One last dance

<P>Bowl games are supposed to be a celebration for a good season. It's considered a reward for the players, coaches, the University and for the fans. One more game to watch your team play and dance in the streets after victory. Why does it feel that not many are really celebrating right now? </P>

It's almost as if some people are dreading this football game. Nobody is really sure what to expect from this Irish team. The loss to U.S.C. is still very clear in the minds of Notre Dame fans and we don't want to see that again. Player suspensions and a loss in recruiting and I think Notre Dame fans are on edge waiting for the next brick to fall. One thing is certain, nobody seems actually excited about this game.

This is where the football coach comes into play. The mind games and the psychology of the game have to kick in here. Coach Willingham is going to have to get this Notre Dame team excited to play this football game. He is going to have to lift this team up and carry it on his shoulders. These are the moments where the head coach makes a big impact on the team.

The Irish are limping into this game. They have lost two starters on the offensive line at offensive tackle. Butkus finalist Courtney Watson is also out of the game. The off the field problems of the starting offensive tackles and the arrest of Chad DeBolt has to be a distraction for this team. Can the Irish overcome the mental part of preparing for this game?

When you look at North Carolina State on paper, you see a very good football team. They have a 1,000- yard rusher in freshman T. A. McLendon. They also have a 3,000-yard passer in Philip Rivers. They have a pretty balanced offense and an offense that I think Coach Diedrick would admire and hopes to have at Notre Dame very soon. Rivers is a very accurate passer. He is a 62% passer and has throw 18 touchdowns this year with only 10 interceptions.

Rivers spreads the ball around with 6 different players having 20 or more receptions. Jerricho Cotchery seems to be the go-to receiver with 57 receptions for over 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns. Bryan Peterson also catches a lot of balls with 40 receptions. McLendon also has 39 receptions out of the backfield so they throw to the back quite often. They don't throw to their tight end Sean Berton that often. This offense can score and they can move the ball. The average about 400 yards a game and 33 points so it will be a big challenge to stop this offense.

On defense, the Wolfpack aren't too shabby either. They allow about 130 yards rushing and 190 yards passing a game. They give up an average of one rushing and one passing touchdown a game. They also have created 28 turnovers this season.

Dantonio Burnette leads the Wolfpack defense with 122 tackles, 2 interceptions and 9 sacks while missing a game. Burnette is the middle linebacker and is the pulse of the defense. Andre Maddox is a hard-hitting safety who has chipped in with 110 tackles. Terrence Holt is the starting strong safety with 91 tackles and 3 interceptions. Shawn Price is the pass-rushing specialist with 9 sacks. This defense looks to be strong in the back 7 but can create a pass rush with 47 total sacks on the year. This will be a challenge to attack this defense.

How will the Irish defense stop the Wolfpack offense? It all starts with stopping the run. The Irish interior defense is going to have to penetrate and make McLendon change direction. McClendon is a bigger back in the mold of Greg Jones. The Irish defense was very successful shutting down Greg Jones by making him change directions. If Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell can get into the backfield, I don't think McLendon will be a big factor in this game.

That takes care of McLendon but what about Rivers? This is going to be a tougher task. Rivers is very accurate. I don't think you will see many big plays because the Irish defense will play zone once again and keep the State receivers in front of them. I don't think State has a wide receiver that scares this staff like Mike Williams, Kareem Kelley or Colbert and certainly not three of that caliber. They will play a tighter zone and put more pressure on the State receivers. The Notre Dame defense is going to have to make some plays to pressure Rivers. I think they can stop McLendon, pressure Rivers and keep them from scoring more than 17 points.

The real challenge is how will Notre Dame score more than 17 points? Here is where the fun begins! No, I mean it, I think the fun begins with this game. There is no reason to hold Holiday back in this game. I think we are going to see an offense we haven't seen all year. I think Holiday will roll out often and they will let him make plays. Being disciplined in "the system" and teaching "the system" will likely be thrown out in this game. I bet we see some option, a lot of Holiday on the run and a lot of decisions made by Holiday with the ball in his hands. I think the extra time will give Notre Dame the opportunity to put some plays into the playbook that better suit the talents of Holiday.

Will it matter much? Holiday has improved greatly since the beginning of the season. He has a pretty good grasp on the system and Notre Dame needs to win this game to keep the momentum going into spring ball. Allowing Holiday to make more plays will only help this offense. I think the cuffs come off and we will a different offense for this game.

The final score? It's hard to guess really. I think this defense has a lot of pride and they will come out ready to play. I don't question what we will see in the defense but I do wonder about the offense. Losing Curtin and Black hurts not only in the X's and O's of the game but also in the mental part of the game. I think this is why you will see Holiday being Holiday of old. They will turn him loose and see if he can win the game the way he is accustomed to. Can the offensive line give him enough creases to make plays? Notre Dame 24 North Carolina State 17. Top Stories