ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s not your typical week at work for the LSU Tigers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
There are practices, sure, leading up to Monday’s meeting here in the Citrus Bowl. Final walkthroughs are Sunday.
But there are also shopping trips to an electronics store, visits to theme parks (the Tigers went to Walt Disney World on Friday night) and events to attend like Saturday’s Citrus Bowl Day for Kids.
Striking the right balance between business trip and reward is difficult but achievable, according to LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
“The good thing about the Citrus Bowl is, they don’t require you to do too many things,” Orgeron said Saturday at the Citrus Bowl Day for Kids. “This is the first requirement we’ve had. The coaches have to go to one thing (Saturday night) with the other coaches. We’ve had our practices and had our rest. It’s been good. These guys give you a chance to meet and practice. The required activity is short and fun.”
With most of the preparation for Monday’s game (noon, ABC) already complete, Saturday was dominated by off-the-field activities.
There was the annual Citrus Bowl parade Saturday morning through downtown Orlando. No LSU players attended, but the school was represented by former All-American wide receiver Michael Clayton, the Golden Band from Tigerland, cheerleaders and Mike the Tiger.
Saturday afternoon found the Tigers and Irish on Tinker Field, a baseball diamond adjacent to Camping World Stadium, site of the Citrus Bowl. Some young fans of both teams, who have been scarce in Orlando so far, along with youths from the West Lakes community surrounding the stadium, traditionally one of the poorest in Florida, mingled with players from both teams zip-lining and playing an oversized game of human foosball. One team included backup LSU quarterback Myles Brennan, two teammates and a young fan against another team that included two Notre Dame players and Tigers wide receiver DJ Chark.
By last count, the Notre Dame/Chark team was winning, hopefully for LSU’s sake not a bad omen in Monday’s game. The Tigers are about a field goal favorite over the Irish, with both teams bringing 9-3 records.
“Being able to make their day and do something like this is always a big deal,” LSU senior defensive end Christian LaCouture said of Saturday’s event. Florida Citrus Sports, which runs the Citrus Bowl, is affiliated with a charity called Lift Orlando, whose aim is to help improve life and opportunities the West Lakes community.
This is LSU’s second straight Citrus Bowl and third game in the state of Florida in the past 12 months.
The Tigers beat Louisville 29-9 here a year ago, holding the Cardinals and 2016 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson to three field goals. LSU beat Florida 17-16 in October in Gainesville, about two hours north of Orlando, in a game rescheduled there after Florida moved its game to Baton Rouge in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew threatened the Sunshine State.
Orgeron said the exposure has been positive for his program, which recruits extensively in Florida.
“We’ve had high school coaches come by,” Orgeron said. “We have recruits at the Under Armour game (Jan. 4 in Orlando); they can’t come by, but they feel like they’re with us. We’ve been texting those guys and some of them will be following the game very closely, I’m sure.”
The news wasn’t all good for Notre Dame. Coach Brian Kelly confirmed Saturday the team sent home backup running back Deon McIntosh on Thursday for violating unspecified team rules. McIntosh is the fourth Irish player suspended for the Citrus Bowl after the regular season ended, all on offense.
LSU hasn’t had any suspensions but is without three defensive starters because of injuries: linebackers Arden Key, Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander. The game has shaped up to be something of a battle of attrition between the Tigers and Irish, who will try to beat LSU with a powerful running game behind what is regarded as the nation’s best offensive line.
Linebacker Devin White, the Southeastern Conference’s leading tackler with 127, said it was a “Christmas gift” to play a team like Notre Dame that runs “downhill” at a defense, meaning straight at them in a power rushing style.
Orgeron chuckled at the thought.
“Well, we’re fixing to get that present early,” Coach O said. “This is the best offensive line we’ve faced, and we’ve faced some good ones. We have to tackle well and get off blocks. We have to be the first to hit with the front seven and contain the quarterback.”