Jan. 1, 2018
By John Heisler
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly talks all the time about playing for 60 minutes.
He talks about how, in a tight game, it comes down to somebody having to make a play.
So when the Irish and LSU, two 9-3 football teams ranked three slots apart in the final College Football Playoff standings, took the field Monday afternoon at Camping World Stadium, maybe it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that it came down to who made the late-game plays.
Though even the most ardent Irish supporters might not have predicted that it would be reserve quarterback Ian Book and backup-turned starter receiver Miles Boykin hooking up for the game-winning Notre Dame touchdown pass with 88 seconds to go.
Kelly actually told Boykin a few days ago during practice that Boykin would end up being the Citrus Bowl MVP.
So, play hard for 60 minutes and good things will happen?
Boykin as the MVP?
Turns out Kelly was right on both accounts.
And on an unlikely Florida weather day that better resembled a November Saturday in South Bend, the Irish did just enough to defeat LSU 21-17.
In the Notre Dame team’s mental edge session just before the squad left its team hotel Monday morning, Kelly made certain his players didn’t forget what they did in 2017.
“Remember what you accomplished this year — what you’re capable of as an individual and as a football team,” he said. “You need to recognize what kind of football team you have. It’s pretty remarkable. Then think about the plays you’ll make today.”
Kelly also pointed out Wisconsin’s stick-to-it resolve in the Orange Bowl Saturday night against Miami.
“Wisconsin got down, refocused and kept playing for four quarters and won by 10.
“So let’s finish today, what we did not do at Stanford. We’re a really good football team. Now we get one more. Let’s cap it off.”
Then the Irish watched the high points of their regular season, all set to “Ready or Not” by the Fugees.
Added Kelly to his team just before kickoff at the game site:
“We’ve only played well when we have one mindset. We have not played well if we’re outside in any other way from dominating our opponent. We got outside of our realm against Miami and we saw what that got us.
“Stay controlled, stay laser-focused. Your job is dominating your opponent play in and play out. It’s six seconds. And then we refocus and come back to the next play. And we just keep doing that. Composure, physicality every single play. There’s gonna be lows, but you keep playing every single play and you’ll break through.
“Stay locked in, celebrate with your teammates. This is about 11 guys playing together. This is about a team effort with a dominating mindset.
“That’s how we win football games at Notre Dame. We redefined that this year–we don’t change anything in 2018. This is our platform ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢’Â¬” right now–2018–all the eyes are on us to finish what we started.
“Let’s do it now, let’s start today.”
Most of the early going proved a defensive slog. There were five combined first-period punts, and three times in a row the Irish began drives at their own 13-yard line or worse. The first 10 possessions combined produced seven punts, two missed field goals (both by LSU) and one possession that ended on downs (Notre Dame’s first).
Notre Dame finally broke through with a 46-yard Justin Yoon field goal with four seconds until halftime. Book was sacked three times on the drive, but he also completed three of his four passes for 33 yards and had another big third-down conversion run of 21 yards.
Meanwhile the first of the two LSU missed field goals came after the Tigers had second and goal at the Irish one and twice were turned away.
A steady, misty drizzle prompted two muffed attempted punt returns by LSU and another muff on a long snap on a Tiger punt.
“They were this far from the goal line, this far,” said Notre Dame’s head coach at intermission, holding his fingers an inch or so apart.
“You fight for every inch. That’s how we play. We’ll play two more quarters and we fight for every inch, no matter what happens. You stay together and you fight for every inch.
“Have an attack mentality for two quarters. Go get the win. Don’t wait around for something to happen. Things are going to go their way, they’re going to get a couple of breaks.
“Know this — we have redefined the way we play Notre Dame football, how we fight for every inch.
“Now let’s go do it, let’s win a football game.”
The Irish wasted a nifty three-and-out defensive effort on LSU’s opening possession of the third period, only to see the Tiger punt bounce off a Notre Dame defender’s leg. From there LSU drove 43 yards, the last 20 on a Danny Etling throw to Derrius Guice for the first touchdown of the day.
Book threw an interception at the LSU 11, then the Irish defense responded with a third-down sack of Etling. Yoon helped by adding another field goal, this one from 49 yards, to make it 7-6 at the end of three periods.
Remember those first 10 possessions that produced no points? Yoon’s second field goal began a streak of five consecutive combined possessions that turned into three touchdowns and a pair of three-pointers.
LSU drove 75 yards on 12 plays, with another Etling-to-Guice TD pass making it 14-6.
Notre Dame came right back with its own 75-yard march (10 plays). A Dexter Williams 31-yard run kick-started the drive, Book threw to Boykin for 29 and then he finished it with a six-yard TD throw to Michael Young.
The Irish went for two, with Book flipping a shovel pass to Josh Adams. The officials called it short, but review reversed the call and made it a 14-14 game with 7:49 left.
LSU looked like it might have broken Notre Dame’s back with a 76-yard, 12-play drive that knocked 5:46 off the clock. But the Irish defense again saved the day at the goal line, with a third-down completion from Etling to Guice coming barely short of the goal. The Tiger field goal made it a 17-14 LSU lead at 2:03.
Book went to work, finding Chris Finke over the middle for 18 yards.
Then came the play of the day.
Book fired it deep along the LSU sideline toward Boykin in a spot where only Boykin had a chance to catch it. Boykin somehow hauled it in with one hand and maneuvered deftly past and through two LSU defenders for 55 yards to score with 1:28 remaining.
Notre Dame’s pass defense then came up impressively, forcing incompletions on all six of Etling’s passes — with Julian Love making a pair of break-ups.
The Irish survived despite running 14 fewer plays and losing the time of possession competition 37:32 to 22:28.
Once Book replaced Brandon Wimbush he connected on 14 of his 19 throws for 164 yards and the pair of TDs. He also ran it for 36 yards.
“It’s all about this,” said Kelly in a noisy locker room. “It’s staying together and believing in each other every single play. We knew we were in a situation where somebody was going to have to make a play, whether it was offense or defense or special teams. You just believed in each other.
“It’s not about the athletic ability, it’s about the traits. You just kept playing, kept believing, kept trusting. That’s how you win a game against a really good football team.
“Transactional is wins and losses. Transformational is when you do things that transform a football program and our seniors did that. They got us in the right attitude to prepare us for today, to be champions. The MVPs of this game, in my opinion and they all get a game ball, are our captains.”
Kelly pointed out Yoon (his field goals kept the Tigers from separating), linebacker Te’von Coney (he had seven solo tackles and 10 assists) and Young (the freshman had his first TD catch). And there were plenty more.
“But collectively it was about refusing to let them past the goal line and holding them to three and then offensively coming back with the touchdown.
“That’s what champions do.”
If the Irish had lost the Citrus Bowl, Kelly wasn’t about to let a single game eliminate all the progress and good things his players achieved in 2017.
But he’s been around long enough to understand how much perception counts.
The Irish bounced back from two losses in their last three regular-season games to defeat a team from the vaunted Southeastern Conference and win a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time in a while.
“As I was reminded yesterday, we hadn’t won a New Year’s game in like 752 years, so we’ve done that,” said the Irish head coach. “We won a close game, so we’ve done that. So there’s strides that you make as you’re building yourself toward being a playoff team, and today was a nice stride toward that.”
“Quite frankly, it became a game of inches down there where we were able to hold them to the field goals. And that was the difference in the game. And it’s a mentality that we’ve developed within our football program. It’s a mentality that we lacked, quite frankly, last year that we didn’t fight for every inch.
“And playing the kind of schedule we did this year with 11 bowl teams, you have to fight for everything. And I think our kids developed that toughness and that mindset, and today it was absolutely necessary against LSU.”
By an inch or a yard or a mile, it makes no difference.
The Irish (10-3) spent the late afternoon in Orlando flipping oranges to each other as they fell out of the winning bowl trophy.
That’s because they are Citrus Bowl champions on a day when every one of those inches counted.