Tuesday’s bowl schedule and the biggest question in all 3 games
In Tuesday’s bowls, Notre Dame is starting a new quarterback, Louisville’s defensive coordinator is facing his old employer, and Maryland’s new run-heavy offense will face a stout run defense out west.
What have you got, Malik?
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Coaches will tell you that the bowl is the first game of the next season. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly took that to a logical extreme in explaining why he has chosen to give quarterback Malik Zaire his first career start in the Music City Bowl.
We want to put Malik in a position and really challenge him. I’m very pleased with what Everett [Golson] has done over the past two weeks. He’s made very good progress. We still have a great deal of confidence in his ability or we wouldn’t have just named one starter. We’re going to play both of them. But I really think I want to challenge (Zaire) and put him in this kind of environment. He’s playing against a great defense in LSU and we’ll learn a lot about him tomorrow.
For Notre Dame, the difference between 7-6 and 8-5 is minimal. You might as well start figuring out what you’ve got for 2015.
Zaire completed nine of 20 passes for 170 yards in the Irish’s blowout loss to USC on November 29, but more importantly, he didn’t commit any turnovers during his five possessions. Golson has committed 22 — 14 interceptions, eight lost fumbles — and it sabotaged what looked like a promising 2014.
Golson was the catalyst behind Notre Dame’s 6-0 start. He was also one of the reasons for the Irish’s 1-5 finish. (A defense that ranks only 50th in Def. F/+ had its own role to play in that.) Golson’s confidence plummeted as he threw 10 interceptions in the last six games of the season. Kelly finally had enough.
It’s not clear what Kelly will learn from Zaire in Nashville. Throwing the redshirt freshman out there against a defense that ranks 11th in Def. F/+ and 19th in Havoc Rate probably won’t produce incredible results. But you might as well give it a whirl, I guess.
LSU’s offense has had its own issues. The Tigers’ run game came around in fits and starts — 264 yards against Ole Miss (good!), 183 against Alabama (decent!), 36 against Arkansas (awful!), 384 against Texas A&M (good again!) — and there’s no guarantee that Leonard Fournette and company will find traction against a Notre Dame defense better against the run (48th in Rushing S&P+) than the pass (84th in Passing S&P+). But one assumes the Tigers will score enough to beat the Irish if Zaire and/or Golson aren’t able to control the ball, both in sustaining drives and literally controlling the ball instead of fumbling it.
What does familiarity breed?
After watching his defense fall from 10th to 18th in Def. F/+ in 2012, then to 46th in 2013, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham got out of Athens ahead of the posse, landing on Bobby Petrino’s staff in Louisville.
The change seemed to treat both sides well. With new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia rebounded to 22nd. Grantham inherited a defense that ranked 10th last season and coaxed out a five-spot improvement.
Grantham gets a chance to face his old employer. Depending on your level of optimism, you could say that’s a good thing for Louisville (Grantham knows a lot about Georgia’s personnel!) or Georgia (the Dawgs know Grantham’s tendencies!).
Regardless of your lean, it does appear that both defenses hold the advantages. This improved Dawg defense gets to face a Louisville offense that is flipping between young quarterbacks (freshman Reggie Bonnafon and redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin) and will be without ineligible running back Michael Dyer.
The Cardinals overcame quarterbacking issues late in the year — they averaged at least 5.8 yards per play and scored at least 31 points in each of their last four games. But they victimized only one decent defense in that span (Florida State’s), and Dyer was one of the primary reasons. Receivers DeVante Parker and James Quick (combined: 69 catches, 18.0 yards per catch; Parker has 735 yards despite missing half the season) give Louisville big-play potential and will make sure this game isn’t TOO low-scoring. But Georgia’s run defense will likely slow down Brandon Radcliff and the remaining Louisville backs and force Bonnafon to play mistake-free ball.
Meanwhile, Georgia suffered a different kind of departure recently. After eight seasons as Mark Richt’s offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo replaced Jim McElwain as Colorado State’s head coach.
Tight ends coach John Lilly will call plays for Georgia on Tuesday as Richt searches for a Bobo replacement. One assumes Lilly won’t try to reinvent the wheel; the Dawgs have had a run-heavy attack, first with Todd Gurley rushing for 911 yards before suspension and injury, then with freshman Nick Chubb going for 100-plus in each of the last seven games. Quarterback Hutson Mason has been conservative and efficient, completing 68 percent of his passes and throwing only four interceptions but averaging just 11.3 yards per completion.
Louisville’s defense has been one of the most efficient in the country. The Cardinals risk some big plays in the name of invading the line of scrimmage. Can Mason and company take advantage of those risks? And whom does the Georgia-Grantham familiarity favor?
Can Maryland score enough (or at all)?
Maryland’s offense was already in a funk when it lost star receiver Stefon Diggs against Penn State. It had already averaged 4.8 or fewer yards per play in three of four games, and quarterback C.J. Brown was already in the fourth game of a six-game streak with a passer rating of 112.0 or worse. Diggs had been the driving force behind wins over Indiana and Iowa. Without him, Maryland’s pass-first attack was dreadful against Michigan State, against whom Brown completed 20 of 43 passes with three picks and three sacks.
In the season’s final two games, however, the Terps focused more on the run, and it began to pay off. Not including two sacks, Brown rushed 16 times for 104 yards in a 23-16 win over Michigan. The next week against Rutgers, he carried 12 times for 109 yards while Brandon Ross pitched in 10 rushes for 108.
Stanford has had a frustrating 2014. Ranked 11th in the preseason polls, the Cardinal figured out creative ways to blow scoring chances — they rank 110th in Points Per Scoring Opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) — and suffered three three-point losses (to USC, Notre Dame, and Utah) as a result. But they can still beat you up defensively, and they can still stuff your run game.
Stanford ranks eighth in Def. F/+, fifth in Rushing S&P+, and first in Passing Downs S&P+. They take out your run game on standard downs, then light up your quarterback on passing downs (eighth in Adj. Sack Rate). Maryland’s two-pronged run game has been solid, but the Terps will have almost no choice but to move the ball on the ground. Stanford has allowed a passer rating better than 120.0 just three times in 12 games, and there’s little reason to think Brown will fare better than USC’s Cody Kessler (119.7), Oregon State’s Sean Mannion (80.8), Cal’s Jared Goff (98.7), or UCLA’s Brett Hundley (101.8).
If Maryland can get to 14 points, the Terps might be able to win with special teams and Stanford’s failed scoring opportunities. But Stanford’s offense is coming off of two strong games, and there’s just not a lot of evidence that Maryland will keep up.