Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
We are now just four days away from watching as the Alabama Crimson Tide attempt to win their third BCS National Championship in four years, and firmly state their case as one of the best dynasties in college football history.
The only thing left standing in their way is the undefeated and No. 1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish finished the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record. They survived a plethora of close games that included three point wins over Purdue and BYU, overtime wins over Stanford and Pittsburgh, and close calls against Michigan and USC.
The most impressive win on Notre Dame’s resume was a 30-13 drubbing of Oklahoma in Norman, when the Sooners entered the game as double digit favorites over the unbeaten Irish.
Regardless of their close victories, one of which was highly controversial, going 12-0 is no small feat. Notre Dame earned the right to be playing in the BCS Championship game on Monday, and Alabama better be prepared for a sixty-minute war in Miami.
The Notre Dame defense is the unit given credit for the Irish’s unblemished record, but the offense isn’t exactly a pushover.
Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame in 2010 with the reputation of being an offensive guru. He led Cincinnati to a perfect 12-0 regular season in 2009 before jumping ship and moving to South Bend before the Sugar Bowl.
At Cincinnati, and Central Michigan before that, Kelly employed a spread offense. At Notre Dame, Kelly’s offenses have been centered more around a pro-style attack because he knows his personnel.
This season, we have seen a spread/pro-style hybrid in South Bend. Notre Dame doesn’t have the personnel to run a full out spread attack so Kelly mixes in a little spread with their base pro-style offense.
Notre Dame didn’t use a whole lot of up-tempo this season, once again because they don’t really have the guys for it. But, despite what Brian Kelly has said to the media, you can rest assured that they are going to use some up-tempo looks in the Title game. Kelly, along with the other Irish coaches, have surely watched the film of the Texas A&M game and saw Alabama’s defense struggle against Johnny Manziel and the fast paced Aggies offense.
Kelly has used a bit of smoke and mirrors to deny that Notre Dame will go up-tempo Monday night, but I’m not buying it and I doubt Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are either. I can almost guarantee you that they have spent the last month diagramming something to slow down a fast paced offense, and they have surely been preparing the players for it.
The offense is centered around sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, who seems to be a prototypical spread quarterback. He has the speed to beat you with his legs, but don’t let that fool you; he can throw the football.
Golson’s ability to throw the ball is widely discredited, but he has a big time arm. He hasn’t been that accurate, but that isn’t exactly out of the norm for a first year starting quarterback.
Golson’s numbers in 2012 are pretty pedestrian to say the least. He has completed under 60% of his passes for 2,135 yards and 11 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. That’s to go along with 305 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns.
The numbers can be a bit deceiving, however, as Golson is exactly the type of quarterback that has befuddled the Crimson Tide in recent seasons. His ability to be just as good a runner as a passer will make things tough for the Alabama defense.
Your standard pocket passers haven’t had much success against Alabama, but dual-threat guys have given them trouble. Golson obviously isn’t as talented as Cam Newton or Johnny Manziel, but neither was Jordan Jefferson, a guy Alabama struggled to contain in key situations during regular season meetings in 2010 and 2011. To their credit, they did completely shut Jefferson down in last season’s BCS Title game, which is hopefully a harbinger for Monday night.
If things go south for Golson, Brian Kelly has been known to have a short leash on his quarterbacks, so reserve junior Tommy Rees could see playing time if Golson is ineffective. I think things would have to go way south for Kelly to make a change because he knows very well of Alabama’s struggles against running quarterbacks.
Golson’s favorite target this year has been senior tight end Tyler Eifert, who won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. Eifert is widely considered the best tight end in the country, and is expected to be the first one off the board in April’s NFL Draft. On the year, Eifert has 624 yards on 44 catches with 4 touchdowns.
Eifert figures to play a prominent role in Notre Dame’s offense on Monday night. Alabama does boast one of the best covering linebackers in college football in All American C.J. Mosley, but the 6-foot-6, 251 pound Eifert figures to be a tough matchup for him, and Alabama’s safeties.
At wide receiver, 5-foot-11, 190 pound junior TJ Jones leads the way. He’s the team’s second leading receiver behind Eifert with 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 43 receptions.
6-foot-2, 190 pound sophomore DaVaris Daniels has 375 yards on 25 receptions, and then 5-foot-9, 185 pound senior Robby Toma has 252 yards on 24 receptions. 6-foot-3, 215 pound John Goodman, no not that John Goodman, has been a big play threat this year. He only has 7 catches on the year, but he has averaged 22.5 yards per catch and has turned three of those grabs into touchdowns.
The Irish don’t really have a wide receiver that will strike fear into Alabama’s secondary, but with the defense having to focus so much attention into containing Tyler Eifert, their receivers could do some damage.
Alabama’s secondary has certainly had their struggles this season, but it doesn’t seem like Notre Dame has the firepower in their passing game to truly take advantage of the Tide’s shortcomings in the defensive backfield.
Notre Dame’s bread and butter, just like Alabama’s, is their running game. They are a physical grind-it-out team much like the Crimson Tide. The Irish’s offense, as far as I can ascertain, seems to resemble that of Alabama’s last season. A young and inexperienced “game managing” quarterback who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes accompanied by a physical, punishing ground game. Sound familiar?
For the season, Notre Dame has run the ball on about 59 percent of their offensive snaps. They are a bit more balanced than Alabama as the Crimson Tide has ran it on about 64 percent of their offensive snaps. In all fairness, Alabama’s offense is more balanced than the statistics show because they have blown out so many teams this year, and in good taste, have simply ran the ball for the majority of the second half of those contests.
Notre Dame has three running backs that will see playing time against Alabama. Theo Riddick, a 5-foot-11, 200 pound senior, is the team’s leading rusher. He has rushed for 880 yards on 180 carries (4.9 YPC) and scored 5 touchdowns. Riddick is also a real threat as a receiver, having played wide receiver the previous two seasons. He is fourth on the team with 364 receiving yards on 35 receptions.
6-foot-1, 215 pound senior Cierre Wood is the team’s second leading rusher with 740 yards on 110 carries (6.7 YPC) and 4 touchdowns. He’s a very dangerous back with the potential to bust out big plays. He has two runs of 60+ yards this year, including a 62-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma.
Finally, 6-foot-1, 210 pound sophomore George Atkinson III gives the Irish a third viable option at running back. He has 361 yards on 51 carries (7.1 YPC) and 5 touchdowns. He’s far from the mop-up duty back in the role of Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, as the sophomore from Stockton, California has carried the ball in every game but one this year.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has a lot to do with their success on the ground this season. The Irish have a very experienced group up front that features four seniors and a junior. Going left to right on their offensive line is as follows: 6-foot-4, 304 pound senior Zack Martin, 6-foot-3, 310 pound senior Chris Watt, 6-foot-3, 304 pound senior Braxston Cave, 6-foot-3, 295 pound senior Mike Golic Jr., and 6-foot-5, 309 pound junior Christian Lombardi.
Notre Dame’s big, veteran offensive line is a big reason for Notre Dame’s success on the ground. They have only given up 16 sacks this season, which is seven less than Alabama’s more heralded group. Of course, some of that can be contributed to Everett Golson’s ability to escape the pressure in the pocket. He is a little bit more fleet of foot than Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
Notre Dame’s offensive line against Alabama’s front seven figures to be a key battle in this game. Alabama needs to put pressure on Golson and stop the Irish rushing attack. Mike Golic Jr. has been the one real question mark on Notre Dame’s offensive line this season, so hopefully Alabama will find a way to take advantage of that.
Alabama’s defensive game plan will likely center around stopping the run and containing Golson in the pocket. Alabama’s coaches will want to make Golson a pocket passer, and not allow him to get out of the pocket and make big plays with his feet.
If Alabama can accomplish both feats, the defense should find a lot of success on Monday night, and hopefully lead the Crimson Tide to another National Championship.
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