Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire guided the Irish to a 31-28 upset of LSU in the Music City Bowl on Tuesday in his first career start, and in the process, he created a full-fledged quarterback controversy.
Zaire ran for a team-high 96 yards and a touchdown, and also threw for 96 yards and a score as the Irish (8-5) controlled the clock and won the game on a field goal in the final seconds. Zaire took about 75 percent of the snaps, with former starter Everett Golson relegated to a reserve role, though Golson did complete some key passes on the game-winning drive.
Golson and the Irish started hot this season, with Golson in the Heisman discussion and the Irish in the national-title picture. But Golson cooled considerably down the stretch, and the Irish dropped five of their last six regular-season games, including each of the final four. Turnovers were a huge issue for Golson, who threw 14 interceptions and lost eight fumbles.
Coach Brian Kelly announced early this month that he was opening up the quarterback competition -- and on the same day, he said Golson had applied for feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Thus, Golson went through the weird situation of awaiting draft feedback while also trying to keep his starting job.
Golson definitely needs more seasoning as a passer, but Zaire's performance against a sturdy LSU defense would seem to mean he has a legitimate chance at grabbing the starting job for the 2015 season. So, what does Golson do? That will be closely watched in the next two weeks, when he has to decide whether to turn pro or stay in school.
Zaire had carried the ball just 11 times entering Monday's game, but he doubled that against the Tigers. And he attempted 15 passes Tuesday after throwing just 20 in the regular season.
Zaire was helped Tuesday by a great performance from Notre Dame's offensive line, which was headed by star left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a third-year sophomore who also has applied for draft feedback. Unlike Golson, though, Stanley likely will hear good things from the advisory board. He and his fellow offensive linemen served as road-graders against LSU, paving the way for 263 rushing yards -- the Irish's second-highest total of the season, behind only the 281 they rolled up in a season-opening rout of Rice. Notre Dame had rushed for just 355 yards in its past four games combined.
The Irish had the ball for a staggering 37 minutes, which kept LSU's offense off the field. That was good for the Irish's defense, which had trouble stopping the Tigers when they were on the field.
LSU (8-5) finished with 436 yards, just 13 fewer than the Irish. True freshman tailback Leonard Fournette had a monster game for LSU, rushing for 143 yards and two TDs -- including an 89-yarder -- on just 11 carries. Fournette also scored on a 100-yard kickoff return and served notice that he is set up for a big 2015 campaign. LSU -- which heads into the offseason having lost three of its final four games -- also hit a 75-yard pass-and-run TD. Ultimately, though, the Tigers didn't get enough opportunities because they couldn't get Zaire and the Irish offense off the field.