At long last we are finally here – it’s Alabama vs Notre Dame for the all the crystal marbles and the coveted BCS National Championship. Finally! Yes, Alabama fans have been waiting more than a month for this game, but Bama has actually been waiting for revenge against the Irish for decades. Seasoned Alabama fans (and Bama fans who are up on their Crimson Tide history) have been frothing at the mouth and waiting for another opportunity to beat down the Irish since Bama’s 24-23 loss to Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. Furthermore, an undefeated Tide team is still more than a little pissed about a missing ring from 1966. That season, the championship was egregiously awarded to Notre Dame despite the fact that the Irish tied MichiganState that season while Alabama, the defending champion, didn’t lose a single game! And, in 1977, #1 Texas and #2 Oklahoma both lost their bowl games which should have meant #3 Alabama (who throttled Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl) would move up to the #1 position. However, the voters decided to leapfrog #4 Notre Dame ahead of #3 Alabama, bypassing the Tide yet again for another “luck of the Irish” National Championship. Payback – it’s what’s for dinner. And I, for one, am ready pound that little leprechaun for his BCS pot o’ gold!
So it’s Crimson vs Clover. It’s Catholics vs Cousins. Golden Domers vs Mobile Homers. S.E.C. vs Wan-na-be. Tailbacks vs Hunchbacks. People, it’s Alabama vs Notre Dame which means it doesn’t get any better than this!! By the time ESPN calculates the ratings, this game will obliterate all of the previous records for the number of people tuning into a college football game. The entire country will either tune in to watch Notre Dame lose or they will tune in hoping to see the SEC’s domination of the BCS finally come to a close. Haters will tune into the game in record numbers as every single football fan in America has some hatred for one team of the other. It’s going to be a ridiculously amazing atmosphere with SouthBeach serving as the backdrop for another epic game between the two most storied teams in college football history!!!! Bienvenido a Miami, indeed!
But, hey, you already know all of this stuff. You’ve had a month or more to get ready for this game. You’ve been devouring Lucky Charms and punching Catholics in the mouth for weeks. You officially hate Regis Philbin. You’ve sworn off listening/watching Mike and Mike. You’ve muted Lou Holtz (but still been forced to clean the screen from watching him slobber all over himself and the Irish). You just want to kick this thing off already and start drowning little leprechauns in a Crimson Tide!!! Ok, I hear ya. Here’s what to watch for Monday night as over 40 years worth of Bama angst is unleashed on the Irish……
Alabama on Offense
After watching the elephants along the Bama offensive line push the Georgia d-line around as though they were Dawgs on skates, the overwhelming expectation is that Alabama will do the same thing to Notre Dame. Most feel that while the Irish defense boasts some eye-popping national rankings, their numbers are inflated due to a woeful schedule filled with crappy Big 10 teams. These same folks feel Bama should simply have their way with the Irish D all day long. If you are in this camp, I think you are going to be sorely mistaken.
This season, the Ole Miss Rebels thwarted Alabama’s rushing attack (holding them to 125 yards rushing) by sending their linebackers screaming downhill into the teeth of the Bama offensive line. Bama’s big uns were unable to get to the second level with their blocks as the Rebel linebackers were consistently in their jock straps shortly after the snap of the ball. This approach jammed up the line of scrimmage and basically composed a picket fence that filled nearly all of the running lanes and cutback lanes, making for a long evening for the Bama backs. Notre Dame uses only their front 7 to stuff the running game and they’ve been able to do it in every single game except for Pittsburgh. At the snap, the ND linebackers fly into the line with authority and they are big enough to dislodge the linemen who are trying to make or sustain their blocks. With the massive size of the Irish front three or four (and the athleticism to stand up and hold the point at the line of scrimmage) and the linebackers filling any creases, Notre Dame eliminates the running game in the same boa constrictor fashion that a Nick Saban defense does. It’s impressive.
For Alabama to win this game, they will have to throw the football effectively and this can be done against the Irish so long as AJ remains patient. The ND defense plays a TON of zone and is constantly in a very deep 2 deep coverage designed to eliminate long passing plays. This style of defense allows short throws to the backs and intermediate throws behind the linebackers but the famed deep ball to Amari Cooper will not be available. It will have to be a very patient offense who will have to be delighted with 8 yard completions and 13, 14 and 15 play drives. Can we do it? Here are some keys…
Hold the Ranks: Notre Dame’s defense is ranked #1 in scoring defense, #6 in total defense (286 yds), #4 against the run (92 yds) and #21 against the pass (194 yds). They have allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season. While it’s true their schedule featured a ton of inferior competition, they still shut down a couple of pretty decent offenses. Their defense is not to be taken lightly.
In Two Deep: Notre Dame’s defensive concept is very simple. The front seven is used to form a wall that backs cannot slip thru while their secondary plays a two deep coverage intent on making their opponents stay patient. The premise is that if ND can stop the running game, sooner or later the quarterback will get greedy and force a pass into the Irish zone that gets picked off. Notre Dame will allow dinks to the backs, wide receiver screens and flare outs into the flats. This is where AJ and the offense must attack and they must be content with what the Irish D is willing to give up. AJ & Saban have said many times, “Take what the defense gives you and they’ll give you the game.” Never has that been more critical than Monday night.
Man(ti) on a Mission: Manti Teo is a very physical and instinctive linebacker and the Irish use their front three or four to hold up the offensive line, allowing Teo to fly downhill into the running lanes. He is well-disciplined and he oftentimes knows where the play is going before the snap. When he diagnoses a running play, he and his fellow inside linebacker Dan Fox (another physical LB) crash down to the line of scrimmage, engaging the OL or making the tackle. Teo is very aggressive and this opens up lanes for the play action passing game. But. Beware. Teo recovers quickly and is one of the best coverage linebackers I’ve seen – he’s very skilled at knowing what routes are coming at him and he jumps them with abandon. To the good, when he’s engaged with an offensive lineman, he’s rarely able to disengage and he’s prone to over-pursuing ball carriers.
Fake It: With the Irish LBs hell-bent on crashing down into the line of scrimmage, then you know the play action fake can be deadly against them. Teams often used their aggressiveness to hit slants and in cuts behind the linebackers and they were usually wide open.
Breakdown, Checkdown: When the downfield routes are busted, it’s imperative that AJ be willing to quickly check it down to the running backs. In seven games that I reviewed, the Irish ALWAYS conceded the short passes to the backs coming out of the backfield. Screens worked, as well. The reason for this is the yo-yo effect the LBs have when they are so focused on crashing down to stop the run. On the play action, once the LBs realize it’s a pass, they hastily retreat back into their 10 yard zones and this opens up the backs out of the backfield since the LBs can’t really cover well while running on their heels backwards. Stanford killed them with passes to their RBs.
Double Trouble: Also, in seven games I reviewed nearly every team exploited Notre Dame’s usage of their linebackers against 3 and 4 WR looks. The Irish stubbornly leave in their two outside LBs instead of bringing in extra defensive backs when faced with 3 and 4 WR looks. In a twin WR set, you’ll see one Notre Dame corner cover the outside receiver and a LB (playing way off) lines up on the inside receiver. This leaves the WR screen and quick hitches wide open and since this is a staple of the Tide’s offense, it should be utilized a TON!
Size Matters: Personally, I think the front three of the Irish is far more talented than the UGA trio or any other trio the Tide has faced. Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 306), Louis Nix (6-3, 323) and Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 306) are all outstanding athletes. Tuitt is the best pass rusher but all three hold the point of attack extremely well. These guys are nearly impossible to move and Nix’s swim move off the nose is imposing. There’s a reason they’ve only given up only two rushing touchdowns this season. Again, these three are better than their UGA counterparts and they will not be put down easily like the Dawgs were in Atlanta.
More Cushion for the Pushin: ND likes to play a match up zone with their back seven. By using their LBs in coverage, they do not ask them to man up so they play a TON of zone with matchup concepts. Their corners play off the WRs by about 8-10 yards which makes hitches and curls (along with the aforementioned WR screens) open. Now, ND does like to blitz a corner on first down so if you see a corner showing bump and run on first down, he’s blitzing. Now, if I can see them tipping blitzes….
Another Brick at the Wall: No one had ANY success running the football against the Irish’s goal-line defense. Handing the ball off to a back was essentially throwing a brick at a solid brick wall. The way the Irish must be attacked at the goal line is by going to the play action pass to a back out of the backfield on first and second down. With ND concentrating on stuffing the run, they blitz everyone which leaves the backs open out of the backfield. In other short yardage sets (say 3rd and 1 from the 40), ND is soft at the offensive tackles. Running up the middle is suicide (and stupid) but working at or just outside of the tackles is available (Oklahoma and Stanford exploited this).
Main Contain: You’ll notice #13 (Danny Spond) for Notre Dame lining up well outside of the Bama tight end or tackle in a lot of their sets. Spond (248 lbs) does a tremendous job of setting and holding the edge. Most of the successful runs that I saw on tape went to the opposite side of #13.
Seven’s Heaven: For those of you who remember this, one of the Lighthouse’s best calls of the season was against Auburn. We told you that Auburn would line up seven defenders across the goalline in a zone and that Alabama would curl one receiver at the goalline and run another receiver behind him for a TD. The Irish employ a very similar scheme inside the 10 yard line and this passing scheme should be wide open again.
Death Stare: Staring down a receiver against the Notre Dame zone will be suicide. AJ is going to have to look off the coverage if he’s going to be successful because the ND defenders will flock to wherever his eyes go.
Hit It From the Backside: USC and Pittsburgh each exploited ND’s over-pursuit to rip off some nice runs to the backside or weakside of the run. TJ Yeldon is especially good at this so I think anticipate that Yeldon will be the more successful of Bama’s two headed monster.
Swami Sez: Like it or not, Notre Dame is going to stifle the Bama running game Monday night. If I’m wrong, then Bama will win by more than two touchdowns. But, if I’m right (and those who follow me know that I’m more right than wrong), Alabama’s offense will be forced to throw more than we want it to. This will place the game squarely in AJ McCarron’s hands and I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. AJ’s worst games have come against LSU, A&M and Georgia – the three most critical games of the season. So, when the stakes have been the highest, AJ has been off his game. Granted, he engineered comebacks against all three (ok, so he was 2 yards short against A&M), but he clearly wasn’t able to perform at his best. The Irish are going to allow short underneath passes and WR screens. If Alabama is patient, they will be able to use 10+ play drives to score touchdowns. My guess is that they will lose patience and will ultimately settle for field goals. Alabama’s rushing attack will be held under 140 yards total. The Bama passing game will go for around 250 yards but AJ will force at least one throw into coverage for a pick. There shouldn’t be many sacks but there will likely be two critical coverage sacks as AJ is unable to find an opening in the zone. Amari Cooper will catch 7+ balls with none of them going over 20 yards in the air. The Yeldon and Lacy (combined) tandem will essentially be the second leading receiver. Kenny Bell’s injury will prevent him from playing in this game and that’s a problem (lack of speed) against ND’s defense. Monday night will be a mighty struggle for the Tide offense, in my opinion.
Alabama on Defense
After watching virtually every Notre Dame game during the season and then watching seven of their games again on replays, I still can’t tell you what the Irish offense is trying to accomplish or what their identity is. I mean, the Irish would dearly love to be able to run the football but they are rarely able to do so consistently. Meanwhile, their freshman QB Golson has been erratic and has been replaced in nearly every game at some point in time by junior QB Tommy Rees. At this point, it appears the Irish are content to either throw a jump ball to massive TE Tyler Eifert or allow Golson to turn a broken play into a big gainer. Those are the only two legitimate threats the Irish pose (well, their tailback Riddick is an exceptional receiver out of the backfield and poses matchup problems) so I think with a month to prepare Nick and Kirby’s defensive charges should be well schooled on the Irish “offense.” Simply put, there’s a reason the Irish have been in tightly contested games throughout the season: their defense is good enough to keep them in every game but their offense is bad enough to do the same. Here’s what we will be watching for when the Irish have the ball…
Irish are Rank: The Irish are rank – as in they stink. Here’s how the Irish stack up offensively in the national rankings: #74 in scoring offense (26.75 ppg), #49 in total offense (421 ypg), #27 rushing (202 ypg) and #75 passing (219 ypg).
Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey: Everett Golson is about as right hand dominant as you can be as a QB. In reviewing the seven Notre Dame games he did not complete a single pass when he was forced to roll to his left (unless you count completions to the wrong team). In fact, each time he rolled left Golson constantly slowed down to try and square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage, making him look as fluid as a toddler on ice. Now, when Golson rolls right he can be deadly accurate and can extend plays so Bama must contain to his right side and force him to his left whenever possible.
Might As Well Jump: Notre Dame basically has two plays in their arsenal. I alluded to the first above as Golson looooooves to roll right, extend the play and then either run it for big yardage or find an open receiver. When Golson is forced to throw, his best play is to throw the ball up into the air as a sort of jump ball and nine times out of nine it’s in the direction of their huge TE, Tyler Eifert. At 6-6, 251 lbs, Eifert is literally a huge matchup problem for anyone who tries to defend him. Eifert uses his girth and his hands to block out would-be defenders and snatch the passes out of the air. He’s nearly indefensible and this will be a significant problem for the Tide secondary. Eifert is so skilled at blocking out defenders that the lob passes are typically either caught or there’s a pass interference penalty on the play. Finding a way to climb the Eifert tower will be of paramount importance for the Bama defense!
Wherever You Lead, I’ll Go: Notre Dame isn’t exactly tricky in their offensive sets. When Eifert is split out as a WR, it’s typically a pass to Eifert. When he or one of the other TE’s is motioned next to one another on the line, it’s a run. Follow the TE’s and they will take you to the play every time.
Playing the Slots: It’s not much of a gamble if you blitz ND from the slot as they have yet to pick up a corner or slot blitz on the year. Purdue and Stanford utilized the slot blitzes with devastating effect as they always came thru the line unblocked. Look for Alabama to blitz more in this game than they have in quite some time. Bama’s fortunes turned when they brought pressure against Manziel so the forecast for the Irish is a high pressure system moving in from the south.
Fault Line: The Irish boast having four seniors and a junior along their offensive line so it’s a nice, cohesive unit but our film study did reveal two key weaknesses along their line. The first is their right tackle, Christian Lombard. This Christian has been fed to the lions quite a few times and I noted Purdue and Stanford went through him more easily than a turnstile. To Lombard’s credit, he did get better as the season progressed but, of the five linemen, he’s the weak link. Also, ND likes to keep TE Troy Niklas in to block. Why? I have no idea. He’s awful. I counted five different times that he quickly allowed significant pressure on the QB so look for Bama to attack these two guys relentlessly.
The Closer: Everett Golson has been prone to committing turnovers and/or getting hurt so junior (and former starter) Tommy Rees has played in a significant amount of games at critical times (typically during the two-minute drills). In fact, ND would not be undefeated if not for the heroics of Rees against Stanford, Michigan, Pittsburgh and BYU. Rees doesn’t possess a strong-arm so he is forced to throw short timing passes or jump balls to Eifert. Strangely, he’s typically pretty effective. If Rees comes in, look for Bama to jump a curl or hitch route a time or two because he throws it blindly and weakly.
Key Matchup: Bama obviously must figure out a way to defend Tyler Eifert but the key matchup in this game for the defense will be stopping running back/wide receiver/playmaker extraordinaire Theo Riddick. Riddick is a former WR so his quickness and hands are deadly when he’s matched up against a linebacker or, God forbid, a safety. Riddick is third on the team in receptions but he and Eifert seem to be Golson’s favorite receivers. Riddick’s ability to work to get open while Golson scrambles is a concern, especially if he’s working against one of Alabama’s safeties.
Dead Zone: In the Notre Dame games I watched, if I were an Irish fan I’d be petitioning to change “Touchdown Jesus” to “Field Goal Jesus” because Notre Dame is abysmal in the red zone. Look for ND to have a very difficult time getting into the end zone and having to settle for field goals as they have throughout the season.
Swami Sez: Against USC, Notre Dame experimented with a bit of an up-tempo offense to start the game. The guess here is that we’ll see that against Alabama as the Tide struggled against the up-tempo style of attack. If I were Brian Kelly, I’d keep two tight ends throughout much of the game and force Alabama to pair Nico Johnson and Trey Depriest at linebacker. This would force a horrific matchup problem in coverage for the Bama linebackers against Eifert and Riddick, their two best receivers. The counter would be for Saban to keep Mosley in at all times and I think you’ll see him lined up in the 3-4 more than you ever have before due to the threat of Riddick. At 6’1, Golson is a tad short and he’s had trouble with batted down passes this season so I’d look for at least two passes to be tipped or batted at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, Golson carries the rock pretty loosely so look for at least one fumble out of the Irish QB. Eifert will lead them in catches and you will likely throw something at the TV while pleading for someone in the road whites to stop him. Riddick will be the second leading receiver and will make a couple of plays when things break down for Golson. The Irish will not be able to run the ball unless it’s Golson on a broken play so we are looking for less than 60 yards rushing by their backs and less than 120 yards rushing total. The Irish will attempt a minimum of three field goals and will likely get frustrated enough to fake a field goal or a punt during the game. Their red zone offense is horrible so if they end up scoring touchdowns in the red zone then we’ll have ourselves a big, big problem. I only see the Irish offense scoring one touchdown.
Alabama on Special Teams
With Alabama, you pretty much know what you are getting from the special teams with two exceptions – long field goals and catching punts. Cody Mandell has become a weapon in the punting game and he’s been a consistent performer this season. Inside of about 42 yards, Jeremy Shelley has been lock solid as he was last season making 11 of 11 attempts this year. Now, when you get outside of that 42 yard field goal area then it’s time to consider a fake FG, a punt or just going for it. At this point I don’t have any confidence in trotting out Cade Foster on this kind of stage unless it’s at the end of a half and there are no other options. If I’m Saban, if it’s fourth down and the ball is beyond the Notre Dame 30 yard line then I’m considering other options besides the field goal. On the flip side, the Irish are only 3 of 7 on field goals over 40 yards so they have similar concerns with long distance dialing (both Alabama and Notre Dame are 75% on their FG attempts this season).
The net punting averages are roughly the same but Alabama’s inability to field punts cleanly has been a concern for quite some time. If Bama can field a punt cleanly the you should know that in the last BCS game Saban & Co found a flaw in LSU’s punt coverage team that allowed Maze and Jones to bust off a couple of big returns (so you know they have been working in lab to do the same against Notre Dame). By and large, Bama’s coverage teams should have more athleticism and Bama’s return game appears to be much better as well. Overall, we should see a slight advantage to Alabama in overall special teams.
This game is going to be a low scoring affair between two very good defensive teams. The team that commits the fewest turnovers and has the most third down conversions will win the game. Notre Dame will certainly try to shorten the game and play a bend but don’t break defense in order to eliminate the Tide’s advantages at wide receiver. AJ will have to play a very patient game and take what the defense gives him throughout the contest because if he gets impatient he will implode. There is yardage to be had in dump downs to the backs and screens to the wide receivers but there will likely be little yardage available deep downfield or in the running game.
All that being said, I will be surprised if Notre Dame is the team that makes the most plays Monday night. Saban and the Tide have been here and done this many, many times and Saban has posted an outstanding record when he’s had time to prepare. Alabama has brutalized Clemson, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Michigan State Texas and LSU when they’ve had a month or more to game plan so there’s no reason to suspect that Alabama won’t win their 15th National Championship on South Beach Monday night.
Final Score: Alabama 19 Notre Dame 13
BTW – for what it’s worth, the prediction of Notre Dame stuffing the Tide running game is going against the grain of most of the national media. This prediction is based purely on the success of the Ole Miss defense against Bama’s run game and the fact that Notre Dame is much, much, much better than Ole Miss and employs a similar style. If I’m wrong, it’s a blowout win for Alabama and I’ll gladly eat crow…