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Hartnett: Music City Bowl sets blueprint for 2015 (Jan. 2)

| Saturday, January 10, 2015

As I stood on the grass at LP Field after my final game as a college student, a 31-28 Notre Dame victory over LSU in Tuesday’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, I saw an Irish team that appeared happier than it had been in a long time, perhaps since the aftermath of its last-second win over Stanford in October or 31-0 dismantling of Michigan in early September. And it was for good reason.

Notre Dame had been in danger of entering the off-season with five straight losses.

The Irish had been considered major underdogs against a team from the SEC, a conference they haven’t had the greatest track record against in recent years.

A depleted Irish defense had been manhandled over the second half of the season — the 28 points the defense allowed against LSU Tuesday marked the lowest point total it had given up in a game since the 17-14 victory over Stanford on Oct. 4.

But fears were erased and the past forgotten, at least for a while, with Notre Dame’s strong performance against an LSU team that featured one of the top five scoring defenses in the nation.

Now, I’m not a big believer that bowl results carry over to a team’s next game, which usually occurs more than nine months later. In between those two games, there are enough graduation losses, coaching changes, recruiting flips and defections, suspensions and starting rotation adjustments to stall any semblance of momentum a team might have acquired.

But, with that being said, Notre Dame’s performance on Tuesday provided a solid blueprint for the future and credence to the notion that 2015 can and should be “the year” for the Irish.

Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire presented a solid case for why he should be the starter next season, running fearlessly against a physical Tigers defense and racking up 96 yards both on the ground and through the air. While the Notre Dame roster lists Zaire as being the same height as and only 10 pounds heavier than senior quarterback Everett Golson, Zaire held up well on his runs, often pushing for extra yards, and even threw a block on a touchdown run by sophomore running back Tarean Folston.

Although Zaire made his way to the forefront of the quarterback conversation, it would shortsighted not to mention Golson’s contribution. The senior, who had started all 12 regular-season games for the Irish, had multiple clutch passes during Notre Dame’s game-winning drive.

While there is substantial incentive for Golson to look elsewhere if Zaire is named next season’s starter early, Notre Dame certainly can benefit from his veteran presence — after all, we’re talking about a player who, however briefly, was in the Heisman Trophy conversation this season.

Handling of the quarterback position will once again come down to head coach Brian Kelly, who deserves credit for a well-developed game plan against the Tigers. Kelly didn’t ask Zaire to do too much, keeping most of Zaire’s passes short and reads basic. More importantly, he kept the ball in Notre Dame’s hands for 37 minutes, which kept the Irish defense fresh and took away opportunities from LSU’s offense and its all-world freshman running back Leonard Fournette.

With five losses in his fifth year, Kelly’s season was not an unqualified success, but in the season’s final game, Kelly established a formula that could be quite successful next year: keep opposing defenses on their toes with the running threat of Zaire under center, feed the ball to Folston and utilize an offensive line that could be quite dominant, especially if junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns, get the ball to playmaking receivers, such as sophomore Will Fuller, in open space and win the time of possession battle.

And fortunately for the Irish, there is a very low probability that their defense will be ravaged by injury as much as it was this season. That factor, plus the likely possibility that all major defensive contributors minus graduate student cornerback Cody Riggs will return next season, should lessen the pressure on Notre Dame’s offense to outscore all opponents.

These factors make it possible for me to see a bright future in early January. The decisions made by both players and coaches over the next few months will dictate Notre Dame’s short- and long-term future.

But the lessons learned and plays made in a win over a good SEC opponent in Nashville on Tuesday should not be forgotten. If they’re continued and developed over the course of the next few months, 2015 may very well be a happier year for Notre Dame and its fans.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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