Irish, Tigers prepare for New Year’s Day clash at Citrus Bowl
ORLANDO, Fla — Since the beginning of the College Football Playoff, teams competing in other bowl games have often found themselves competing for little more than pride and a stronger segue into the next season.
But at 9-3, both No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 17 LSU will be competing for a little more than that when they take the field at Camping World Stadium on Monday in the Citrus Bowl — reaching the 10-win threshold.
“You have 120-plus teams all coming for the same goal, which is to be one of those four teams. If you’re not able to get that, you’re still on the same mission after this game, as to keep working towards a national championship,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “ … If you look at it in its totality, our football team has certainly grown. They’ve put themselves in a position where they can continue to build even after this game.
“Ten games [won] is usually the mark in college football. Everybody is looking to get to double digits, so it would be a big accomplishment to get to 10.”
But how the Irish (9-3) and Tigers (9-3, 6-2 SEC) get to that 10-win threshold will be very different. For Notre Dame, game-planning for the Tigers starts with defensive communication in order to deal with a unique offensive style coupled with elite athletes.
“Nothing compares to it,” Kelly said of LSU’s offense. “You get your occasional kick the line here and xerox check it over to this side, but the amount of shifting and motioning, it’s difficult to defend. You have to be on it. Your safeties have to be able to check, and the communication is really the key here. When you’re making these checks, you’ve got 18 to 22 year olds trying to communicate to a bunch of guys who’ve got a hand in the dirt, and it becomes problematic at times.”
Defensively, however, the Tigers present a similar challenge to an SEC foe the Irish have already played this season that gave them problems.
“[They’re] very similar to Georgia in their defensive presentation: three-down [lineman], aggressive off the edge, press coverage,” Kelly said. “They’re really dictating how they’re going to play you. They’re not going to sit back — it’s not a bend-but-don’t-break defense. This is an in-your-face, physical, fast defense. They’re going to force you into errors.”
On the other sideline, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said the Tigers will have their hands full with the Notre Dame rushing attack, particularly against the talent of graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and the rest of the Irish offensive line given the Tigers will be without three of their starting linebackers — junior Arden Key and seniors Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander — in the game.
“The left guard and left tackle, can’t keep my eyes off of them,” Orgeron said. “They’re the best combo I’ve ever been against. They’re not only good players, they’re really well coached. … And then also, the pulling guards. When those pulling guards come around, they are very, very physical, and they have destroyed some outside linebackers. So we have our work cut out for us in that [linebacker] position.”
Another concern Kelly said he has doesn’t deal directly with opponent on the other sideline: the time between Monday’s matchup and the last time Notre Dame took the field for a game. The layoff, Kelly said, will make staying sharp in the fundamentals especially important for the Irish.
“I think my biggest concern when you have a layoff is … tackling,” Kelly said. “It’s playing fast. It’s the fundamentals. It’s special teams that scare the heck out of me. Those are the little things that, when you’re away from it for a month, you’re really focusing on. Because you could spend hours looking at every play because you’ve got every game [on film]. You’ve got a full volume of games to look at. This is about blocking and tackling and fundamentals and special teams, those are the things that I stay up thinking about.”
But that is not to say the layoff comes without its advantages. Orgeron noted the dynamic running ability of Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush as “dangerous,” and Kelly said the time off enabled his coaching staff to go back, study film and find Wimbush’s strengths to pinpoint and feature in Monday’s contest.
“I don’t think that all of a sudden he’s going to become a 75–80-percent completion percentage guy. Those are the things he’s going to work on in the offseason,” Kelly said of Wimbush. “But … as we went through the year and got a chance to study the things he does well — he’s thrown seven touchdown passes on drive routes to no interceptions, things like that — when you do a deeper dive on some of the things he does well, we’re going to feature much more of that. When you have a month to prepare, it goes to being smart with your quarterback. Because he’s got some work to do in the offseason. He’s a dynamic runner, he’s got some great traits, he’s a competitor. … It’s up to us as coaches to put him in a good position to succeed.”
The Irish and Tigers will take the field at Camping World Stadium on Monday, New Year’s Day. Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 1 p.m.