The outcome of Alabama Football vs. Notre Dame could be determined by two replacement centers.
Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator, Clark Lea must find a weakness in the Crimson Tide offense and, if found, exploit it. If the Alabama Football offense has a weakness it is only at the center position. Chris Owens must step in for the irreplaceable Landon Dickerson. Though not the result of an injury as recent as Dickerson’s, the Fighting Irish also lost a starting center during the season.
Notre Dame has played three games since losing starting center, Jarrett Patterson in the Boston College game. Patterson is not equal to Landon Dickerson but he is a strong player, not easy for Notre Dame to replace. In the November win over the Clemson Tigers, Notre Dame rushed 40 times for 208 yards, averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry. Without Patterson, the Irish rushing attack is less than it was
Against a North Carolina defense ranked No. 48 against the run, Notre Dame had no problem, with a 5.53 yards-per-carry average. In the ACC Championship game, Clemson held Notre Dame to 44 rushing yards and a 1.47 yards-per-carry average. In between that pair of games, the Irish rushing attack erupted against Syracuse. The Syracuse defense is No. 103 in the FBS in yards-per-carry allowed and the Fighting Irish capitalized on that weakness with 283 yards on 40 carries and a 7.06 yards-per-carry average.
Brian Kelly had other offensive line injury problems during his team’s closing run. Patterson’s replacement at center, Zeke Correll struggled with a twisted ankle. Also, starting right guard, Tommy Kraemer missed the UNC and Syracuse games while recovering from an appendectomy.
Going into the semi-final game the new Irish starting five is healthy. How good are they? In early December, Pro Football Focus rated every FBS offensive line. The results were Notre Dame was No. 1; BYU, No. 2; Kentucky, No. 5; Oklahoma, No. 8 and the Alabama Crimson Tide, No. 9. Other teams ranked above the Tide were Buffalo, Virginia Tech, Marshall and Appalachian State.
To Alabama football fans there is a lot of noise in those top nine rated teams. Passing on a debate about the PFF rankings, there are two key points to consider. The No. 1 ranking for the Irish was after the loss of Patterson and the No. 9 ranking for the Crimson Tide was before the loss of Landon Dickerson. Based on the one rating source, the Irish O-line is a good bit better than the current Tide O-line.
The Fighting Irish will need all of the possible advantage. To beat the Crimson Tide, the Irish need drives that not only score touchdowns but also eat up clock. Holding down the number of Crimson Tide possessions is a key part of Brian Kelly’s gameplan.
Nick Saban has been quick to praise the Irish offensive line.
They don’t miss their targets very often. They finish blocks. They play hard. They’re physical. And I think that’s probably the best word to describe them on both sides of the ball up front is they’re very physical.
It is standard practice for Saban to build up opponents. Still, in the ACC Championship. the Clemson defense dominated the Irish offensive front. Notre Dame quarterback, Ian Book was sacked six times and Clemson added four more tackles-for-a-loss.
On defense, Notre Dame must attack new starting center, Chris Owens. Inside blitzes, stunts, shifting gaps pre-snap will put pressure on Owens. How well he handles the challenge will be key for the Tide offense.
Being a fifth-year senior is a boost for Owens. He fully understands the Alabama football blocking schemes, having played center, tackle and blocking tight end for the Crimson Tide. He is well-liked by teammates and the football staff. Owens is surrounded by so much Crimson Tide confidence, it is easy to expect him to do well.
Will the outcome of the semi-final come down to the performance of the two centers? Probably not, but Notre Dame will hope it does.