This is the moment Notre Dame football fans, alumni, players, and students have been waiting for. 24 years since Lou Holtz won the Irish’s last National Championship, and here they stand once again, on the verge of their official Return to Glory in the BCS National Championship Game against Nick Saban and the defending national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide. A match-up full of history and lore, without question.
For Notre Dame, just achieving the game makes the program officially relevant again – something that can be seen in their recruiting class this year – both ESPN.com and Rivals.com have the Irish’s 2013 class ranked 2nd (behind only, yep, you guessed it, Alabama). It also is huge for Notre Dame’s TV rights, as their contract with NBC expires after the 2013 season. With the season the team had this year, they should have no problems with extending that, and a National Championship would make that contract worth all that much more.
But recruiting classes and TV contracts can’t and aren’t the focus of the Irish coaches and players. Not until after this week, anyway. They are solely focused on the tough task ahead of them when they meet the Tide in the Orange Bowl Monday night.
Irish Head Coach Brian Kelly will have to find a way to break through the barrier that is the Alabama defense. There was only one unit that was as good, and maybe in some cases better, than Notre Dame’s defense, and that was Alabama. Compare the numbers: Notre Dame allowed 286.3 yards per game (6th), Alabama, 246 (1st). Alabama gave up 10.7 points per game (2nd), Notre Dame 10.3 (1st). Rushing, Notre Dame gave up 92.4 yards per game (4th), but only 2 touchdowns all year. Alabama was first in rush yards allowed (79.8), but gave up 9 touchdowns. Both teams are decent at getting to the opposing quarterback – Notre Dame racked up 34 sacks for the year; Alabama 33. Both can also force mistakes in the pass game – Notre Dame intercepted 16 passes in 2012, Alabama 17.
Basically, both these guys are great on defense. That we know. The key to this game is which offense can get off to a better start, and Alabama’s stats favor them a tad bit more than Notre Dame’s. Alabama averages 439.1 yards on offense (214.5 passing, 224.6 rushing), and 38.5 points per game. Notre Dame’s offense, led by redshirt freshman Everett Golson, never really had lights-out potential, scoring more than 20 points in just five games. Alabama scored fewer than 30 points in a game only twice.
So how does the offense ensure a decent start? Well, for both teams, that will mean running the ball and playing mistake free football. For Notre Dame, they know that Alabama start cornerback Dee Millner – a likely high first-round draft pick in April – will blanket senior tight end and John Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert for most of the game. That means the Irish will need to bring healthy doses of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson to loosen up the coverage for some big plays. And Everett Golson will probably need to get in on the action with his legs more so than his arm.
For Alabama, their two-headed monster of running backs Eddie Lacey and T.J. Yeldon will need to find early dominance on Notre Dame’s front seven – and linebacker Manti Te’o. Notre Dame’s front line is bigger than most of the schools Alabama has faced this year, averaging 275 pounds. But Alabama’s offensive line is massive, averaging 314 pounds. This will be the key match-up for the Irish. If they can win the defensive line battle, they have an excellent shot at not only shutting down the Crimson Tide’s run game, but also forcing quarterback A.J. McCarron into mistakes. Which he does not do very often, throwing just three interceptions all season.
So, what do we have for the Irish so far? Your basic smash mouth football game plan. Run the ball, and stop the run, and play penalty free football. To see how Notre Dame needs to approach this game, there are two games they need to focus on. One is their own game against Oklahoma this year. In that 30-13 won, the Irish held Oklahoma to 15 yards on the ground, and made Landry Jones try to beat them through the air. Jones completed 35/51 passes (68.6%) for 356 yards, but was able to get just one score and threw two interceptions. Granted, Oklahoma is not nearly a talented running team as Alabama (the Tide rank 19th, the Sooners 59th), but Oklahoma is a much better passing team than Alabama (84th for Bama to 4th for Oklahoma), and Oklahoma is a slightly better scoring offense, averaging 40.3 points per game.
Offensively for Notre Dame, QB Golson only threw 25 passes, completing 13, for 177 yards, but did not commit a turnover, and carried the ball for 64 yards and a score. The Irish gained a total of 215 yards on the ground, which helped their time of possession advantage (32 minutes to 27 minutes). Finally, Notre Dame committed just one penalty all game for 5 yards. Oklahoma? 5 penalties for 39 yards.
The other game Coach Kelly needs his team to look at is the Alabama A&M game. In the first quarter, the A&M defense held Alabama to 26 yards on 7 plays, resulting in two punts and an interception. Offensively, on A&M’s three drives of the first quarter, they ran the ball 14 times, gained a total of 187 yards, and scored on each possession. If the Irish want to win this game, they need to establish that kind of dominance early on, just as A&M did. Converting touchdowns in the red zone will be absolutely crucial; field goals will not get it done against this team.
For the game, A&M held the Tide to 112 rushing yards on 31 carries (3.9 average). Passing, A&M forced McCarron to throw the ball 34 times. He completed 21 of those (61.8%), for 309 yards, but allowed just one touchdown and intercepted him twice. Sound familiar?
Now, obviously the biggest difference between the A&M offense and the Notre Dame’s is that Golson is not Johnny Manziel. Not even close at this stage in their careers. I won’t sit here telling you Golson will do the kind of damage Manziel did to the Tide’s defense (24/31, 253 yards, 2 TDs, 18 carries, 92 yards), but we know that type of quarterback can give them fits. If there is a potential weakness for Alabama, that’s it.
Finally, we need to identify Notre Dame’s potential x-factor player, and I believe that will be RB/WR Theo Riddick. He is as much a dual threat player as Golson is, able to run the ball effectively (180 carries for 880 yards and 5 TDs) and has shown he can get loose down field and catch (35 receptions for 364 yards). That means he averages almost 5 yards every time he touches the ball. That kind of ability will be crucial to keep drives alive.
When this is all said and done, this game will be closer than people believe, but we’ll get to that in my predictions section.
My 5 Predictions
Everett Golson – Like I said, Golson may have to do more damage with his legs than with his arms, but he will still need to make plays and find the open receiver to win the game. And, as I said, he won’t put up Johnny Manziel-type numbers, but I do think he can mirror what he was able to do against Oklahoma, and will have to for the Irish to get their first title in 24 years. Golson completes 15 of 28 passes for 146 yards, and runs 10 times for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Theo Riddick – Riddick may not have the biggest game running the ball, but he will be Notre Dame’s best playmaker if they can’t get the ball to Eifert. He runs 12 times for 40 yards, but catches the ball six times for 85 yards and a touchdown.
A.J. McCarron – What can you say? The man just doesn’t throw interceptions. He may not be the most talented quarterback, and may not have much of, if any, professional future, but he’s just a damn good college quarterback. He‘s able to make the smart throws, and keep drives alive. But Notre Dame’s pass defense, which has been better this year than I give them credit for, is still very young and inconsistent at times. I can see McCarron hitting on 26 passes on 38 attempts, for 280 yards and a score.
Yeldon/Lacey – The Irish can probably afford to give up some stats to McCarron. What they cannot do is let these two guys run wild all over them. I think they’ll get some decent yardage, but this is Manti Te’o’s final college game, and he’s going to bring everything. These two combine for 35 carries for 160 yards, but just one touchdown.
Final Score – It’s going to be close, physical, hard fought battle for the BCS National Championship. Both of these programs are storied, both have extraordinarily passionate fan bases, and both are generally despised by anyone outside of that fan base. And maybe this is a bit of a homer call from me. I’ll admit to a little bit of fan-based bias, but I’ve been pretty good at keeping that out of my posts for the most part. I don’t see that keeping the non-Irish readers from busting me on this, however. And I don’t really care. Notre Dame wins its first title since 1988, beating Alabama by a score of 28-24.
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