Key Matchup

NEW ORLEANS- They look good on film. They also look good in person. The LSU defense has been getting massive amounts of attention in the lead up to the January 3rd Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame. The Tigers have the numbers and stats to back up the hype machine that's swirling down in New Orleans.

On Wednesday, though, they won't be facing any old offense. The Irish's attack is 20th nationally, racking up 398 yards per contest. This includes the 12th best passing offense, led by quarterback Brady Quinn. Head coach Charlie Weis has been preaching to his players that LSU's defense resembles Tennessee from last year. They're big, fast, athletic and can rush the passer with their front four. It's probably no coincidence that Notre Dame beat the Volunteers in 2005 and it's the blueprint they're working from.

"It's easy to compare them to Tennessee last year," running back Darius Walker said. "They are a team with speed and very physical and in the SEC. You know what type of game it's going to be and what the flow will be. In the SEC, the games seem to go a lot faster because they have so much speed."

Walker's job description will have the utmost importance. The junior halfback not only will try to penetrate the nation's 14th best rushing defense but also pick up oncoming defenders in protecting Quinn. LSU can get pressure with their front four and Walker might have to help an offensive line that's allowed 2.5 per game, which ranks 95th in Division 1A. Blitz pickup has been an area that's improved for Walker.

"One of the things he's done is progress as a pass protector," offensive coordinator/running backs coach Mike Haywood said. "It was one of his deficiencies when the season started. But he's got significantly as the season has gone on."

"You still work on it as much as possible," Walker said. "It's important for a running back. Your duties as a running back are significant. You run the ball, run routes, catch the ball and all of that stuff. You have to be on top of your game."

The Irish offensive line will have to be on top of their game. The unit has faced some great groups in 2006. Michigan's LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch wreaked havoc with pressure and sacks. UCLA's Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman combined for five sacks.

The LSU defensive line is as good as it gets. They're anchored by All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who is contemplating skipping his senior year to go pro. The offensive line must open holes for Walker to run through and keep Tiger defenders off the back of Quinn. It's quite a task but one that must be achieved for Notre Dame to have a shot at the upset.

"They're a lot like the UCLA line," offensive lineman Ryan Harris said. "They have talent across the board. They are real talented and know their technique. They don't make a lot of mistakes. It's a talented group but we've seen talented groups before.

"We are definitely preparing for a physical contest. They have size, speed and ability. We expect a very full contact game."

LSU ranks third against the pass. The best group the Irish have seen this year is Army's, which is No. 7 nationally. A fierce Tiger pass rush, coupled with a lockdown secondary, contributes to this high ranking.

LSU has faced seven teams ranked 67th or worse in passing. Notre Dame's attack will be the second highest of the year. All-American safety LaRon Landry leads the group, who mix it up with tough, physical one-on-one press coverage and a zone here and there. Notre Dame is preparing for either coverage style.

"I'm sure there is going to be a little bit of both," wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said. "They like to bring pressure at certain times. If you bring pressure, you're going to be manned up on the outside. It's tough to say. They'll be mixing it up. They have confidence in their guys."

What type of game does Notre Dame need to play? A low-scoring affair is unlikely because of the Irish defense's vulnerability to the big play. A shootout would provide the best scenario. One problem: LSU is 5th in scoring defense, surrendering a meager 12 points per game. Notre Dame has been held under 20 points once and 30 points four times. They know how to put points up on the scoreboard.

"I hope we get into the end zone a couple of times," Samardzija said. "That's how you score points. We've been doing good during the year at scoring points. We'll stick to our strengths and hopefully we can put one more up than them."

One final feature of the Sugar Bowl is the venue. The Louisiana Superdome is the site for the contest. Usually, Notre Dame has no problem traveling and filling up the majority of the seats. It's expected that LSU fans will dominate the crowd. It's no secret that the Tiger faithful have no problem being heard or making noise during games. It's another daunting aspect that the Irish players must be ready for.

"We know there's going to be a heavy presence of LSU fans," Harris said. "What helps for them is the hard covered dome, which will be greatly in their favor. We've played at Tennessee but I could only imagine if they had a hard covered dome. We're definitely going to have some noise."


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