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Mazurek: Citrus Bowl win foreshadows a bright 2018 for Irish

| Monday, January 1, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. — Today is the first day of 2018, but for many it still feels like 2017.

For Brian Kelly, it must feel more like 2014.

That year, the Irish were ranked as high as No. 5 before losing the final four games of the season. But a 31-28 win over LSU in the Music City Bowl gave the Irish a feel-good ending to a season that desperately needed some positive momentum.

This year — well, technically last year — the Irish climbed as high as No. 3 in the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings before being blown out by Miami (FL) and fumbling their way to a loss at Stanford.

Chris Collins | The Observer

Irish graduate student tight end Durham Smythe leaps for a catch during Notre Dame’s 21-17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium.

The losses dropped Notre Dame down to No. 14 in the CFP rankings, meaning the Irish (10-3) were left out of a New Year’s Six game.

And, on top of all that, Kelly suspended four players ahead of the matchup with LSU for a variety of violations and misdemeanor charges. And then senior linebacker Nyles Morgan was stripped of his captaincy less than a day before the game for what Kelly called “an internal matter.”

It may not have been four straight losses, but 2017 was starting to look a lot like the end of 2014.

Yet, Notre Dame’s win against a talented — minus the kickers — LSU team in a bowl on New Year’s Day completely changes the narrative heading into the offseason.

Instead of answering questions about why his team lost its third game since the start of November and why he had four suspended players, Kelly got to answer questions about a possible quarterback competition and Miles Boykin’s game-winning catch.

That’s the benefit of achieving the 10-win season Kelly stressed so much in the days leading up to the game.

Chris Collins | The Observer

Irish head coach Brian Kelly celebrates after winning the Citrus Bowl over LSU, 21-17, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

But the benefits to Notre Dame’s win don’t stop at Kelly being spared awkward questions from the media.

Notre Dame gets a shiny trophy, filled with fruits of the citrus family to put in the trophy case at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

Kelly and his staff get another selling point for recruits as the Irish look to shore up what is already a top-10 recruiting class.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of all is not what the win gives the Irish, but the way the Irish won.

Notre Dame’s 21-17 victory over LSU was littered with snippets — and in some cases, big chunks — of what the future holds for the Irish. Kelly and the offensive staff designed a game plan around sophomore quarterback Ian Book after deciding Brandon Wimbush’s mechanical issues couldn’t be fixed during bowl preparation.

And Book stepped up, throwing for two touchdowns, going 14-of-19 and coming back from a bad, red-zone interception in the third quarter.

Catching passes from Book in the absence of sophomore receivers Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool and junior tight end Alize Mack were Boykin and freshman Michael Young. The new duo combined for 110 yards and two touchdowns and looks to be the future of the Notre Dame receiving corps with junior Equanimeous St. Brown possibly declaring for the NFL draft and Stepherson likely being dismissed from the program.

On defense, sophomore cornerback Julian Love was a force to be reckoned with, breaking up three passes and playing his best in the final minutes of the game. Sophomore defensive lineman Julian Okwara recorded a sack, and freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath saw solid minutes as he looks to push for a starting job at the position in the fall.

If you choose to use the bowl win as a crystal ball for the 2018 Notre Dame team, you’ll see a bright future.

And if you choose to use the bowl win as a punctuation mark at the end of the 2017 season, you’ll find a team with a 10-3 record that played 11 games against bowl-eligible teams, all coming off the heels of a 4-8 campaign the year before.

The 2017 version of Notre Dame certainly had its flaws, and a tough 2018 schedule means expecting a playoff berth is foolish.

But the 2015 Notre Dame team went to Fiesta Bowl after beating LSU in 2014.

The Irish were playing for citrus in 2017, but peaches or oranges may be on the menu in 2018.

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

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

Contact Marek