As a reporter interviewed Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire after Tuesday’s Music City Bowl, ESPN cameras caught tears running down the sophomore's cheeks. After a tough season that saw the Irish rise as high as No. 5 in the AP poll, Notre Dame fans likely shared that raw emotion after their team’s 31-28 win over LSU at LP field in Nashville. The result capped a season that fell short of expectations in South Bend, but it's one that will now transition into spring on a positive note.
Notre Dame looked in control early against the SEC’s No. 1 total defense. The Irish took a 21-14 lead into halftime having reeled off 258 yards of offense. Zaire, splitting time with fellow quarterback Everett Golson, threw for a touchdown and ran for another in the first half to keep LSU’s defense at bay.
But LSU struck back in the third quarter. Anthony Jennings hit John Diarse for a 75-yard touchdown pass before freshman phenom Leonard Fournette (264 all-purpose yards) ran 89 yards for another score, his third of the game. Despite Notre Dame's red-hot start, the Tigers looked poised to add more disappointment to the Irish’s campaign.
Instead, Notre Dame tied the game 28-28 on a C.J. Prosise run. Late in the fourth quarter, the Irish forced an LSU punt and regained possession with 5:41 to play. Golson and Zaire tag-teamed a 14-play drive that ended with Kyle Brindza’s 32-yard, game-winning field goal.
It was only two seasons ago that Golson led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the BCS title game. But the veteran quarterback was suspended for the entire 2013 season due to academic misconduct. This past offseason, an investigation into more academic misconduct forced the suspension of four key players. Despite the distraction, the Irish began the 2014 season 6-0 and reached as high as No. 5 before dropping a heartbreaker to No. 2 Florida State, 31-27, in Tallahassee. Notre Dame eventually spiraled out of control and ended the year with four straight losses.
After losing 49-14 to USC on Nov. 29, Irish coach Brian Kelly didn’t mince words.
"We have to remember where we are after today's loss," Kelly told reporters. "It's a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike. Two years ago, we were playing for a national championship. Today we got our butts beat, and it wasn't as close as the score. I thought coach was very generous today to keep running the football to keep the score where it was."
Now the dark cloud over Notre Dame has somewhat dissipated thanks to the win against LSU. But plenty of questions remain surrounding Kelly’s program. Can the offense succeed with a two-quarterback system going forward? Will Golson even return to South Bend in 2015? Can Kelly shore up a defense that was exposed on several occasions this season? This program might not be ready to contend for a playoff spot just yet.
But a postseason victory gives Notre Dame a well-needed boost heading into the offseason. Folks in South Bend can’t be too disappointed with that.