Dec. 5, 2006
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was quick to respond when asked his about his biggest concern about facing LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
"When you're playing a team the caliber of LSU, the first thing that comes to mind is making sure that our players are ready for the speed of the game," he said. "Obviously they play with great passion and great emotion, but the speed of the game is the No. 1 thing that we're going to have to be ready for. If not, you're going to be in for a long night."
The 11th-ranked Irish have had some long days and nights against elite competition over the past year, starting with a 34-20 loss to Ohio State in January's Fiesta Bowl. The speedy Buckeyes burned the Irish for four touchdowns of 56 yards or more.
The speed of Michigan's defense caused problems for Notre Dame's offensive line and quarterback Brady Quinn, who threw a season-high three interceptions and fumbled once. Wolverine receiver Mario Manningham caught three touchdown passes, including a 69-yarder that broke the game open. USC's Dwayne Jarrett also had three touchdown catches against the Irish.
Now the Irish will try to snap an eight-game losing streak in bowl games on Jan. 3 against No. 4 LSU (10-2), which is known for its speed, especially on defense. Despite playing a tough Southeastern Conference schedule, LSU has the nation's second-best defense, giving up just 238 yards a game. The Tigers also are third in the nation in pass defense, giving up 145.5 yards a game.
The Tigers are almost as potent offensively, ranking 18th in the nation at 404 yards a game. JaMarcus Russell was third in pass efficiency, completing 68.5 percent and averaging 168 yards a game.
"I think our defense is definitely going to have to match up with the speed of LSU's offense," safety Tom Zbikowski said. "I know that was one of the things in the Ohio State game from last year's BCS game a lot of people questioned the speed of our defense. We're going to have to work on it. It's where we spent our time in the offseason. We'll see if it pays off in the Sugar Bowl."
Zbikowski, though, doesn't think speed was the reason the Irish lost 44-24 to USC in their regular-season finale.
"Dwayne Jarrett was making some one-handed grabs that you really can't do much against it. But I never really saw people running completely past us," he said. "They made more plays than us, but I don't think it had anything to do with them being that much faster than us. I think it was just they made some plays."
Linebacker Travis Thomas agreed speed isn't the problem.
"I think it's just something everyone says and comes up with and really just another excuse about why we lose big games," Thomas said.
He pointed to cornerback Terrail Lambert, who finished second in the 60-meter dash in the Big East indoor track championship in February, "and Zibby and guys like Ambrose (Wooden) that run 4.4s, 4.3s just like guys on the other team. Sometimes guys just make plays," Thomas said. "I just think it's something else people harp on."
Maybe so, but Weis is among those harping on it. He conceded before the USC game that after weeks of playing teams like Navy, Air Force and Army, he was worried the Irish might be slow to adjust to USC's speed. To guard against that in getting ready for the Sugar Bowl, he plans to have the starting offense go against the starting defense, at least during early bowl preparations.
"We're going to spend the next few weeks going good guys against the good guys and not going against show teams here in the beginning so we don't fall into a rut," he said.