LSU hasn’t seen an offensive line as good as Notre Dame this season.
The Tigers saw some of the better lines in the country, but not the best.
Notre Dame is the best.
In case there’s any doubt to that fact, the Fighting Irish have the hardware to back it up: They claimed the 2017 Joe Moore Award for the nation’s top offensive line unit.
Notre Dame, LSU’s opponent in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, doesn’t try to hide its offensive plan.
Of Notre Dame’s 850 offensive plays this season, nearly 62 percent stayed on the ground. The Irish produced the seventh-best rushing attack in the country at 271.9 yards per game and third-best in terms of yards per carry with 6.37.
That was against the second-toughest schedule in college football, according to the Sagarin ratings.
If LSU wants to stop Notre Dame’s offense, the Tigers will have to deal with that offensive line.
The Irish returned four starters along the line from last season, all seniors. The lone underclassman is sophomore right tackle Tommy Kraemer.
Those five have combined for 134 career starts. Kraemer is the only player to miss a start (one) this season.
But the crown jewel of the offensive front is the left side, where consensus All-Americans Mike McGlinchey (left tackle) and Quenton Nelson (left guard) form a near-impenetrable wall.
McGlinchey is the highest-rated run blocker in the country, according to Pro Football Focus, at a 34.1 grade. The next best, at 33, is Nelson, who is the nation's highest-rated overall lineman.
“This is going to be a challenge, especially on the double-teams on the left side,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “That left guard they’re saying is the best guard to come out of college football in 20 years. ... I’ve watched him, and he may be. That left tackle is really good, and they’re physical and have a big back.”
Both McGlinchey and Nelson are projected to be early selections in April’s NFL draft.
“They like to stay on their double-teams long,” said LSU defensive tackle Greg Gilmore. “They have faith in their running back. He’s going to make people miss if they stay on the double-teams long. We just have to stay in there and stay strong.
“For the defensive line, it’s always about stopping the run and then having some fun in the pass-rush game. I know I’m trying to get more sacks, and stopping the run is a big part of that.”
If there is a proverbial chink in the armor of the Irish offensive line, it would be their pass-blocking.
Notre Dame allowed 26 sacks this season, tied for 74th in the country. By comparison, LSU — whose offensive line took heavy criticism while starting two true freshman for large swaths of the year — allowed 28 sacks.
Nelson and McGlinchey remain forces on the left side, though. Nelson did not allow a sack or quarterback hit in 819 snaps this year while McGlinchey allowed just three and two, respectively, in 825 snaps.
“That left side is probably one of the best left sides in the country,” said LSU center Will Clapp. “But we’ve got a great D-line, and I know they’re pumped to go against those great players.”
LSU won’t go into the game without experience against a premier front five. Two of the Tigers’ previous opponents — Alabama and Auburn — were finalists along with Notre Dame for the Joe Moore Award.
If defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme for the Irish looks anything like it did for those games, expect plenty of defenders in the box and a creative blitz scheme.
The second half against Auburn and the entire game against Alabama, even in a loss, were two of the better performances for LSU's defense.
Aranda and the Tigers showed their ability to make halftime adjustments in a 20-point comeback against Auburn when they shut down running back Kerryon Johnson for 33 yards in the second half after he ran for 123 in the first. LSU also forced 11 quarterback hurries and seven tackles for loss.
Against Alabama, the Tigers limited the Tide to 116 yards rushing, almost 150 yards below the Crimson Tide's season average. LSU also pressured quarterback Jalen Hurts 16 times on 29 drop-backs while remaining in a base 3-4 defense for most of the night as opposed to the nickel.
The problem with using those games as comparison for facing Notre Dame is that in both, LSU heavily featured linebackers Arden Key, Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander, none of whom are expected to play in Orlando.
Freshman K’Lavon Chaisson started three games in replace of the injured Key, producing 25 tackles, two sacks and a pair of hurries. Tyler Taylor, another freshman, started four games for Alexander and recorded 30 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks.
They'll likely have to play a big role again if LSU is to topple the nation's best offensive line.
“They like knocking you of the ball, they’re physical, they get in your face and they’re going to try to dump you,” said defensive end Christian LaCouture. “But as defensive linemen, you like games like that. It starts in the trenches. If you have good trench play, you have a chance to win the game. If you don’t, you’re going to lose.
“I think for the last game of the year, you want to have that responsibility in your lap because if you get the job done, you know you’ll win.”