2007 – How LSU and Notre Dame Met in the 2007 Allstate Sugar Bowl The statement was made softly, but it crackled with emotion. “The fact that we’re here, I think its right,” Les Miles said. “I can’t imagine it any other way, to be honest.”
The LSU coach was reflecting on the presence of his team in the first Sugar Bowl in New Orleans after the destruction and horror of the worst natural disaster in American history, Hurricane Katrina, which submerged large portions of the Crescent City for weeks.
After a year away from the disheveled, scaled-down and still traumatized city and the storm-wrecked Superdome for a sojourn to Atlanta, the Sugar Bowl was, more or less, back in its natural surroundings, and with an ideal pairing that even some members of the media characterized as divinely inspired: America’s team (Notre Dame, 10-2, not quite a member of the football elite at No. 11 in the BCS rankings, though certain to hold the country’s interest – and television sets) vs. Louisiana’s Team, (LSU, 10-2, ranked No. 5 and once again, like after 9/11, a godsend to the Sugar Bowl).
If Florida and Ohio State, the top two teams in the country, played the national title game in the ravaged Big Easy instead of in Arizona where they did, that pairing wouldn’t have provided more of an emotional lift.
Paul Hoolahan, the Sugar Bowl’s chief executive officer, reiterated the general feeling saying, “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I was tremendously excited. I just felt, to myself, we’re back and we’re up and running. It’s a great feeling, exhilarating…This will give everybody in the country full confidence that we are back and able and capable of doing the job we have in the past. I think it’s very important to get that message out. This game is a testament to that.”
The Sugar Bowl itself was a bit ginger: it hadn’t been played in New Orleans in two years; its day-by-day operations were now housed in new, temporary headquarters in suburban Metairie; as part of the BCS arrangement it was now working with a new television network, Fox; and with a new corporate sponsor, Allstate Insurance.
So the Sugar was truly traveling through some uncharted waterways.
But the game itself was pure serendipity, and Miles conveyed genuine feelings in tying in the circuitous route LSU took to its home-state BCS bowl game with the stunning, and surprising success of New Orleans’ NFL team, the Saints, in the same season. He said, “I couldn’t have scripted it any better…LSU plays in the first Sugar Bowl (in New Orleans) after the storm (and) the Saints have a great year. Maybe there’s an overall plan for this.”
There really was a near-sense that something unreal had occurred in matching these teams. Remember, Ohio State was No. 1 and Michigan No. 2 following the Buckeyes 42-39 victory against the Wolverines in their final game on Nov. 18, making a rematch in the first stand-alone BCS championship game a possibility. Southern Cal was third and Florida fourth. Then, after the Nov. 25th games, the Trojans jumped to second place after an impressive victory against Notre Dame, and the Gators climbed to third after beating archrival Florida State.
LSU was out of the SEC-title picture, but after the USC-Notre Dame game, the Rose Bowl expressed interest in the Tigers to play either the Trojans or Michigan, depending on which team got left out of the national championship game, and LSU fans responded by pledging money for more than 40,000 tickets.
But things went haywire.
First, USC lost to UCLA, 13-9, on Dec.2, taking the Trojans out of title contention, although they did still go to the Rose Bowl as Pac-10 champions.
Then, Florida beat Arkansas, 38-28 in an exciting SEC title game, and suddenly the USA Today and Harris Interactive poll voters were looking on the Gators in a new light.
The next day, Florida passed Michigan in both polls and split with the Wolverines in the computer rankings, sending the No. 2 Gators to Glendale, Ariz. for a national championship meeting with Ohio State.
Not surprisingly, the Rose Bowl chose Michigan to replace Ohio State in its game, leaving the Sugar Bowl with the next two selections.
In a blink, Hoolahan & Co. jumped on LSU and Notre Dame, choosing the Irish over No. 6 Louisville, No. 8 Boise State and No. 13 West Virginia.
It was an intriguing selection on several levels, perhaps the biggest being an on-the-field comparison between two of the better quarterbacks in college football, Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and LSU’s JaMarcus Russell, one of the sport’s most accurate passers.
LSU fans got over the disappointment of not making a first-ever appearance in the Rose Bowl about two minutes after the announcement. For one thing the Tigers were still in a high-quality bowl being played close to home; for another thing, there was the anticipation of playing against college football’s most renowned program.
There was another fortuitous benefit in the pairing: New Orleans hotels had not fully recovered. There were 8,000 fewer rooms than two years before. Also the number of flights into and out of New Orleans had not returned to pre-Katrina levels, but because many LSU fans live in the surrounding area, the crush wouldn’t be as bad as usual.
The empathy of both schools for the battered region, though, was what caught the attention of many observers. Notre Dame and LSU coaches and players all visited devastated areas, visited with the affected, uplifted some spirits and helped some of the rebuilding efforts.
The Tiger contingent spoke often, and movingly, of their sense of obligation.
“I’m just happy to be here in my hometown again, playing in front of my fans,” said LaRon Landry, a Tiger safety from nearby Hanhville. “It’s my last game; we’re playing in my hometown. After the disaster of last year, playing in the city of New Orleans, it would be great if we come out with a win in the first Sugar Bowl back here.
“My goal is just to give it all back to the city and state.”
His chances, and LSU’s, were pretty good. The Tigers opened as a nine-point favorite, the widest spread of the major bowls. But Notre Dame is Notre Dame, the most storied football program in the land, and there was a feeling the Irish, for one night, could put everything together, particularly since few in the national media were giving them much of a chance. Plus, under the tutorage of Coach Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator on three Sugar Bowl champion teams, if he could get the Irish offense untracked, some felt this could be a trap for LSU.
Everyone was aware of Weis’ gilded background of finding soft spots in stout defenses, a trait for which he had already left his fingerprints in New Orleans.
When Notre Dame practiced inside the Superdome, Weis told his squad of being part of the New England coaching staff when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI there when Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal defeated favored St. Louis. “He pointed to the spot where Vinatieri made the kick,” Irish receiver Jeff Samardzija said of Weis. “It was pretty cool to think of all the history that’s taken place in there.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.