We are just two days away from watching the Alabama Crimson Tide battle the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Miami for all the marbles. For the Irish, it’s a chance to break their 24-year drought without a National Championship. For Alabama, the game is a chance for immortality; to stake their claim as one of the greatest dynasties in college football history.
It’s one game for it all as both teams vie for the coveted crystal pigskin. Earlier in the week, I broke down Notre Dame’s offense, and now we move on to the strength of the Fighting Irish; the defensive side of the football.
Notre Dame has boasted one of the best defenses in the country in 2012. They have been near impossible to run the ball against, giving up an average of 92 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the country.
Their pass defense hasn’t been as good, but they still rank 21st in the country in yards allowed through the air, and 13th in pass efficiency defense. They have the nation’s sixth stingiest defense in terms of yards allowed, and they lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 10.3 points per game.
They are tied for 2nd in the nation in red zone efficiency defense, allowing only 21 scores on 33 drives. More impressively, only 8 of those scores have been touchdowns, which is the fewest in the country.
Schematically, Notre Dame is very similar to Alabama. The Irish run a 3-4 defense, but they also mix in some 4-3 looks as well, but the 3-4 is their base defense.
For the Irish, it all starts on the defensive line. Anchoring the middle is redshirt sophomore Louis Nix III. Senior Kapron Lewis Moore is on one end, with sophomore Stephon Tuitt on the other end.
Louis Nix is a monster in the middle for the Irish, and is one of the keys for Notre Dame’s success against the run this season. He’s a load at 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, and he will be a challenge for the interior of Alabama’s offensive line.
Karpon Lewis Moore is a serviceable defensive end, while Stephon Tuitt is possibly the best player on the Notre Dame defense, and one of the best defensive ends in the country. Tuitt leads the Irish with 12 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 9 quarterback hurries. He also has forced three fumbles, and returned one for a touchdown in the season opener against Navy in Dublin.
Notre Dame’s defensive line has been outstanding this season led by Tuitt and Nix, and they are a big reason for the success of Notre Dame’s linebackers. Obviously, at linebacker, Notre Dame is led by senior inside linebacker Manti Te’o. Te’o won pretty much every award he was eligible for this season, and made a serious push for the Heisman trophy, ultimately finishing second behind Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
I’ve lamented enough about how fraudulent Te’o’s run for the Heisman Trophy was this year, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here. I’ll just say that Te’o is one of the best linebackers in the country, and he is the unquestioned leader of the Irish’s defense.
I don’t think he’s the best defensive player in the country, with that distinction belonging to South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, but he is still a fine football player, who had an outstanding season in South Bend.
Te’o is really the only Notre Dame linebacker who is on the field for every down, as the Irish rotate a collection of linebackers. Te’o’s ability in pass coverage allows him to stay on the field for all three downs, as his 7 interceptions are the most by a linebacker in the country, and 2nd to Fresno State defensive back Phillip Thomas.
Te’o had zero career interceptions coming into this season, so credit him with greatly improving in pass coverage over his career in South Bend, but also remember that interceptions have some luck involved with him being in the right place at the right time on occasion. I’m reminded of Robert Lester as a sophomore in 2008, who picked off 8 passes in his first year as a starter. He has 6 in the two years since.
Junior Dan Fox is the other inside linebacker with Te’o. Juniors Prince Shembo and Danny Spond are the starters at outside linebacker for the Irish. Junior Carlo Calabrese and sophomore Ishaq Williams also factor heavily in Notre Dame’s rotation at linebacker with Calabrese playing on the inside and Williams on the outside.
Notre Dame truly boasts an SEC front seven, regardless of what you want to believe. Outside of LSU, I’d say this is the best front seven Alabama has faced this season. The key matchup, in my opinion, will be Alabama’s offensive line against this front seven, and whether or not they can open up running lanes for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
As I said earlier, Notre Dame is one of the best in the country at stopping the run, while Alabama boasts one of the best rushing offenses in the country. Alabama averages over 224 yards per game on the ground, and they ran for over 350 against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
The key matchup, in my opinion, will be Barrett Jones against Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix. One of Alabama’s money running plays is an inside zone, which hinges on Jones’s ability to block the nose guard one-on-one. If Jones can do that successfully, then it frees up both guards — Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen — to get to the second level and get blocks on linebackers.
If Warmack or Steen one has to stay home and help Jones block Nix, then it will free up a linebacker to make a play on the ball carrier.
Even on one good ankle, Jones did the job against Georgia’s massive nose tackles, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, so I feel confident that the All American center will be able to block Nix one-on-one. If Jones is consistently keeping Nix out of the backfield, and Alabama is having success on the ground, then don’t be surprised if Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco decide to to more of a 4-3 look.
Alabama has to run the ball in order to win this game. In the last five years, Alabama is 50-0 when rushing for more than 140 yards, and the Irish have given up 140+ in four games this season.
In the secondary, Notre Dame, much like Alabama, seems to be a bit vulnerable. It is certainly the Achilles Heel of the defense.
Junior Bennett Jackson and freshman KeiVarae Russell are the starting corners for the Irish. They have both been very solid for Notre Dame this season and have combined for 111 tackles and 6 interceptions (4 by Jackson). Senior Zeke Motta and sophomore Matthias Farley are the starting safeties.
Notre Dame’s secondary, while the weakest unit on the defense, is still no slouch in its own right, but I wonder if they have a corner who can consistently cover Alabama’s star wide receiver, Amari Cooper.
Notre Dame is hoping they will be able to stop the Alabama run with just seven in the box, but that is a tall task against Alabama’s dominant offensive line. If they have to commit eight to stop the run, then that should open up some space for Alabama’s receivers to get open, and hopefully AJ McCarron will make them pay.
Alabama needs more from AJ McCarron in this game than they got from him in the SEC Championship against Georgia. McCarron was a virtual non-factor in the game until his touchdown pass to Amari Cooper that proved to be the game winning score.
McCarron was outstanding in last season’s BCS Championship Game against LSU, and if Alabama can get another performance like that from their quarterback, then it will give them a great chance of winning their third BCS Title in four years.
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