The group will once again get a shot to prove the doubters wrong when Notre Dame faces No. 4 LSU in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Kickoff on January 3rd is at 8:00 p.m. in the Louisiana Superdome and FOX will provide the national television coverage. The naysayers have been out in force ever since the game was announced. Most of the chatter has been about the Irish defense being unable to keep up with the speed and athleticism of the Tiger offense.
It all starts with containing quarterback JaMarcus Russell. The junior quarterback has the physical tools as he stands 6'6", 260 pounds. Charlie Weis has compared him to a "young Dante Culpepper." If it's not his 68 percent completion percentage, it's Russell's 26 touchdowns to eight interceptions ratio. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter joked that his own defensive end, Victor Abiamiri, is the show team quarterback during practice.
"We've faced good quarterbacks before over our two years at Notre Dame and this is a formidable challenge," Minter said on Saturday. "He's a big young man, he's very well coached, athletically gifted to do the things that Coach (Jimbo) Fisher and Coach (Les) Miles ask of him and we look forward to the challenge of facing such a good quarterback."
The Irish have had trouble containing quarterbacks through the air. Michigan's Chad Henne lit them up for 220 yards and three touchdowns. USC's John David Booty was intercepted twice but also threw three touchdowns in the Trojans win. Even some lesser passing offenses have had success. Air Force, ranked 118 out of 119 teams in Division 1A in passing offense, completed 14-of-19 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. North Carolina, ranked 83rd in through the air, completed 14-of-24 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Russell might be better than all of the signal callers the Notre Dame defense has faced.
"Added to his abilities is the ability of his collective receiving corps," secondary coach Bill Lewis said. "I think they work extremely well together. Russell does a great job of managing the game and executing what the want and then he's got some very talented people that he can go to in the passing game."
Lewis mentioned the wide receiving corps for good reason. They are a deep, talented bunch led by Dwayne Bowe. The 6'3", 217-pound physical presence has caught 11 touchdowns and averages 15 yards a catch. Early Doucet, a 6'0", 207-pound junior, has caught another eight scoring passes, including the game-winner late in the victory over Tennessee. If these two aren't enough, leading rusher Jacob Hester has caught 34 balls for three touchdowns. Craig Davis has caught 52 balls on the year, good for second on the team for an average of 15 yards per catch.
"It will definitely be a challenge because when you look at their passing game, you don't zero in on the individual," Lewis said. "I think it's a collective group starting with the quarterback, a guy with a 68.5 completion percentage, which is among the nation's best. Then you see three receivers that have collected over 50 catches apiece and then they collectively put that fourth guy on the field when they go into four wide receivers. Different players fill that role.
"When you look at them as a group they're probably as strong as any group we've seen in our two years that we've been together. We hope that our secondary is up to it and they have to be to play the time of game we want to."
Can the Notre Dame defense step up to the challenge? If so, the Irish have a shot to pull off the upset. But if it's anything resembling the Michigan or USC contests, Notre Dame might be staring straight in the face of nine straight bowl losses.
The Irish do have a point of reference to gain confidence from. With the chips stacked against them, the Notre Dame defense rose up late in the third quarter and fourth quarter to propel them to a come-from-behind victory on the road at Michigan State. It was Terrail Lambert's interception touchdown return with two minutes remaining that was the difference. Coincidentally, Weis has compared the LSU offense to Michigan State's. The performance is what sticks out in Minter‘s mind and a duplicate of the late game effort could prove fruitful on Wednesday night in New Orleans.
"I thought our comeback against Michigan State was one for the ages, which we played a large role in," Minter said. "In fact, the last three times that we were on the field we got takeaways that helped put the team into a position to win in a tremendous, dramatic comeback that's in a very stored rivalry game between ourselves and Michigan State."