SOUTH BEND, INDIANA — SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Lou Holtz and Joe Paterno can blow smoke with the best of them. The Notre Dame football coach can make it seem as if the Fighting Irish will struggle every week, no matter the competition. And Paterno can make you believe that Penn State's next opponent could be its toughest to date.
These masters of hyperbole might have been guilty of only a little puffery this week. But when the smoke clears today at Notre Dame Stadium, it will come down to a simple fact: Will the top-ranked Fighting Irish run over the No. 18 Nittany Lions as they did last year in Happy Valley?
"They just don't make many mistakes," Holtz said of Penn State's defense, which is ranked sixth against the run (85.6 yards a game) and in the top 10 in three other categories. "They make big plays. They disrupt your rhythm. Their defense reminds me of the Penn State defense when they won the national championship."
The defense has allowed the Nittany Lions to win seven straight games after an 0-2 start. It has helped make up for an erratic offense, particularly, junior quarterback Tony Sacca's performance. But it will have to do what it couldn't do in last year's 34-23 defeat to the Irish, when it gave up a school-record 425 yards on the ground.
"A lot of guys who played against them last year are older, and better," Paterno said. "Hopefully, we can play a little better than we did last year. From Day One, people are saying that we're a good defensive team, but I don't think we've played against anybody like Notre Dame. Now we'll get to see."
What the Nittany Lions are bound to see against Notre Dame (8-1) is an offense that seems to be peaking at the right time. Not only is junior all-purpose back Raghib "Rocket" Ismail looking more like the Heisman Trophy front-runner, but senior tailback Ricky Watters had his best game of the season in last week's 34-29 victory over Tennessee.
Watters had a career-high 174 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown and Ismail broke a 44-yard touchdown run to give the Irish an 11-point lead with 3 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game, but the defense kept the Volunteers close by allowing another score. After recovering an onside kick, Tennessee drove deep into Notre Dame territory before Rod Smith intercepted in the end zone.
"The thing you worry about at this time of year is mental alertness," Holtz said. "There's a lot of pressure on a football team to go through a difficult schedule. To go play a Miami, a Tennessee, a Penn State and a USC [Nov. 24] is tough. You would think this is the end of the road, but it's not."
Both teams already have accepted unofficial invitations to bowl games. Notre Dame will play second-ranked Colorado in the Federal Express Orange Bowl for the second straight year, and Penn State is headed to the first Blockbuster Bowl, against Florida State.
Victories for the Irish against the Nittany Lions and Trojans would ensure that they go into New Year's Day ranked No. 1. "I think we're in a position to handle the pressure because we're used to it," Holtz said. "We've been in these situations many times the last few years."
But Penn State is hoping that Notre Dame hasn't recovered from last week's emotional victory in Knoxville, Tenn., or is thinking about the Orange Bowl. Unless Sacca has a career day, or the defense can defuse The Rocket, it could be a repeat of last year's game.
"As far as we're concerned, there's no pressure on us," senior defensive tackle Frank Giannetti said. "If anyone has pressure, it's them. They're No. 1. We lost our first two games, and now we're climbing back up. So, there's a lot of people around here who think it's a make-or-break game for us. But Notre Dame has everything to lose and nothing to gain."
*The rivalry in the 1980s
How Penn State has fared against Notre Dame in the 1980s:
1981 Won, 24-21
1982* Won, 24-14
1983 Won, 34-30
1984* Lost, 44-7
1985 Won, 36-6
1986* Won, 24-19
1987 Won, 21-20
1988* Lost, 21-3
1989 Lost, 34-23
* - At Notre Dame