News and Notes: 12/30/2006

NEW ORLEANS- Notre Dame has been a one-back team this season. Darius Walker has carried the load, rushing 233 times for 1,139 yards and seven touchdowns. The next running back with the most carries is freshman James Aldridge, who has 34 rushes on the year, a mere 199 fewer than Walker. The Irish's opponent in the Sugar Bowl, LSU, uses a different system to get the ground game going.

Jacob Hester has started all 12 games for the Tigers and is the team's leading rusher. The 6-0, 228-pound junior has rushed for 415 yards and six touchdowns. Some might laugh at the yardage total. But a look down the list shows four players with 250 yards on the ground or more. Freshman back Keiland Williams has 329 yards and three scores. Charles Scott averages six yards per carry to go along with five touchdowns. Alley Broussard adds another four scores.

The depth of the group is exemplified by Justin Vincent, who was the 2004 Sugar Bowl MVP in the Tiger's national championship win over Oklahoma. For the season, he has accumulated 139 yards on 45 carries and scored zero touchdowns. LSU's attack comes at opponents in waves.

"I wouldn't say that one guy stands out," middle linebacker Maurice Crum said, who leads all Irish tacklers with 92 stops. "All of them have that big play ability. They got speed, they're physical. Take your pick. Any one of them can take it the distance."

"They are a big power team," defensive tackle Derek Landri said, who led Notre Dame with 15.5 tackles for loss. "They enjoy doing that. They have four running backs and switch them up a lot. From watching film, when they need yards, they run right up the middle."

Hester is the key. In addition to being the team's leading rusher, he can catch the ball out the backfield. Hester has 34 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns. He is similar in this aspect to Walker, who has 54 receptions for 361 yards. Hester's catch total is good for fourth on the LSU team and the Notre Dame players know he's multi-dimensional.

"They are all real talented," Landri said. "But No. 18 is probably the most versatile of all of them. They can run with him, throw screen passes and run block. They use him in just about everything. He's the go-to-back."

*One can't go two minutes in New Orleans until the name JaMarcus Russell pops up into a discussion. For those that don't know, the junior quarterback is real tall and real big. He stands at 6-6, 260 pounds. Russell is the nation's third most efficient signal caller and threw 26 touchdowns this season. The ability on the field, combined with his size, has made him priority number one for the Notre Dame defense.

"I'm glad I'm not a d-lineman or anything like that," safety Tom Zbikowski said. "When you see him a couple of times on film, it looks like they have him wrapped up and sacked. But he gets out of it. He can throw 35, 40 yards down the field on a line. We have to stick with the wide receivers and play the ball and not them. Watching film, it's pretty impressive."

"We have to hit him and throw off his timing," defensive end Victor Abiamiri said, who leads the Irish in sacks with 10. "We need to get him down and do anything to help the secondary back there. I'd never gone up against a guy that big. So we'll see."

Landri knows the Notre Dame defenders have to hit him hard and hit him hard often and early.

"From film alone, you see a lot of big defensive linemen hit him and bounce off," Landri said. "Safeties have done it. Cornerbacks have done it. Linebackers have done it. That's where a lot of their big plays come from is missed tackles in the backfield. That'll be big for us to tackle them and get them down. We can't arm tackle them. We have to hit with our body."

*The bowl losing streak has been a thorn in the side of the Irish. Now at eight games, every time an announcer or pundit talks about Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, the mention of the ugly run is brought up. The Irish have a chance to start a new streak on January 3rd.

Not only has it become fashionable to ridicule Notre Dame's bowl showings but it brings up another point: the senior class, which has endured a ton in their time in South Bend, has never won a bowl game. Names like Brady Quinn, Abiamiri, Landri, Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight will have a black spot on their college playing resumes if the Irish do in fact lose to LSU. It's a point of pride for the senior class to go out on top.

"It doesn't matter what game it is," Landri said. "You want to win your last game. It's the best thing you can do. It's not a national championship game. But to go out on top and win would be great."

"I'm pumped," Abiamiri said. "This is my last time of my college career. I want to end it one high note. I've been playing with these guys for four years. What better way to send us out with a Sugar Bowl victory."

Even Travis Thomas, who is expected to be back for a fifth-year, doesn't want to mope from January to September with the sting of another bowl defeat.

"It weighs a lot," Thomas said of the streak. "When you look at the history of Notre Dame football and you're one of the most storied programs, when you haven't won a bowl game, obviously something isn't going right. We're trying to turn that around. We want to prove we can play with the big boys."

*Head coach Charlie Weis didn't want to make a big deal of it. So he had his team, without any traveling media, participate in a community service project on Wednesday in New Orleans. Weis wanted to show his players the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that still remains in the Big Easy. Obviously, the visual images of the damage got through to his team.

"It's tough to see places not worked on or fixed yet," Zbikowski said. "It's definitely a good opportunity to help some people out. But then you wonder why nothing is being done or why it's like that in certain places."

"For the most part, it looks like a lot of the hotter spots have been kept up," Landri said. "I'm glad we could get out and help. I'm glad Coach Weis did that for us. It was good to get out there. We didn't get the full jest of what went on but we got a little bit of it. I'm happy to help somebody, even if it wasn't a lot. Just to move some things around and help out was nice."


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