Notre Dame vs. LSU: Irish depth shines in exciting bowl win

Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin (81) makes a one-handed catch in front of LSU defensive back Donte Jackson (1) for a 55-yard game-winning touchdown during the second half of the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin (81) makes a one-handed catch in front of LSU defensive back Donte Jackson (1) for a 55-yard game-winning touchdown during the second half of the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin, left, runs to the end zone past LSU safety John Battle (26) on his way to the score the game-winning touchdown during the second half of the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) is sacked by LSU nose tackle Ed Alexander (95) during the first half of the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. Notre Dame won 21-17. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) scrambles for yardage past LSU linebacker Michael Divinity Jr. (45) during the first half of the Citrus Bowl game Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) looks for a receiver as he warms up before the Citrus Bowl game against LSU Monday in Orlando, Fla. (By The Associated Press)

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told the world in advance what was needed for his team to beat LSU in Monday’s Citrus Bowl in Orlando. It wasn’t like he shied from any offensive strategy.

“It’s still going to be about defeating one-on-one coverage on the outside,” Kelly said a few days ago. “Quite frankly, we’re going to have to throw the football at times against some man-to-man coverage.”

The Fighting Irish – well, back-up quarterback Ian Book, at least – did just that and lifted an offensively-challenged Notre Dame squad to a thrilling 21-17 victory over the Tigers.

Book was one of several Notre Dame reserves that rose to the occasion when asked and the result was a scintillating win to close out a more than respectable season.

“When you look at it in its totality,” Kelly said Sunday when asked about winning this specific game, “our football team has really grown. They have put themselves in a position in which they can continue to build even after this game.”

And the Notre Dame depth is a huge reason for that positivity moving forward.

Book was one of several players that had to perform above and beyond what he had this season, for varying reasons. Joining him in that regard were wide receivers Michael Young and the eventual star of the game, Miles Boykin.

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In the case of Book, he replaced an ever-struggling Brandon Wimbush (3 of 8 for 52 yards) late in the first half and the redshirt freshman played spectacularly (aside from one particular throw). Book used his mobility (he ran for 36 yards and extended several plays with his feet against an attacking Tiger pass rush), as well as his good enough arm to spark life into the Irish (10-3), who could do very little offensively throughout the first 49 minutes of the game.

Book completed 14 of 19 passes (73.6 percent), which was the most accurate performance by a Notre Dame quarterback all season, but he was really effective when he absolutely had no other choice but to be.

With Book (164 total yards and a couple of scores) guiding the offense, he ended an 11-play drive midway through the third quarter by throwing a terrible pass that was picked off by the Tigers, before having a five-play series that could muster just a field goal. But trailing 14-6 in the final period, he led a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a six-yard strike to freshman Michael Young.

The catch was Young’s first in three months and his first touchdown ever.

“He’s had his best practices,” Kelly said recently of Young’s month of December. “He’s shown a confidence level, a consistency level that maybe escaped him at times during the year.”

The Irish were down three top pass-catchers, as sophomores Chase Claypool (injured), Kevin Stepherson (suspended), as well as junior Alize’ Mack (suspended) weren’t available, so it was imperative that a player like Young play to his potential Monday.

“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now,” Kelly said of Young. “We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”

Despite the heroics of Book and Young, Notre Dame remained in deep trouble with 2:03 remaining, as LSU (9-4) took a 17-14 lead following a short field goal.

Book had just hit receiver Chris Finke for a first down and the Irish were at their own 45-yard line when Book aired a pass down the right sideline to Boykin, who was entangled in “one-on-one coverage on the outside,” as Kelly had prophesized, and the Irish redshirt sophomore reached up with one hand, miraculously hauled in the pass, eluded a Tiger defender and sprinted for the game-winning score.

Like Kelly, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long had a feeling beforehand that Boykin (three receptions for 102 yards) may be a guy that not only could step up and help his team, but needed to.

“I think more of it as an exciting opportunity for these young guys to get out there and kind of show what they can do,” Long said recently of his depleted receiving corps. “To see a Miles Boykin go out there and he’s been working extremely hard each and every week. We go 6/4 with the reps, so they’ve got plenty of opportunities in practice. They know what we’re trying to do. Just have them go out on the field.”

“Take that excitement and channel it and go play.”

That they did and Notre Dame will be the better for it moving into the 2018 season.

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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