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Sour taste from the Sugar Bowl

Ken Fowler | Thursday, January 4, 2007

Louisiana State’s team buses rolled over Notre Dame Street on their way to practice at the Superdome every day leading up to the Sugar Bowl. On Wednesday, the No. 4 Tigers rolled over the No. 11 Irish in a 41-14 victory in front of a jubilant Louisiana crowd.

After a competitive first half, LSU pounded Notre Dame in the second with suffocating defense and a persistent, efficient offense. The Irish trailed just 21-14 after two periods, but the Tigers defense bore down in the third and fourth quarters, and a flat Notre Dame team never showed signs of coming back. The result was a 333-to-30 advantage in second-half yards for the Tigers and a second straight BCS blowout loss for the Irish.

“Obviously, it was a team effort,” said Irish quarterback Brady Quinn after his final collegiate game. “We really weren’t converting on third down, making plays when we had the opportunity, and really, when you look at it, we weren’t productive.”

Quinn finished his prolific career with his worst game in two seasons, completing just 15-of-35 attempts for 148 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. LSU’s star quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, completed touchdown passes of 11 and 58 yards and ran for a 5-yard score en route to earning game MVP award.

“I have great respect for their great quarterback, Brady Quinn,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “I just think I have the best quarterback in the country.”

Russell finished 21-of-34 for 332 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a fumble.

Notre Dame gained only two first downs in the second half, including one on a pass interference penalty. After the first, the Irish went three-and-out; after the second, Quinn threw an interception on the following play.

The turning point of the game was Russell’s 58-yard pass to wide receiver Early Doucet with 1:40 remaining in the first half. With the game tied at 14, Doucet got to the Irish 5 and Russell ran the ball in for a score from a four-wide formation, one of LSU’s common offensive themes for the night.

“From … that little two-minute touchdown they got right before halftime, for the rest of the game they really laid the wood on us,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

And even if the Irish offense was clicking, the Tigers made sure Notre Dame wouldn’t have much time to make a comeback. LSU held the ball for more than 21 minutes in the second half.

Notre Dame’s defense was porous and its offense stagnant. The Tigers torched the Irish after time, and Quinn never found a rhythm passing.

For the Tigers, any problems they had ceased after halftime.

After two Colt David field goals, Russell threw a second 58-yarder, this time a touchdown, to freshman Brandon LaFell with 18 seconds left in the third quarter to extend the LSU lead to 34-14. On the first play after starting Irish cornerback Terrail Lambert collided with Notre Dame linebacker Maurice Crum and briefly left the game, Russell attacked the backup corner, Irish freshman Darrin Walls. LaFell beat Walls deep, and safety help from Irish senior Chinedum Ndukwe arrived too late.

“You just have to tip you caps to them because they came to play and we didn’t,” Ndukwe said. “They were throwing deep balls all over the place.”

Notre Dame’s only strength on the night, its rushing attack, fell victim to an LSU lead that forced Weis to abandon the ground game and rely solely on the inefficient air attack.

Irish tailback Darius Walker rushed 18 times for 125 yards in the first two quarters. He carried only four times for 3 yards after halftime.

“In the second half, I didn’t get a chance to run the ball a lot because we were down,” Walker said. “Naturally when you’re behind, you really can’t run the ball that much because you’re trying to score points. And then when you get down even further and further behind, you might as well forget about the running game because you need touchdowns right away.”

While Notre Dame had just one successful rushing half, the Tigers ran over the Irish all night, and the LSU ground attack wore down Notre Dame’s defense in the second half. Led by tailback Justin Vincent’s 50 yards on just seven carries and Williams’ 48 yards on eight attempts, the Tigers averaged 6.6 yards per rush. Williams capped the game’s scoring with a 20-yard touchdown run with 7:27 left in the fourth quarter to give LSU its decisive 41-14 advantage.

Both Weis and Irish strong safety Tom Zbikowski said LSU ran from four-wide formations more than the Irish were expecting.

“They did a nice job of going in and out from spreading the field with three wide receivers to four wide receivers, and I think they called a nice game and put a lot of pressure on our defense,” Weis said.

Notre Dame started slow, gaining two first downs on its opening possession before a failed fake-punt run gave the ball the to LSU on the Irish 34. And the Tigers attacked immediately. Russell connected with Doucet for a 31-yard gain. Running back Keiland Williams ran for the score on the next play, and LSU had an early 7-0 lead.

The Tigers then took a 14-0 lead on Russell’s 11-yard strike to wide out Dwayne Bowe halfway through the first quarter. But Notre Dame responded with an eight-play, 80 yard drive that concluded with a 24-yard touchdown throw from Quinn to Irish sophomore David Grimes.

The Irish and Tigers exchanged punts and missed field goals until Quinn found Samardzija on the right side of the end zone for a 10-yard score, and momentum seemed to be back in favor of Notre Dame.

But Russell immediately struck with his bomb to Doucet, and the rout was on.