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January 1, 2007

Sugar Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame

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Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn knows the perfect way to end his brilliant career.

"We haven't gotten a bowl win since I've been here," Quinn said, "so why not prove everyone else wrong who says we're not good enough to beat LSU right now?"

Easier said than done.

No. 4 Louisiana State enters the Sugar Bowl (8:25 p.m., Fox) as one of the hottest teams in the nation. The Tigers own a six-game winning streak that includes victories away from home against Arkansas and Tennessee, who both were ranked in the top 10 at the time.

Notre Dame has taken a giant step forward in Charlie Weis' two-year coaching tenure, but the Irish have struggled against elite teams this season. Notre Dame fell 47-21 at home to Michigan and lost 44-24 at Southern California in its regular-season finale.

Since the end of the USC game, the Irish have heard plenty of critics argue that they have no chance of ending their eight-game bowl losing streak. Notre Dame hasn't won a postseason game since beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

"I get tired of hearing how bad we are," said Quinn, the third-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy balloting. "I mean, that's all people seem to be saying sometimes. Notre Dame is one of those universities where it's kind of like either you love it or you hate it. It's tough because you've got to deal with the criticism all the time. So we win a big game against a great team like (LSU), you can't really say a whole lot back."

Louisiana State's seniors also have plenty at stake.

"If they win this game, they will have set the all-time career mark for victories at LSU,'' Tigers coach Les Miles said. "They will be the winningest senior class in the history of LSU. There's a lot to play for."

This also represents an important game for LSU junior quarterback JaMarcus Russell, particularly if he decides to enter the NFL Draft instead of returning for his senior season.

Quinn is generally considered the top quarterback prospect in the upcoming draft class. Russell's pro stock could soar if he outplays Quinn and leads the Tigers to a convincing victory.

"My focus is to try to get my teammates in position to make plays," Russell said. "We need to go out there and just keep doing what we have been doing the whole year. If that happens, I think we will do great."

Sugar Bowl: Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Louisiana State (10-2)
Time: 8:25 p.m.
Location: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
Network: Fox
Announcers: Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Howie Long (color), Terry Bradshaw (color), Jeanne Zelasko (sideline)
About Notre Dame Conference: Independent
Record: 10-2
Coach: Charlie Weis (19-5, second season)
Passing leader: Brady Quinn (274-of-432, 3,278 yards, 35 TDs, five INTs)
Rushing leader: Darius Walker (233 carries, 1,139 yards, seven TDs).
Receiving leaders: Jeff Samardzija (70 catches, 958 yards, 11 TDs), Rhema McKnight (64 catches, 885 yards, 15 TDs), John Carlson (46 catches, 621 yards, four TDs), Darius Walker (54 catches, 361 yards, one TD), David Grimes (25 catches, 312 yards, one TD).
Defensive leaders: DT Derek Landri (34 solos, 31 assists, 15.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks), DE Victor Abiamiri (25 solos, 17 assists, 14.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), LB Maurice Crum (42 solos, 50 assists, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception), S Chinedum Ndukwe (48 solos, 38 assists, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, one sack, one fumble recovery), DT Trevor Laws (21 solos, 39 assists, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception)
About Louisiana State Conference: Southeastern
Record: 10-2, 6-2 in conference)
Coach: Les Miles (21-4, second season at Louisiana State; 49-25 in six seasons overall).
Passing leader: JaMarcus Russell (211-of-308, 2,797 yards, 26 TDs, seven INTs).
Rushing leaders: Jacob Hester (91 carries, 415 yards, six TDs), Keiland Williams (62 carries, 329 yards, three TDs), Alley Broussard (74 carries, 281 yards, four TDs), Charles Scott (46 carries, 277 yards, five TDs).
Receiving leaders: Dwayne Bowe (60 catches, 912 yards, 11 TDs), Craig Davis (52 catches, 786 yards, four TDs), Early Doucet (51 catches, 657 yards, eight TDs), Jacob Hester (34 catches, 257 yards, three TDs).
Defensive leaders: S LaRon Landry (42 solos, 26 assists, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, one forced fumble), DT Glenn Dorsey (19 solos, 40 assists, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks), LB Darry Beckwith (26 solos, 35 assists, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception), LB Ali Highsmith (24 solos, 34 assists, 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, DE Tyson Jackson (11 solos, 24 assists, 10 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, one fumble recovery), CB Chevis Jackson (29 solos, 11 assists, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, 13 pass breakups).
Notre Dame running game vs. Louisiana State run defense: Darius Walker has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, but he gained less than 3 yards per carry against Michigan, Penn State and UCLA. He could struggle to find holes against an LSU defense that allows 3 yards per carry.
Edge: Louisiana State.
Notre Dame passing game vs. Louisiana State pass defense: This is the game's most intriguing matchup. Brady Quinn has thrown 29 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his last nine games. Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight have combined for 26 touchdown receptions. That potent Irish passing attack will face a talent-laden LSU secondary that features All-America safety LaRon Landry. Quinn should have a big game as long as Notre Dame's shaky offensive line handles an LSU team that ranks sixth in the nation in sacks per game.
Edge: Notre Dame.
Louisiana State running game vs. Notre Dame run defense: Louisiana State doesn't have a single 500-yard rusher this year, but the Tigers are still averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The Tigers could have too much speed for a Notre Dame defense that is allowing 3.6 yards per carry. It should be noted that the defensive line represents the strength of Notre Dame's much-maligned defense. The Irish have allowed less than 2 yards per carry in three of their last six games.
Edge: Louisiana State.
Louisiana State passing game vs. Notre Dame pass defense: This represents the game's biggest mismatch. JaMarcus Russell ranks among the hottest quarterbacks in the nation after throwing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three games. Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet give Russell plenty of reliable targets. Bowe and Co. should exploit a Notre Dame secondary that has struggled all season against talented receivers (e.g. Michigan's Mario Manningham, USC's Dwayne Jarrett, North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks ).
Edge: Louisiana State.
Notre Dame coaches vs. Louisiana State coaches: Louisiana State coach Les Miles proved he knew how to deliver in the postseason when the Tigers thrashed Miami in last year's Peach Bowl. But we still like the big-game experience Notre Dame's Charlie Weis accumulated while winning four Super Bowl rings as an assistant with the New England Patriots and New York Giants. One interesting aspect to this game is how LSU's offense performs with so many rumors swirling around the job status of offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who has been connected to several head coaching and coordinator vacancies over the past month.
Edge: Notre Dame.
Notre Dame will win if: The Irish fell way behind early in their losses to Michigan and Southern California, so they'd better prevent that from happening again. They also need to establish some semblance of a running game. The early deficits and the lack of a rushing attack forced Notre Dame to throw on just about every down in the second half of the Michigan and Southern California games.
Louisiana State will win if: The Tigers have enough talent and athleticism to win this game as long as they play up to their potential. But if Russell repeats the mistakes that haunted him in a midseason loss to Florida, Notre Dame could pull off the upset.
Injury situation: Notre Dame tight end John Carlson expects to play against LSU after missing the last two regular-season games with an injured right knee. Notre Dame safety Chinedum Ndukwe injured his left knee in the regular-season finale against Southern California and underwent arthroscopic surgery afterward, but he also expects to play in the Sugar Bowl. LSU running back Jacob Hester also plans to play despite having a minor knee injury.
Worth noting: Notre Dame has lost eight consecutive bowl games since beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. The Irish own an all-time bowl record of 13-14. LSU is making its 13th Sugar Bowl appearance, which leads all schools. Alabama has played in 12 Sugar Bowls. LSU owns an all-time bowl record of 18-18-1, which includes a 5-7 mark in the Sugar. Notre Dame has won five of its previous nine meetings with LSU. The two teams last faced each other in 1998, with the Irish winning 39-36 at Notre Dame. Notre Dame and LSU have met in a bowl game once before. LSU beat the Irish 27-9 in the 1997 Independence Bowl. All four of LSU's regular-season games away from home were against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game. LSU traveled to No. 3 Auburn, No. 5 Florida, No. 8 Tennessee and No. 5 Arkansas (the Arkansas game was at Little Rock and not on the Razorbacks' Fayetteville campus). This is believed to be the first time in college football history that all of a team's road games were against top-10 foes. Quinn owns 36 school records. Samardzija has a school-record 26 career touchdown catches, while McKnight ranks second in the nation with 15 touchdown catches this year. Rice's Jarrett Dillard leads all receivers with 21 touchdown catches. Bowe owns an LSU school record with 25 career touchdown catches. LSU leads the SEC in total offense, scoring offense, total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. LSU has recorded at least one sack in 18 consecutive games.
Line: Louisiana State by 9.
Megargee's pick: Louisiana State 38-27

Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Louisiana State 24-20
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Louisiana State 31-21
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Louisiana State 31-21

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