The Journal Gazette
 
 
Friday, January 01, 2021 1:00 am

Irish facing juggernaut with title hope on line

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame might not consider itself David, but Alabama is certainly Goliath.

The No. 4 ranked Irish will get their chance to slay college football's resident giant this afternoon when they take on the heavily-favored, top-ranked Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl.

It's a chance for Notre Dame to erase a decade's worth of whispers that the Irish are not up to the task of beating the truly elite teams in the sport. They can avenge a loss to Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff – they're playing in the same arena, AT&T Stadium, just outside of Dallas – and prove that their defeat at the hands of No. 2 Clemson in the ACC championship game was a fluke in an otherwise dominant season.

A win would, of course, also send Notre Dame to the CFP Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 11, to face the winner of tonight's Sugar Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State. 

For the Irish, this is the culmination of everything they've done – including completely changing their routines to stay healthy during a pandemic – since the summer.

“This is, for us, a journey that we've been on since June,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Our players have come through like all other teams that have been on this similar journey, through so many things during the pandemic. And I couldn't be more proud of a football team.

“This is a unique team, a bond that you build with a team that's unlike any others when you go through the things that we've had to go through relative to COVID and testing and changing your lifestyle and habits. And I just love this team, and I love what they're about. And I can't wait to watch them play.”

Kelly's love for and belief in his team aside, few experts give Notre Dame much of a chance against the undefeated Crimson Tide, the class of the Southeastern Conference. Alabama is a three-touchdown favorite and possesses what is widely considered one of the best offenses in college football history.

Among the stars on that Tide offense are quarterback Mac Jones (32 touchdown passes and 11.4 yards per attempt) and wide receiver DeVonta Smith (1,511 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns). Both of them are among the four Heisman Trophy finalists, while running back Najee Harris (1,578 total yards and 27 touchdowns) finished fifth in the balloting. 

The Alabama offense has scored at least 50 points six times in 11 games this season and has crossed the half-century mark in each of its last three games. Notre Dame has given up just 18.6 points per game this season, No. 14 in the country, and insists it won't be intimidated by the onslaught of efficiency on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

“They're all great players,” said Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who won the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in the country this season. “Every great player can be contained. ... You just have to find a weakness. That's been our challenge throughout the week for each and every guy who's explosive – which is nearly everybody they have on offense.”

Owusu-Koramoah also provided a glimpse into Notre Dame's mindset as it tries to pull off what would be the biggest upset in the seven years of the College Football Playoff.

“It's something you dream of,” the senior said of playing the Tide. “It's like you're not really playing the guys that Alabama has. It's like you're playing the franchise. It's like you're playing the team and the program because it's been so successful and prominent. You want to face the team that's the best. If you say that you're the best, you want to go against the best.”

Notre Dame and Alabama last faced off in the 2013 BCS Championship Game, a matchup best-remembered for how uneven it was. Alabama won 42-14, ruining Notre Dame's undefeated season, and the game was so lopsided that it made Kelly reevaluate how he went about building the program in South Bend. 

The biggest difference in the Irish then and now, according to Kelly, is the team's physicality in the trenches.

He thought his team got “manhandled” on the offensive and defensive lines in 2013 and he has spent the intervening years building up the front, to the point that Notre Dame had two offensive linemen picked in the top 10 of the NFL Draft in 2018 and all five of its starting linemen were All-ACC this year.

It's not yet clear if the Irish are on the level of the nation's top teams up front, however. Against Clemson in the ACC title game, the Tigers ran for 219 yards to just 44 for the Irish.

Running back Kyren Williams, who was stymied against Clemson after running for 1,000 yards in the regular season, isn't concerned.

“I always trust my linemen,” Williams said. “It's that mutual bond between us that you're going to have to kill us to stop us.”

dsinn@jg.net

Breakdown

Alabama is a machine.

The Crimson Tide is in the middle of maybe the longest, most dominant run of excellence in the postwar era of college football. Alabama seems to simply reload every year, replacing elite NFL Draft picks with five-star recruits, and the beat goes on.

But who are the cogs in this year's ultra-efficient wheel? And how does Notre Dame match up against them in today's College Football Playoff game at the Rose Bowl?

Here's a breakdown of the talent on both sidelines today.

Offense

Notre Dame: The Irish have a balanced attack anchored by one of the country's best offensive lines, all five starters from which earned All-ACC honors. That line is coming off a difficult game against Clemson in which the Tigers' blitzes led to confusion and quarterback Ian Book was sacked six times.

Book finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting, racking up more than 3,000 total yards and 23 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Running back Kyren Williams is only a redshirt freshman, but he ran for 1,000 yards before being stifled against Clemson.

A potential X-factor the Irish is the play of the tight ends. Passes to Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble were some of Notre Dame's most successful plays against the Tigers.

Alabama: The Tide offense is a “buzzsaw,” according to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, averaging 49.7 points. Quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith were all among the top five vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy and lineman Alex Leather­wood is an All-American, maybe the best offensive tackle in the country. This team is loaded.

Edge: Alabama

Defense

Notre Dame: The Irish boast a top-15 scoring defense led by a pair of All-Americans in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who won the Butkus Award as the best at his position in the country, and sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton.

The Irish will count on defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish to eat some blocks against Alabama's rushing attack and cornerback Nick McCloud, an All-ACC performer, will be tasked with keeping Smith from breaking away on a big play. True freshman corner Clarence Lewis will try to do the same with sophomore John Metchie, the next great wideout at Alabama, who picks up 17.8 yards per catch.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide defense has been overshadowed by the all-time great offense, but it only gives up 19.5 points per game. The strength of the defense is in the secondary, where cornerback Patrick Surtain II is a likely first-round NFL Draft pick and Malachi Moore is a ball-hawking safety.

The linebacking corps is fearsome, as well, with All-American Dylan Moses, team tackles leader Christian Harris and Christopher Allen's 12 tackles for loss. The front isn't quite as dominant as in some years past, but SEC sack leader Will Anderson Jr. comes off the edge.

Edge: Even

Special Teams

Notre Dame: Kicker Jonathan Doerer has been steady most of the season, but he missed a 24-yard field goal in the first quarter against Clemson. Punter Jay Bramblett had a terrific game against the Tigers, averaging 48.2 yards on his six boots.

True freshman speedster Chris Tyree handles kick return duties and has come close to breaking a few big ones this season.

Alabama: In addition to being the nation's best wide receiver, Smith also averages 24.9 yards on punt returns and has taken one to the house. Kicker Will Reichard has not missed this season, making all 73 extra points and all 12 field goals.

Edge: Alabama

Coaching

Notre Dame: Coach Brian Kelly is one of only three Irish coaches ever to cross the 100-win barrier in South Bend and he's led Notre Dame to four straight 10-win seasons for the first time in program history.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is one of the game's best young minds on that side of the ball and he's coaching his last games with the Irish after taking the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, his alma mater. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees could be the decisive factor. He's in his first season calling the plays and struggled against Clemson's pressure in the ACC title game.

Alabama: Head coach Nick Saban is one of the game's all-time greats, winner of six national titles, including five with the Crimson Tide. He's built a program that has won double-digit games 13 years in a row and been to the College Football Playoff six times in seven years.

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is a former head coach at Washington and USC and will likely be a head coach again soon. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding is just 36 and in his second year as the full-time DC.

Edge: Alabama

Intangibles

Notre Dame: The Irish have a massive chip on their shoulder, coming into the game as three-touchdown underdogs, with many writing off their chances after a 34-10 loss to the Tigers in the ACC championship game. They've been here before, playing in the College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl in 2018, so they know what to expect when the bright lights come on.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide has been a fixture in the CFP, but are motivated to prove they're still the class of college football after missing out on the season-​end extravaganza last year. They've taken no prisoners all season, winning nine of their 11 games by at least 17 points, but know they're not invincible after beating Florida by a score of just 52-46 in the SEC championship game.

Slight edge: Notre Dame

– Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame vs. Alabama

When: 4 p.m.

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Records: No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1), No. 1 Alabama (11-0)

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

3 storylines

Experience matters: Alabama and Notre Dame are two of only five teams to appear in multiple College Football Playoffs since the event began in 2014. They join Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma as repeat participants. The Irish have only played in one other CFP game, losing to Clemson in the 2018 semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, 30-3. The Tigers would go on to crush the Crimson Tide 44-16 in the championship game. Alabama, meanwhile, has played in six of the seven Playoffs, missing only last season. The Tide has won two national championships (2015 and 2017) in the Playoff era and are 4-1 in semifinal games, losing only in 2014 to Ohio State at the Sugar Bowl. Alabama has won its last four semifinals in a row by an average of 21 points.

Center of attention: Notre Dame center Jarrett Patterson earned All-ACC honors anchoring one of the best offensive lines in the country, but he has been out for the season with a left foot injury since his team's win over Boston College on Nov. 14. In his place, the Irish have tried out a pair of players: redshirt freshman Zeke Correll (Patterson's direct backup) and redshirt junior Josh Lugg (the team's sixth offensive lineman that can play any of the five positions). Neither is quite on Patterson's level - right guard Tommy Kraemer called him the best center in the country - and Coach Brian Kelly said it will be a game-time decision as to whether Lugg or Correll gets the start. On the opposite side, Alabama will be without consensus All-American center Landon Dickerson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the SEC championship game against Florida. In his place will be experienced fifth-year senior Chris Owens.

Third down looms large: One of the few areas in which Alabama has struggled this season is third-down defense. The Crimson Tide is giving up conversions on more than 40% of opponent third-down attempts, which ranks a mediocre 70th in the country. If Notre Dame is going to extend drives and keep the Tide off the field, it will need to convert some third-down opportunities. Notre Dame's offense is No. 9 nationally, converting 49.3% of its third-downs. The Irish defense will also need to get some stops on third down to get off the field, but that's easier said than done against Alabama, which is the best third-down offense in the country, converting 59.2%.

Prediction: No. 1 Alabama 41, No. 4 Notre Dame 20

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette


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