they played for four quarters and really, the mantra for us was, ‘Get this in the fourth quarter and find a way to win,’” he said.
In between successful drives to open and end the game, the Irish kept the ball and the clock constantly moving.
They matched LSU score for score, responding with a seven-yard touchdown run by Zaire in the early second quarter after the Tigers had knotted the game at seven, a six-yard touchdown run by Folston after LSU had tied it at 14 in the second quarter and a 50-yard run off a sweep by junior receiver C.J. Prosise when LSU had taken its first lead of the game in the third quarter.
Prosise said it was imperative for the team to stick to Kelly’s game plan, even after going down one score.
“When [Kelly] said trust him, that’s what everybody did,” he said. “[We wanted to] get to the fourth quarter, and then we gotta make plays as a team, and I think that’s what we did.”
Defensively, a Notre Dame unit that had allowed a combined 178 points in its last four games, all losses, surrendered big plays but stopped the Tigers at opportune times.
The Irish allowed three touchdown drives that took up a combined 38 seconds. Two of these touchdown drives came courtesy of Tigers freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who returned Brindza’s kickoff 100 yards in the second quarter and had an 89-yard touchdown run in the middle of the third quarter. Another quick strike came on a 75-yard touchdown pass from LSU sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings to sophomore tight end DeSean Smith at the start of the third quarter.
“If LSU has the football with [Fournette], he’s a game-changer,” Kelly said.
The Irish, however, kept LSU at bay with several key stops. Notre Dame’s defense held the Tigers on the goal line with seven seconds to go in the first half after LSU attempted a fake field goal with junior holder Brad Kragthorpe and blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt with 11:56 left in the game.
LSU head coach Les Miles said all indications pointed toward the fake field goal attempt being a touchdown. The initial ruling that the football did not cross the goal line stood after review.
“Just before the half, they tell me that with all the review I could get from the field, that the ball crosses the goal line,” Miles said. “And in fact, if that’s the case, then we need a better way to communicate that to us. We need to see it better on the field.”
With the defense’s recent struggles, the return of contributors like junior defensive lineman Sheldon Day and graduate student cornerback Cody Riggs on Tuesday provided much-needed support to the beleaguered unit, Kelly said.
“We were beat up and tired in the wake of the season,” he said. “So getting the [returning players] there really rejuvenated our football team, particularly our defense, and quite frankly we kept our defense off the field.
“I did a better job coaching, and I think that helped in this respect, that we didn’t have to put our defense in some tough positions.”
While Kelly was quick to emphasize that the win had more implications for the 2014 season than it did for the 2015 season, the victory establishes the Irish as a team that should be able to compete nationally, Folston said.
“It just shows that we can compete with the best, and we can beat the best, as long as we execute and stick to the game plan,” he said.
Notre Dame will return to game action when the Irish host Texas at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 5, 2015.