ORLANDO, Fla. — When you play Notre Dame, you play the team on the field and you play the one off of it.
You play the ghosts as well.
There’s history in those sparkling helmets with flecks of real gold in the paint. If you find the right angle, if the sun catches the sideline just so, you’ll see the specter of Knute Rockne roaming, the Four Horsemen posing, George Gipp imploring today’s Fighting Irish to win just one more for him. And if you listen closely enough you may hear, to borrow a line from the late Peter Finney’s book, “The Fighting Tigers,” the strains of the Warner Brothers orchestra playing the Notre Dame Victory March.
Send a volley cheer on high
Shake down the thunder from the sky
There are bowl games, and there are bowl games, and everyone from Lou Holtz to the lowliest youth manning a concession stand during Monday’s Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium knows the most meaningful ones have a championship at stake.
This isn’t one of those bowls, but it doesn’t mean something tangible isn’t there worth playing for.
At its heart, the LSU football program is the little engine that could and sometimes has gotten over the championship mountain to that glorious valley on the other side. But at Notre Dame, the blood is a little bluer, the national championships and Heisman Trophy winners definitely more abundant. That’s what makes this game extra special, what for LSU lifts it above a garden variety bowl trip to some other place to play some other team. For LSU, playing Notre Dame over the decades has been a cause and a crusade, a happening and an occasion and a high holy game day. The broad band of Roman Catholicism that runs from the Notre Dame campus up in frigid South Bend down through south Louisiana adds another layer of relevance to the whole affair. It isn’t an according to Hoyle religious experience when the Fighting Tigers and Fighting Irish clash, but it comes close.
This whole athletic year actually finds LSU and Notre Dame intersecting again and again. There’s never been a year when the two schools have met in the big three sports before now. Notre Dame smashed LSU in men’s basketball in the Maui Invitational and its baseball team will visit Alex Box Stadium in just over six weeks time (yes, six weeks) to open the 2018 campaign. But in between, this is the peak, the sport in which so much pride and passion is wrapped up on both sides.
Neither team would be here if they weren’t slightly damaged goods. They’d be in the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl on Monday, one of the College Football Playoff semifinals that will follow the Citrus Bowl across the nation’s New Year’s Day consciousness. Notre Dame started strong, rising to No. 3 in the nation, but finished with a thud, losing two of its final three in November. LSU started raggedly — the loss to Troy has taken on its own brand of mythic infamy — but finished strong, overcoming injuries and youth to win six of its last seven.
A lot of people get hung up on the fact that LSU is coached by a character, Ed Orgeron, or at least a caricature of what they perceive Cajuns to be. But character is what carries you through a crisis, a crisis like the one LSU found itself in back in September.
“You need character at LSU when you lose to Troy,” Orgeron said last week. “To pull together. This is a galvanized football team right now. As long as they can do the right things and go to school, I’ll be all for them.”
Things aren’t all galvanized in Tigertown. There is that corroded relationship between Orgeron and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, one that appears to have one last Orlando thrill ride in it before they part ways. How well or how poorly Orgeron will be perceived to have handled the situation will be largely influenced by whether LSU wins the game and how successful Canada’s anticipated successor turns out to be.
At least LSU’s offense is operating near full strength. Notre Dame is down three of its top receiving targets because of suspensions and injury in a passing game that wasn’t all that stellar to begin with. The Tigers are down three starters in their defensive front seven, a major problem when dealing with Notre Dame’s offensive line of giant granite blocks. The two slabs of stone on the left side, tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson, are both expected to be first-round draft picks.
Whichever team overcomes its shortcomings best is likely to be the one to win. For Notre Dame, that means living up to the ghosts of greatness past.
For LSU, that means beating them, too.