Sugar Bowl Beating

NEW ORLEANS- The stats at halftime looked promising for Notre Dame during Wednesday's Sugar Bowl contest against No. 4 LSU. The Irish had carved up the Tigers second ranked defense for 261 yards, including 125 of them on the ground by Darius Walker. The problem: Notre Dame trailed 21-14 at intermission and it was only a matter of time before talent-rich LSU would take control of the game.

That moment happened in the decisive second half, where LSU and quarterback JaMarcus Russell outscored the Irish 20-0 en route to a 41-14 victory. The loss ends Notre Dame's year at 10-3. It's one more win than last season's 9-3 mark under head coach Charlie Weis. Still, the disappointment of losing the final two games of the year and not beating a team ranked in the top-25 will sour the off-season. Another displeasing aspect is the bowl losing streak for the Irish, which ticked up another notch to nine. The last bowl victory was the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Some people were wondering if Notre Dame belonged in a BCS game. They didn't do too much to dispel this notion.

"In the locker room, I felt like it was calm and controlled and saw no signs that we would play a complementary crummy second half," Weis said. "It was complementary crummy second half. The defense gave up points. The offense was going four-and-out on the first drive and three-and-out after that. The defense got worn out. You have to give credit to LSU but we were very disappointed by the play in the second half."

All week long, the Notre Dame players had to hear about how the speed and athleticism of LSU would overwhelm them. Few prognosticators gave the Irish a chance. For their part, Notre Dame put up a solid fight for two-plus quarters. But the second half was proof positive that Notre Dame still has some ways to go before it reaches a consistent elite level of play.

The statistics tell the story. The Irish ran seven plays in the third quarter for 26 yards. LSU totaled 205 on 25 plays. The Tigers scored 13 points on two David Colt field goals and a long touchdown pass from Russell to Brandon LaFell. Notre Dame earned just one first down and punted twice. By the end of the frame, the score was 34-14 LSU and the rout was on for the Tiger faithful, who made up a majority of the 77,781 fans in the Louisiana Superdome.

After throwing it 15 times in the first half, LSU (11-2) came out and started to finally attack the vulnerable Notre Dame defense through the air. Russell was 11-of-14 for 150 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter. The backbreaker was on 3rd-and-8 on their own 42-yard line. Russell was flushed right by pressure but saw LaFell streaking down the sideline. The junior signal caller lofted a picture perfect pass for a 58-yard scoring strike to put the game out of reach.

For the contest, Russell, who was named MVP, completed 21-of-34 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. In the leadup to the Sugar Bowl, he actually was a bigger media story than Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman finalist Brady Quinn. Russell's play down the stretch and his hot hand has NFL scouts hoping he declares for the draft in April. If this was the last time in a Tiger uniform, he went out with a big bang.

"JaMarcus has all the natural skills a quarterback would want to possess," LSU head coach Les Miles said. "He's got great vision, great height, extremely accurate, great arm, fluid throwing motion and very capable. What people don't understand about JaMarcus is how smart he is. He is a very bright quarterback and understands what he's looking for.

"I don't know why he wasn't mentioned for the Heisman. I can tell you this: in short order, he's going to have to make a very difficult decision and it's going to be one where he'll be offered a pile of money and he'll have to make a very independent decision. But if he returns, he'll be a Heisman Trophy candidate."

A common theme in losses under Weis is the inability to stop the opponents' offensive attack. All off-season, the Notre Dame defenders had to hear about the 617 yards they allowed to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. There's a new number that'll be heard now: 577. That's how many yards LSU racked up on Wednesday. It was balanced too. The Tigers had 332 passing yards and 245 rushing yards. Most the yards on the ground came in the fourth quarter. The capper was a 20-yard touchdown run by Keiland Williams to add insult to injury and push the score to 41-14. Williams ended the contest with 107 yards and two scores. When it was crunch time, the defense did not make the necessary plays.

"I'm going to have to go back and watch the defensive tape," Weis said. "Even when I'm hearing the defensive calls, I'm getting the offensive stuff straight. I'm going back and forth between the two. I don't think the offensive game came down to mental mistakes. It came down to not executing in the second half. That's what I felt. Defensively, they were well-balanced. I'm going to have to go back and see if the mistakes were physical or mental."

For sure, this was the last time Notre Dame fans will see Quinn. The senior played his last collegiate game on Wednesday night. Quinn has had better performances but also was hurt by some dropped passes. He finished 15-of-35 for a season-low 148 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions and did not look his steady self for the majority of the night.

"I don't think he was the biggest problem," Weis said of Quinn. "He's the easiest one to blame. I'm the head coach. I'll gladly take the bullets for this team. The quarterback is the easiest one to look at because he was 15-of-35. When we go back and look at the game and the potential plays we could have made, I don't think he was sole reason."

The Irish did show some grit in the first half. After falling behind 14-0 nine minutes into the contest, Notre Dame clawed back to tie it up at 14-all when Quinn hit Jeff Samardzija from 10 yards out for a touchdown. Most of the success came on the ground and on the back of Walker. The junior halfback totaled 125 yards in the first half and was a big reason why the Irish controlled the clock for 20 of the first 30 minutes. Walker ended the night with 132 rushing yards. A sign of the impending doom was the next possession, when Russell moved LSU 82 yards in five plays, capped when he ran in a quarterback sneak from five yards out to make it 21-14 before halftime.


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