The game is a mere 48 hours away, and I have cleared some time in my schedule to give my impressions going into the Sugar Bowl.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned about this LSU team is the dichotomy between the LSU team at home and the LSU team on the road. The scores of their home games are: 45-3, 45-3, 49-7, 48-17, 49-0, 38-6, 28-14, and 23-20 (OT), with the close overtime game coming against Ole Miss, who shut down the LSU run game. On the road, LSU scores looked like this: 3-7 (L) 10-23 (L), 28-24, 31-26. All fairly close games or losses.
We need to make this a road game for the Tigers. The Notre Dame faithful need to travel as well as they ever have, and neutralize the potential for this to be a home game for the Tigers.
The second key, as alluded to above, is that we need to stop their run. Everyone in the media is focusing on the three senior speedster receivers for LSU and the accuracy of Louisiana demi-god JaMarcus Russell (QB). However, the LSU rushing attack is what makes their passing game tick, and LSU usually comes out of the gate trying to establish the run, falling back to the pass only if they fall behind.
If LSU runs well early, Nedu and Zibby will have to cheat up to the line of scrimmage to stop their stable of monster running backs (every one of 'em over 225 lbs.). Once we lose our safety support to the play action fake, it is all but over for the Irish. However, if the D-lineman and linebackers can neutralize the running game LSU will not beat us with the pass.
These receivers are good, but Mannningham, Jarrett, and Johnson they are not. The success of their receiving corps is rooted in their ability to spread the ball around - all 3 receivers have between 50 and 60 catches on the year. We need to be able to stay in a nickel package with 3 corners and 2 safeties behind, and neutralize the rush with 4 down linemen and 2 linebackers.
Much has been made of the LSU defense in this game, but I don't think LSU has seen a team with as many options and which operates at such high efficiency as a Weis offense executed by Brady Quinn. We will not score 50, but I'm confident we can get into the 30s if we don't make too many mistakes and can give Brady any time to throw.
We will probably see a lot of draws and screens to counteract the pressure from LSU's defensive line. LSU doesn't blitz very often, because they get so much pressure from their down linemen. This gives them a couple extra pass defenders, which led to their gaudy pass defense numbers. We need to keep their front four pass rush off of Brady, which would force them into a blitzing scheme which Brady can pick apart.
A healthy John Carlson could make the difference in this game. We missed him sorely in the loss to USC, and his return will give us an edge against the linebackers at LSU, which would also relieve some of the pressure on the O-line.
Essentially, Notre Dame needs to get into a rhythm on offense and defense to beat this LSU team, much like they did against Penn State earlier this season. If we can execute reasonably well on both sides of the ball, we can win this game. However, if we struggle in any aspect of the game, we will get beaten. LSU does not have to play their best game to beat us, but we do need to play our best game to beat them.
We do have one decided advantage in this game - coaching. Les Miles is a very good coach, but he has a bad habit of micromanaging his coordinators, leading to a more conservative game plan and less responsive and effective adjustments. Coach Weis is probably the best in the game at in-game adjustments, and this should lead to some golden opportunities for our players.
Ultimately, I think that this game means more to us than it does to LSU. Brady, Jeff, Rhema, Vic, and Ryan all play their last game in an Irish uniform before starting careers in the NFL (or MLB). Having gotten to know the character of Brady over the past few years, I know he is studying hard for this game, and he will not come out hesitant or emotional. He wants this last opportunity to redeem his career at Notre Dame, having fallen short of his national championship aspirations. Further, Brady has a golden opportunity to cement his position at the front of the NFL draft with a solid performance against such a highly ranked pass defense. Coach Weis wants this, too. He has heard too long about Notre Dame not having a signature victory, and while he could care less about the press, he certainly hears some of the same refrains in recruiting, as other coaches try to knock us down.
With a win against LSU, Notre Dame will simultaneously exorcise the bowl game demon that has been plaguing us over the past decade, and Weis can probably leverage such a win into arguably the best recruiting class in history. Quinn can cement his position as the golden boy savior of Notre Dame football, and the best pro QB prospect coming out of college since Elway. Also, this defense can get some much needed respect by controlling such an efficient passing offense.
With a loss, recruitimg will suffer a little bit (we'll have a top 5 class, but not a consensus #1 class). We'll take sole possession of the longest bowl losing streak in history. And Weis' coaching ability will come into question a little bit if he appears to be outcoached by Les Miles. Weis' last four losses have come to Carroll (2 championships), Carr (1 championship), and Tressel (1 championship, playing for another). But a loss to Miles would bring into question his much proclaimed ability to gameplan effectively.
Ultimately, I think that the intangibles that Coach Weis and Brady Quinn bring to the game will allow us to overcome the challenges that LSU presents. I think we'll struggle a little bit early on, but I expect that at the end of the game, the ball will be in Brady's hands with the game on the line.
And once that happens, it's all over but the celebrating.
Notre Dame 31