Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reckoning


The Tigers and Irish are coming. Notre Dame has had some crowning moments in the Bayou - 1973 vs. Alabama, 1992 vs. Florida, and 1997 vs. LSU (above).

So New Orleans welcomes back the Sugar Bowl after a year in exile with what might as well be a home game for LSU, and with the schedule/hype sharks circling around Notre Dame, waiting for the kill. The circus arrives in the French Quarter on December 28th and leads right through the final whistle on January 3rd, and even a casual survey of the Notre Dame psyche reveals two conflicting attitudes permeating the fanbase - optimism and dread.

The optimists fondly remember New Year's Day 1992 and its now infamous 'Cheerios' joke on the heels of two full months of punditry concernig the unworthiness of the Irish and their 8-3 record against the mighty 11-1, third-ranked Florida Gators. Once the dust settled and Jerome Bettis was done picking Gator defensive backs out from under his cleats, Notre Dame had won 39-28 and secured a Top 10 finish. The "road green" jerseys broken out specially for the game (a costume set not worn since) only furthered the legend of Lou Holtz, and the momentum lasted all the way to a victory over #1 Florida State 23 months later.

So there's reason to think positive even in light of the fact that LSU is probably the worst possible matchup the Irish could have drawn, and that the Irish drew it under circumstances that leave everybody wondering if they'll ever be able to again compete with the top echelon of college football.

Which creates that inevitable sense of dread, as any pragmatist ought to recognize that Notre Dame hasn't had a consistent rushing attack all year, and LSU boasts a terrific front four, led by the next dominant NFL tackle in Glen Dorsey. Safety LaRon Landry leads the nation's #3 pass defense, which ought to handcuff Notre Dame's only dependable asset on offense. The stage is set for game 13, in what should be a wild and unpredictable finish to a crazy 2006 season...

#11 Notre Dame vs. #4 LSU
7:30 PM CDT -- January 3, 2007
Louisiana Superdome - New Orleans, LA

Why LSU Will Win

"I'm not concerned that we don't have speed; I'm concerned that they do."
-- Charlie Weis, Dec. 19 2006

That's as close to a concession speech as Charlie Weis is ever going to give. Simple fact is that LSU is probably, pound for pound and 40-time for 40 time, the quickest and most athletic team Notre Dame will face this season. At the skill positions they're second to none - Dwayne Bowe is their top weapon at wideout, as tall and agile as Jeff Samardzija while having 4.4 speed. Craig Davis and Early Doucet are every bit the threat that a Dwayne Jarrett or Mario Manningham would be (translation: they'd be #1 WR on just about any other team in the country, including Notre Dame).

Overall, much like USC, LSU is a deeper squad in terms of speed and athleticism. No one player stands out for them, because they all divvy up the touches equally. Notre Dame will be hard-pressed to come up with a way to neutralize the advantages that the Tigers will enjoy at just about every position. They're good, plain and simple, very, very good.

Boy, that sounds depressing doesn't it? If the Tigers are so amazing, why do they have 2 losses? Well, they're first loss was a bizarre-yet-typical "SEC shootout", losing to Auburn 7-3. Later on they committed 5 turnovers in a loss to Florida at The Swamp. With a schedule that didn't require their two toughest conference games to be on the road, the Tigers might have been in Glendale. Which leads to yet another discouraging fact if you're an Irish fan - LSU protects their home turf, and while Baton Rouge is 80 miles west, this might as well be a home game. It will also be the first Sugar Bowl in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, and the surge of emotion from the crowd will likely create the most intimidating environment Notre Dame could possibly be walking in to. If the Tigers protect the ball and make use the natural advantages they possess, the Leprechaun winds up nothing more than Tiger Bait.


Why Notre Dame Will Win

"If you think we're going down there to get our butts whooped, you're wrong."
-- Charlie Weis, Dec. 19

Perhaps no game (other than the 2005 USC game) will serve as a better barometer of where Notre Dame is heading than this one. The Irish aren't just underdogs in this game, they're being given virtually no chance of winning. That position might just be where they feel most comfortable - after all, they were favored going into the Michigan game and lost by 26, with much of the blame falling on Weis' tight-lipped, noncommittal attitude filtering down onto his players. ND blog observers at the Blue-Gray Sky wrote the following: "Weis is responsible for the attitude and mental preparation of the team. For allowing this group of pre-season all-world prima donnas (on offense, at least) to show up for this game expecting to stroll out on to the field and beat Michigan, Weis earns an F-." Ouch.

So the news that Weis plans some signigicant tweaks to the bowl prep - such as (GASP!) allowing his players extended curfew during their first night in New Orleans - might feed a perception that Weis is trying to play the expectations game, angling to keep Notre Dame's opinion of itself so low that the inevitable beatdown won't seem so bad. WRONG. Just like the first 24 games of his tenure, Weis wants to win this game. Badly.

But can he concoct enough strategic mismatches in favor of his team to compensate for the obvious physical ones that work against them? Yes and no. I know this might sound crazy, but the best style of attack against LSU is actually an old-school boxing method (Tom Zbikowski ought to love this one). Weis will turn into Rocky Balboa, figuring out to keep his team standing long enough and letting frustration set in for Les Miles because he can't turn in another one-punch victory like he does against Kentucky and Arizona. The key is to let LSU's quick-strike style exhaust itself early. If you look at the Tigers' season, their main flaw is obvious and appears to be mental - they either lost or struggled mightily against teams they couldn't put away by the end of the first quarter.

Such is the key to Notre Dame's survival - if they can limit the big plays and withstand the initial onslaught, they'll have LSU standing in bewilderment like they were against Ole Miss, a game that got pushed into overtime. Another tidbit of history to raise your spirits, ND fans: Weis has a track record of helping guide teams with virtually no chance to improbable upset victories in the Superdome (see: Super Bowl XXVI).

The Prediction

Awful hard to pick against LSU in this matchup. The intangibles might favor the Irish, but there'll be a huge swell of hometown emotion to carry the Tigers should they be in need of a boost. The offenses are comparable, so it comes down to defense - and Tigers coordinator Bo Pelini has had a unit ranked in the top 3 nationally for each of the past two seasons.

Ultimately, the game follows a similar trajectory to last season's Fiesta Bowl. The Irish find ways to stave off a complete blowout and claw back into the game, but there's too much disparity in overall talent to overcome.

So why are legions of Irish fans heading to LSU and paying $125 a pop to see another loss? I refer back yet again to The West Wing, in the final episode to feature Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn. Sam asks Toby why he's bothering to wage a campaign doomed to fail. Toby's response:

"You're going to lose and you're going to lose huge. They're gonna throw rocks at you next week, and I wanted to be standing next to you when they did."

LSU 33, Notre Dame 21.

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