Jan. 2, 2007
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Notre Dame tailback Darius Walker describes falling behind early against top-rated teams as a feeling similar to being choked.
"You have to get someone's hands off your throat and you're already on the ground and they're on top. That's a hard thing to do," he said.
It's a feeling Walker and the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (10-2) hope to avoid when they face No. 4 LSU (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night. The Irish have fallen behind big in losses to Michigan and Southern California as well as in their come-from-behind win against Michigan State.
It's even more important to start fast against LSU, which has scored on its first possession eight times and has outscored opponents 122-20 in the first quarter. The Tigers are rated third in the nation in total defense, 18th in total offense - with JaMarcus Russell third in passing efficiency - and are eight-point favorites Wednesday.
"You have to make sure the first quarter of the game doesn't get away from you," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said.
Weis said part of the problem for the Irish in big games is they have come out too tight. To combat that, Weis tried to install the game plan over a longer period leading up to the bowl and gave players more freedom to enjoy New Orleans, giving them later curfews. Weis believes he has that problem solved.
"I don't know how we'll play, but we are not going to be tight at the start of the game," he said.
That isn't Weis' only concern. Notre Dame has allowed too many big plays and sacks, committed too many turnovers and struggled to run the ball during some stretches this season.
Against Michigan, Michigan State, UCLA and USC, the Irish averaged 55.5 yards rushing, compared with averaging 159 yards rushing in other games. Falling behind early has contributed to the problem, because the Irish have had to pass more to try to catch up.
"When you're throwing it on every down, most offensive lines are going to struggle because the other team's just going to tee off and let it loose," Weis said. "Because once you become one-dimensional, it doesn't matter if you're in Pop Warner, once you become one-dimensional it becomes a lot easier for those defensive guys to let it loose."
Weis also blames himself for calling too many passes. But problems with the offensive line also have played a role: The Irish have struggled against blitzes, allowing five sacks by UCLA and three each by Michigan and USC.
The Irish also had nine turnovers in the four games in which they had difficulties, compared with three in their other eight games.
The defense has had its problems as well, giving up 15 passes of 30 yards or more and 11 rushes of 20 yards or more.
"We just need to be more disciplined with our coverages and stop the run," safety Chinedum Ndukwe said.
Despite all the problems in big games, Weis stopped a reporter in mid-question when asked about what it will take for Notre Dame to be competitive.
"Hold on. We're not coming here to be competitive," he said. "Let's take a timeout. I don't want to even answer a question about coming here to be competitive until the end. If you want to ask me a question about what it's going to take to win a game, then you can rephrase it, then we'll try that."
Asked again, Weis said the Irish need to get the offense, defense and special teams working well together - something the Irish have yet to do this season.
"I think we can't come out there and be inconsistent on any facet of our game or we'll have no chance," Weis said.