Citrus Bowl Preview: Notre Dame vs. LSU

                               

Notre Dame will battle LSU in Orlando on New Year’s Day in the 2018 Citrus Bowl presented by Overton’s. After rising as high as #3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Irish were defeated in two of their final three games. LSU, on the other hand, struggled to start the season going 3-2 including an embarrassing loss to Troy at home. Since then, the Bayou Bengals have won six of their final seven games with the only loss coming to playoff-bound Alabama.

Despite the distance between the two schools, Notre Dame and LSU are not unfamiliar opponents. Just three seasons ago they battled in the Music City Bowl, with the Irish winning on a last second field goal. While both rosters have changed dramatically since that 2014 game, both programs remain in similar situations. Though a 9-3 record is cause for celebration at most schools, 9 win seasons won’t earn much praise in South Bend or Baton Rouge. However, a win in this game could prime either team for a strong 2018 campaign. Let’s take a look at the matchups in this one.

Notre Dame Offense vs. LSU Defense

It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s offense struggled in the final three games of the regular season. After averaging 41.3 points per game in the first nine contests, the Irish slumped to 17.3 points per game in the final three. The key factors in the offensive decline were turnovers, Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues, and a less potent run game with a banged-up Josh Adams. While a month of bowl practice could help get the offense back in their October rhythm, the Irish will be without some of their best offensive playmakers. Kevin Stepherson, Alize Mack and C.J. Holmes have all been suspended and Chase Claypool is out with a shoulder injury. While Mack had been disappointing and Holmes rarely played, the losses of Stepherson and Claypool are detrimental to an inconsistent group of receivers.

Without Stepherson and Claypool in the lineup, Equanimeous St. Brown will attract the vast majority of attention from the LSU secondary. It will be a challenge for St. Brown to create separation against the Tigers talent on the back end. Considering the losses at receiver, the Irish may just try to ground and pound their way to a victory. While this strategy did work in the 2014 Music City Bowl, a lack of a passing threat could lead LSU to stack the box and create difficulty for Notre Dame’s rushing attack. The Irish will have to rely on their Joe Moore Award winning offensive line. Even if Notre Dame can run it on 60-70% of plays, the Irish will need a receiver aside from St. Brown to make up for the losses of Stepherson and Claypool. Perhaps it could be Miles Boykin, or true freshman speedster and Louisiana native Michael Young. This game could prove to be Brandon Wimbush’s biggest challenge as a starting quarterback, and he needs a strong performance heading into 2018.

Like Notre Dame’s offense, the LSU defense will be without some of its key players for the Citrus Bowl. The Tigers will be without linebackers Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander as well as elite pass rusher Arden Key. While the front seven will be somewhat depleted by injury, LSU makes up for it with an elite secondary. As a unit, the Tigers had more interceptions on the season than passing touchdowns allowed. Freshman corner Andraez “Greedy” Williams had five interceptions on his own. The corner on the opposite side, Donte Jackson, is just as talented though he didn’t come away with as many picks. LSU has gained a reputation as “DB U” and this unit is no exception to that moniker. Though the Tigers may get gashed by a few Josh Adams runs, they should be able to stop an Irish passing attack missing three key pieces.

Edge: LSU

LSU Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

Matt Canada is known as one of the best offensive coordinators in college football. However, rumors have been swirling that Canada is on his way out of LSU following the bowl game. There is no question that these rumors could have an effect on Canada’s ability to game plan and the performance of his players. Still, there is plenty of talent for the Tigers on the offensive side of the ball. Derrius Guice has not missed a beat in replacing Leonard Fournette as the feature back. Though Guice has faced some injuries, he has averaged over 5.3 yards per carry in rushing for 1,153 yards on the year. With Guice somewhat banged up and looking toward the NFL draft, the Tigers will also mix in Darrel Williams who ran for 776 yards and 9 TDs in the regular season.

While LSU prefers to keep the ball on the ground, senior Purdue transfer Danny Etling leads an efficient passing attack for the Tigers. Etling has thrown just two interceptions on the season. The top target on the outside is D.J. Clark who averaged over 23 yards per reception in the regular season while scoring 3 touchdowns. Etling will also look to tight end Foster Moreau and mix in some tosses to Guice and Williams out of the backfield. Although Etling is not the most exciting quarterback, he protects the football and completes 60% of his passes.

Like the offense, Notre Dame’s defense closed out the season on a sour note. After allowing just over 16 points per game in the first 8 games, the Irish surrendered over 33 points per game in the last four. To be fair, the Irish offense did create some short fields for opponents with turnover issues. Still, it was clear that this unit lacked the poise and confidence it had earlier in the year against USC and NC State. The key for Notre Dame defensively is to limit the Tigers run game and avoid getting beat deep on the outside. Up front, Jerry Tillery, Jay and Daelin Hayes will look to get into the backfield and disrupt the LSU rushing attack before it gets started. The linebacker group led by Te’von Coney, Nyles Morgan, and Drue Tranquil needs to stay disciplined and avoid missed tackles when Guice gets past the line of scrimmage. In the secondary, the Irish should have confidence in Julian Love, but may rotate between Troy Pride and Nick Watkins at the other corner spot. Safety continues to be a concern for the Notre Dame staff, and they’ll need Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliot to play their best football.

Edge: Notre Dame

Special Teams

Justin Yoon had a solid junior season as he was perfect on extra points and 12/16 on field goals. Punter Tyler Newsome has shown flashes of brilliance, but also has been inconsistent at times. In the return game, the Irish will continue to look to CJ Sanders who did a break a few long ones on the season, but seems to lack the elusiveness he once had. The coverage unit has struggled this season, but luckily for the Irish, Leonard Fournette is no longer returning kickoffs for the Tigers.

LSU has gone through two kickers this season and both have had their struggles. Combined, Connor Culp and Jack Gonsoulin have made just 62.5% of field goals on the year. In addition, Culp has botched three extra points. The Tigers also have used multiple punters; Zach Von Rosenberg and Josh Growden have combined for just over 40 yards per boot. While the Tigers haven’t done much on kickoff returns, DJ Clark has taken two punts to the house on the season. Even with the threat of Clark, this special teams group has been mediocre at best.

Edge: Notre Dame

Prediction

Though both teams will be without key players, the blows to Notre Dame’s roster seem much more detrimental. Without Stepherson and Claypool, the Irish could have major difficulty moving the ball through the air. Against an elite defense like LSU, it’ll be difficult to have success if you’re one dimensional. On the other side, LSU’s offense may not be high octane, but the consistency of the run game and experience of Danny Etling should do just enough for them. I see a low-scoring battle with LSU’s offense doing just a bit more to come away with the victory.

LSU 20  Notre Dame 17

Tailgate Song of the Week

Yes, I know this game is being played in Orlando not Baton Rouge. I also know that it is often played before LSU games in Death Valley. However, this song is also a staple at the Linebacker Lounge just across from campus in South Bend. I spent quite a few nights belting this one out in between sips of crappy beer and bites of buttery popcorn. I won’t be at the game on Monday, but I guarantee if you play this song at your tailgate it’ll attract some friendly LSU fans and probably some great Cajun food.

 

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