Zaire to start at QB for Notre Dame vs. No. 22 LSU
TERESA M. WALKER
Dec. 29, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly did his best to keep his starting quarterback a mystery for the Music City Bowl, even teasing that he would knock twice for sophomore Malik Zaire and once for senior Everett Golson.
On Monday, Kelly finally announced he's going with youth over experience. Zaire will make his first career start against No. 22 LSU and the Southeastern Conference's toughest defense.
"I want to put Malik in a position and really challenge him and put him in this kind of environment," Kelly said. "He's playing against a great defense in LSU and we'll learn a lot about him tomorrow."
The Fighting Irish were ranked as high as fifth nationally with Golson leading them to a 6-0 start before a four-game skid as they lost five of their final six games. Kelly wound up benching Golson in their 49-14 season-ending loss at Southern California. The coach says he liked how Zaire practiced over the past month running his spread offense preparing for this bowl.
"Now he has to go do it when the lights are on," Kelly said.
This is the first trip to this bowl for both Notre Dame (7-5) and LSU (8-4), a change of scenery for such storied programs and far different from their last meeting in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. The Tigers won that game 41-14, and LSU coach Les Miles says the matchup is strong enough he expects no letdown from his team.
"Our guys are fired up," Miles said.
Neither Notre Dame (7-5) nor LSU (8-4) had the seasons they wanted after being ranked in the top 10 early this season before the losses started. The tough Southeastern Conference Western Division cost the Tigers all four of their losses. The Fighting Irish now are completely out of the Top 25.
Being matched in this bowl, sponsored by Franklin American Mortgage, offers that final chance at a win going into the offseason. LSU at least beat Texas A&M 23-17 in College Station, while Notre Dame has stewed since being routed by USC.
"When something like that happens, you just want to get on the field as soon as possible and show what you're made of," Notre Dame left guard Nick Martin said.
Here are a few things to watch Tuesday:
IRISH QUARTERBACKS: With Golson starting 12 games at quarterback, the Irish rank 16th nationally averaging 293.8 yards passing per game. But Zaire is an even bigger threat to run, which can make Kelly's spread offense more potent. Notre Dame averaged only 150.8 yards rushing this season, 81st in the country.
STINGY TIGERS: The LSU Tigers led the SEC and ranked eighth nationally in total defense allowing only 305.8 yards per game, and they are even tougher to score against. They rank third nationally allowing 16.4 points per game, and they also are fourth allowing 162.3 yards passing per game. They allowed quarterbacks to complete only 50.4 percent of their passes.
IRISH BOUNCE BACK: Notre Dame wants to stop the skid after losing four straight and five of the final six. Three of those losses were by four points or less, which doesn't ease the sting any. LSU will be the fourth ranked team the Irish have played. "We couldn't do it in the regular season," Robinson said. "Now we've had the past month to rest, recover and come back strong. Hit the film room and really assess what went wrong and look for solutions. ... We're prepared."
LSU'S YOUTH: Miles put some of the nation's No. 2 recruiting class to work immediately, playing 17 true freshmen with six starters. That puts the Tigers second in the SEC only to Tennessee. They helped score 19 of LSU's 39 touchdowns this season led by running back Leonard Fournette who ran for eight TDs.
PROTECT THE BALL: Golson threw for 29 touchdowns and ran for eight more. But one of the reasons Zaire is starting is that the senior also turned the ball over 22 times intercepted 14 times while losing eight of 12 fumbles. That number caught LSU senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco by surprise. "I didn't know he had that many," Rasco said. "But if he giving them out like that, hopefully we get a few of them."