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Saturday, December 30, 2006


posted by John Vannie
For the second consecutive year, Notre Dame will play in a BCS bowl against an extraordinarily talented opponent. Louisiana State is heavily favored to defeat the Irish in the Sugar Bowl on January 3, which is essentially a home game for the fourth ranked Tigers. The game represents an opportunity for Notre Dame to conclude its season and the college careers of several high profile seniors on a high note.

Thrilling comeback wins by the Irish over UCLA and Michigan State have been somewhat overshadowed by crushing defeats at the hands of Michigan and USC. Despite the presence of Brady Quinn and a number of veterans on both sides of the ball, this year’s squad seemed to lose its swagger after the Wolverine debacle. In terms of the three phases of the game, Notre Dame has failed to put together a complete, solid performance since the home opener against Penn State.

The players and coaches are aware of this, so Notre Dame does not lack motivation in Wednesday’s contest. The question is whether they have the ability to slug it out with an opponent that is every bit as talented as USC or Michigan.

LSU is led by its outstanding and versatile quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, who has completed 68.5% of his passes and thrown for 26 touchdowns. The 6’6” Russell has a trio of tall, fleet receivers including the dangerous Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet and Craig Davis. Tailback Jacob Hester is a capable fourth option out of the backfield.

The Tigers run the ball by committee. Hester leads the team with only 432 yards, but the team averages 159 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry while demonstrating steady improvement over the course of the season. Freshman tailback Keiland Williams has come on strong to provide an extra spark down the stretch. Overall, LSU’s balanced offense produces over 400 yards and 33 points per game against a demanding schedule.

As you might expect, LSU’s offensive line is big and athletic. Despite the loss of guard Will Arnold to injury, it will be difficult for the undersized Irish to put pressure on Russell with a standard four man rush. Russell does not run very often, but at 257 pounds he is considerably larger than the Irish linebackers and could do some damage if forced to scramble.

The task of stopping the Tigers seems daunting for Notre Dame’s much-maligned defense. In truth, the Irish will need help in the form of turnovers, penalties and dropped passes to have a chance to win. An interesting subplot in this contest is that LSU Offensive Coordinator Jimbo Fisher served under Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Rick Minter when the latter was head coach at Cincinnati.

Fisher was questioned this week about his familiarity with Minter, and had the following comments. “He (Minter) is an outstanding coach. He does a great job and he is one of those guys who steps in the office and goes 22 hours a day. He’s a good tactician. Their players play hard, they mix schemes, they blitz, they play zone, they play man.” “We’ve been apart for so long, since 1999, that we have evolved in different ways. It’ll be interesting to see how he has evolved and how I have evolved, but eventually it’s up to the players. They are the ones that have to execute.”

As impressive as the LSU offense may be, the defense is even better. The Tigers are ranked third in the nation against the pass, third in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. They have surrendered only 12.5 points and 239 yards per game while recording 38 sacks. It is also noteworthy that LSU has outscored teams by 122-20 in the first quarter, so the first couple of possessions will be both interesting and challenging for Notre Dame and Coach Charlie Weis.

LSU has an impressive array of size and speed among its front four, led by 300 pound tackle Glenn Dorsey, sack master Tyson Jackson and his running mate Chase Pittman. Linebackers Darry Beckwith and Ali Highsmith are among the team’s leading tacklers, but the real strength of the defense is the depth and talent up front and in the secondary.

Senior safeties LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels are effective against the run and the pass, while situational backup Craig Steltz leads the team in interceptions with four. Cornerbacks Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson have combined to break up 23 passes this season. As a team, LSU has 48 pass break-ups and 14 interceptions against 25 and 10, respectively, for Notre Dame.

The Tigers’ special teams are also stocked with speed and athleticism. Davis has returned a punt for a score while 5’5” blazer Trindon Holliday has one touchdown among a number of exciting kickoff returns. Chris Jackson handles the kickoff and punting duties with a high degree of competence, while Colt David has hit six of ten field goal attempts.

Since the Tigers are statistically so impressive and are playing in their own back yard, one wonders how Notre Dame can make this a competitive game. A ball control passing game is not likely to work against LSU’s tight coverage, and Brady Quinn will face a fierce rush if he attempts to throw the ball downfield. The Irish must avoid third and long situations, establish and maintain a respectable running game into the second half, and protect the quarterback.

One key player to watch will be John Carlson, whose return from injury gives Notre Dame a much needed option in the passing game as LSU will press the Irish wide receivers. Another will be tackle Sam Young, who will have his hands full against Tyson Jackson. On defense, cornerback Mike Richardson will face another elite receiver in Bowe after a tough outing against USC’s Dwayne Jarrett.

The positional matchups are as follows:

Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Even
Running Back – Even
Wide Receivers – LSU
Tight Ends – Notre Dame
ND OLine vs. LSU DLine – LSU
LSU OLine vs. ND DLine – LSU
Linebackers – Even
Secondary – LSU
Punting - Even
Kicking - Even
Return Teams - LSU
Intangibles - LSU

It appears from all reports that LSU is highly motivated to play the Irish despite the disappointment of missing out on an invitation to the Rose Bowl. The Tigers would like to make a statement in New Orleans as the NFL Saints have done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the Sugar Bowl matchup with Notre Dame provides the ideal national stage. A recent quote from Bowe confirms this mindset. "We are doing this for the state," he said. "After what Katrina did to this city, we are going to put on a show."

I don’t expect Notre Dame to mail in a lackluster effort as Miami did last year against the Tigers in the Peach Bowl (a 40-3 thrashing), but the Irish have done little this season to convince me that they can stay with LSU over four quarters.


Note: For those Irish fans who take issue with my prediction of a loss, please consider a few additional facts:

1. I have attended four Notre Dame games in person since Charlie Weis became the head coach.
2. The Irish have lost all four.
3. I am planning to attend the Sugar Bowl.
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