Seven games into the 2014 season, Notre Dame’s run defense was producing at a productive clip, allowing its opponents just 125 yards rushing per game while limiting Michigan to 100 yards, Stanford to 47 and Florida State to 50.
Then came injuries to Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt, nose tackle Jarron Jones and defensive tackle Sheldon Day.
Over the final four games of the regular season, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC rushed for 1,060 yards and 5.4 yards per carry. Not surprisingly, the Irish ended the regular season with four straight losses.
Jones and Schmidt remain out for the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl against LSU, but Day is back, end Isaac Rochell is taking reps at tackle, and a much healthier, optimistic defense will take the field Tuesday at LP Field in Nashville.
“We’ve talked about injuries, but we only have three guys out from the Florida State game - Joe Schmidt, Drue Tranquill and Jarron Jones,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“Three good guys, granted, and we’d like ‘em back. But the fact of the matter is that we should be able to find a way to grind it out, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Grinding it out against LSU may be one of the most difficult assignments the Irish face this year, even if Jones, Schmidt and Tranquill were in the lineup. The Tigers average 219 yards rushing per game and, perhaps just as important, 48.5 carries per game.
Yet with Day and Rochell bolstering the middle of the defensive line, and fifth-year senior Justin Utupo and freshman Jay Hayes contributing as well, the Irish are much better prepared to stop the Leonard Fournette-led rushing attack.
“Trusting their technique, trusting themselves, having great confidence in what they’re doing,” said Kelly, naming a few ways to withstand LSU’s ground-oriented offense.
“We’re still a player or two (short). We need a little bit more size inside, but we’ll make up for it with determination. We’ll grind through it. We’ve got a good plan to find ways to minimize some of the areas where we’ve lacked, namely, (playing without) a big 300-pounder like Jarron Jones. That’s where we could use it against a big team like LSU.”
Day, whom Kelly estimates is prepared to play 40-to-50 snaps coming off a left knee injury suffered in the 10th game of the season, has taken on Kelly’s proposed mental approach against LSU.
“Just have the mentality of knowing what they’re going to do and have the expectations and just try to defend them,” Day said. “This is a d-lineman’s game.”
Linebacker Jaylon Smith will have to take on some of LSU’s behemoth offensive linemen as well as Fournette. He, too, is encouraged by the extra time to rest and heal up, as well as the preparation for the Tigers.
“We have to play with great leverage,” Smith said. “The intensity has to be there. We have to play with the right mindset. Penetration is the key. It’s something we must have in order to be successful.”
The insertion of Day back into the equation is huge as well.
“It definitely is comforting having another leader out there,” said Smith of Day. “It’s a blessing to have him with us.”
So, too, is the move of Rochell from defensive end to what is expected to be a nose tackle assignment with Day back at his familiar three-technique spot.
“He can play both inside and outside,” said Kelly of Rochell. “He’s going to have to do both because the depth situation on the inside is limited for us. To get that kind of size to match up against a big, physical LSU team, we need that player to do both for us. He’s a very important for us.”
Kelly also expects to get 20-or-so snaps from freshman Jay Hayes.
The Irish will be young at defensive end with junior Romeo Okwara and freshmen Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship logging most of the time. Fifth-year senior Anthony Rabasa also could play a role.
But with four guys like Day, Rochell, Utupo and Hayes playing on the inside and Jacob Matuska also a potential factor, the Irish hope they’re better equipped than they were against USC.
“Guys are rested up. They’re a lot fresher,” Kelly said. “We’re ready for that kind of grinding. I just think our football team is in a better position than we were going against USC.”
NO QUARTERBACK DECISION
Kelly peeked into the meeting room at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel Saturday evening and “tipped” who the starting quarterback would be against LSU.
“If I knock once, it’s Everett (Golson),” Kelly quipped. “If I knock twice, it’s Malik (Zaire).”
Actually, the team had not been told who would be the starter against LSU as of their return to the hotel following Saturday’s practice. Offensive players Cam McDaniel, Nick Martin and Corey Robinson all denied knowing/being told who the starter would be.
At this stage, the earliest an announcement is expected to be made is Monday at 2:30 ET when Kelly and LSU head coach Les Miles meet with the media for the final time before Tuesday’s game.
MARTIN STAYING; DAY TO DECIDE
Two of the four players with eligibility remaining that applied for an evaluation from the NFL were in attendance for interviews Saturday night -- captain/interior offensive lineman Nick Martin and captain/interior defensive lineman Sheldon Day. Both addressed their decisions, although only one definitively.
“I made up my mind about it,” Martin said. “I’m coming back to Notre Dame. It’s the greatest place on earth. For me, it’s a simple decision.
“Obviously, I’m biased, but Harry Hiestand is the greatest o-line coach in the country, no doubt about it. Another year under him, I’ll improve. You’ve just got to be smart and come back.”
Day was less definitive.
“I was going to wait until after the game to kind of decide that,” Day said.
No word was given on the decisions of quarterback Everett Golson and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, who also asked for NFL evaluations.