It's the RPI No. 1 (Syracuse) against No. 2 (Notre Dame). The winner is likely to be the No. 1 seed when the NCAA brackets are revealed on May 8 (ESPNU).
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On paper, it looks like a pitchers' duel. Notre Dame allows just 5.9 goals per game, the top-rated defense in the country. Syracuse ranks sixth in that department, allowing 7.2 goals.
The Irish are self-aware. They understand their style. Syracuse's senior class has won two titles and 57 games, more than any class in the nation. Their goalie John Galloway is a win machine, and has been in goal for more victories than any goalie in Division I history. Galloway is anxious and intense. His outlet passing is without peer. Another national championship would secure his legacy as an all-time great.
Syracuse cheated defeat against Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Villanova. A lopsided loss to Cornell was a slap in the face. The Orange are vulnerable, some say. A loss on Saturday would raise eyebrows. The most exciting element of their season has been their wardrobe options, which rival Oregon football.
SU's John Lade is regarded as the best cover defender in the nation. He's a foot soldier, an enlisted man turned four star general. An ankle injury cost him two games, including a chance to defend Cornell's Rob Pannell. "For me its not about throwing checks, it's about shutting my man down," says Lade.
Syracuse defense isnt cutting edge. Its personnel based. Win your matchup. "Slide only if we have to," says Lade. "They have big time midfielders who can dodge and score."
Tough-minded coach Kevin Corrigan has built Notre Dame into a national power. National runners-up last season, the Irish are not a flash in the pan like Loyola in 1990, Towson in 1991 or UMass in 2006. They have qualified for the NCAA tournament 15 times since 1990. "Our goal has always been to win a national championship," says Corrigan. "We are motivated by the success and failure of 2010."
Corrigan asks his team to play at two distinct speeds. Fast when the game says go, and slow when required to chew clock, milking a lead or fending off an opponent's run. He values decision-making as a skill and feels it's the most underrated area of evaluating high school talent. His roster is national, with 15 states represented. His intensity burns white hot. "I don't sleep four nights after a bad Tuesday practice," he said. "Our goal is to be the best we can be, today, and everyday."
Goalie John Kemp took over for Scotty Rodgers, who allowed just 23 goals in four playoff games last May. Kemp is unflappable and steady. Defender Kevin Ridgway can match feet with the game's most elusive dodgers. The finance major from Georgetown Prep is level-headed, and not flashy. "Our defense is a machine with gears, each player doing his part in sync," says Ridgway. "Its based on trust and communication"
Defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne explained the philosophy during the 2010 tournament run: "We don't do assignments. The unit defends. Getting caught up in assignments brings too much ego into it, and messes with our socialist community. The reality is that when you switch and slide, matchups change."
The formula for defensive excellence in South Bend is crystal clear: Hold teams to eight goals; limit opponents to less than 29 total shots; surrender no extra-man goals, no fast break goals, no rebound goals, and no second chance possessions due to broken clears. It's a challenging equation.
But scoring goals doesn't come easy. They are No. 28 in scoring offense. Their leading point-getter is Sean Rogers (15 goals ,six assists), and he ranks 126th nationally. They use a five-man attack rotation.
Senior midfielders David Earl and Zach Brenneman are two of 12 Major League Lacrosse draft picks playing in this game. Earl is most comfortable dodging in a phone booth. Brenneman is a beast who likes to lower his shoulder and run through his man, knocking him off balance.
Notre Dame was undefeated during the 2009 regular season before being upset by Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament. After a bumpy road in 2010, the team acquired survival instincts in May. Each journey is different.
"This year we have played a tougher schedule, with close games and overtime games," says Brenneman. "We learned some lessons last year — rankings don't matter. The last team in the tournament is as dangerous as the No. 1 seed."
The sun never gets in your eyes in the Carrier Dome, but the glare from the 11 gold trophies can be blinding. "The level of excitement this week is like the Cornell semifinals or Duke championship game last year," says Brenneman.
As with any game, analysis starts with ground balls. Notre Dame is No. 51 in the country in grounds ball per game. The Irish starting close defense and goalie have only totaled 44 pickups compared to 97 by Syracuse's same unit. Notre Dame has also been a slow-starting team, having been outscored 19-18 in first quarter. The Irish didn't handle the moment against Syracuse last year, falling behind quickly en route to a 12-6 loss.
But this game isn't about statistics or strategy. Win or lose, the two teams' paths will diverge, and then maybe merge, linking up again in Baltimore in the NCAA tournament. This game will be compelling because of the characters and drama. It's the game of the year, for at least a week.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for the ESPN Networks and writes a weekly column for the Baltimore Sun in the spring.