The Back Drop:
Head coach Brian Kelly certainly had “Irish eyes smiling” in 2012, as Notre Dame capped off their first undefeated regular season since 1988. Back at the onset of the season, very few prognosticators (including yours truly) gave the Fighting Irish a chance to appear in a BCS Bowl game, let alone run the table given the difficulty of their schedule. Yet, here they are boasting arguably the best defensive unit in college football, to go along with an opportunistic offense. Their seven week stretch of wins versus Michigan State, Michigan, Miami (FL), Stanford, BYU, and Oklahoma was truly a remarkable feat.
The Crimson Tide have dominated the college football landscape the last couple seasons, and 2012 was no different. Junior quarterback A.J. McCarron and company dismantled their opponents by an average margin of 27 points per game this season, marking the fourth consecutive season in which their average margin of victory was + 20 points. Although the defense lost substantial pieces of the puzzle from last season, this year’s group quickly asserted themselves as one of the most dominant units in the country. They ranked 1st nationally in total defense (246.0 YDS/G), as well as rush defense (79.7 YDS/G). With a win on Monday evening, Bama will become the first program to win national titles in 3 out of 4 seasons since Nebraska did it back in the mid-90s (1994-97).
Why they are Here:
Offensive Line- Barrett Jones (Sr.-Center), Cyrus Kouandjio (So.-LT), D.J. Fluker (Jr.-RT), Chance Warmack (Sr.-LG), and Anthony Steen (Jr.-RG) made quarterback A.J. McCarron, as well as the two head backfield monster of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, look exceptional in 2012. Just how exceptional you ask? Well consider this, both Lacy and Yeldon topped 1,000 yards rushing (1182-Lacy 1000-Yeldon) while averaging a combined 6.45 yards per rush (not mention 27 combined rushing TDs). Furthermore, the Crimson Tide O-line led the SEC (13th nationally) in generating runs of 10 yards or more (98).
As for pass protection, sacks allowed were up from a year ago (24-2012 vs. 17-2011), however that didn’t deter McCarron from enjoying yet another productive season under center. He completed over 66% of his pass attempts, while connecting on 26 touchdowns passes versus just 3 interceptions. His 9.3 yards per pass completion was tied for 3rd best nationally. The offensive line does a superb job of giving McCarron additional time in the pocket to find his targets down field. Simply put, they are a once in a generation unit.
Defensive Front Seven- I don’t like throwing around the word “elite” loosely, but how in the heck else can you describe the performance of these guys in 2012? Just an awesome effort by Manti Te’o, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo, Louis Nix III, Sheldon Day, and Stephon Tuitt. The thing that really stands out with this unit is their ability to wrap up and finish tackles on a consistent basis. The Fighting Irish were excellent at limiting excess yards, especially as they related to big gains in the opponents rushing and passing attacks. Notre Dame surrendered only 16 plays of 30 yards or more, the fewest in the nation.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this front seven is their ability to make their opponents one-dimensional. This unit won the “battle in the trenches” on a frequent basis all season long. More times than not, they completely shut down their opposing team’s ground attack. As you can see by the chart below, every team with the exception of Pittsburgh was held below their season rushing average (in most cases, considerably). Football is not a hard sport to figure out. If you can take away your opponents strength, you have an excellent chance to succeed. The Fighting Irish front seven did that consistently in 2012.
|Opponent Season||Att||Yards||Avg.||Diff (+/-)|
|+ Navy 278.4||40||149||3.73||-129.4|
|@ Michigan St. 149.3||25||50||2.00||-99.3|
|19 Michigan 183.7||41||161||3.93||-22.7|
|+ Miami (Fla.) 144.7||18||84||4.67||-60.7|
|8 Stanford 174.2||40||147||3.68||-27.2|
|Brigham Young 153.1||25||66||2.64||-87.1|
|@ 12 Oklahoma 165.0||24||15||0.63||-150.0|
|@ Boston College 90.9||23||53||2.30||-37.9|
|Wake Forest 100.5||25||55||2.20||-45.5|
|@ USC 150.6||27||95||3.52||-55.6|
Amari Cooper- I think sometimes the Crimson Tide’s efficient aerial attack is overshadowed by its physical ground attack. However make no mistake, this freshman wide receiver possesses special qualities that enables him to get behind opposing defensive backfields on a regular basis. Cooper’s 17.1 yards per catch average was third best in the SEC, and he compiled 34 catches of 20 yards or more on the season. Notre Dame’s safeties will need to stay at home and not bite on Crimson Tide play action opportunities. If not, Cooper will surely make them pay with some long plays in the passing game.
Tyler Eifert- The senior tight end led the Irish in receptions (44), receiving yards (624), and averaged over 14 yards per catch in 2012. What makes Eifert such a weapon is his versatility in the Irish offense. Coach Kelly utilities Eifert in a variety of formations, including lining him up wide to try and get mismatches. Keep an eye on Bama’s All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. He could find himself matched up against Eifert on multiple occasions on Monday evening.
Keys to a Tide win:
- Pound the Rock: As we highlighted above, the key matchup for this game will be the Tide’s offensive line versus the Fighting Irish defensive front seven. Bama’s ground attack absolutely wore out Georgia in the SEC Championship game, amassing 350 yards on the ground on 51 carries. If Lacy and Yeldon start churning out big runs early, the Irish are in trouble. The last thing Notre Dame wants to do is change their defensive game plan early.
- Keep Golson in the Pocket: In my opinion, the Notre Dame passing attack is a lot more effective when quarterback Everett Golson is able to roll out and utilize his athletic ability. If the Crimson Tide can keep Golson within the pocket, it will be to their advantage. If not, look for Golson to make some plays with his legs outside the numbers.
Keys to an Irish Win:
- Jump on them Early: Plain and simple, Alabama likes to bully you. They believe they are more physical than you and look to impose their will on you early. Notre Dame must “punch them in the mouth” early on. They can’t afford to let the Crimson Tide get up early, and consequently dictate tempo. Offensive execution in quarter number one will be vital for the Irish.
- Get Consistent Pressure on McCarron: This will be a moot point if the Irish front seven can’t smother the Bama rushing attack. However, if Notre Dame consistently keeps this aspect in check, they won’t be forced to bring eight in the box or dial up blitzes to stop the run. This will be key, as they can stay in their base packages and hope the likes of Truitt and Shembo can disrupt McCarron’s rhythm.
Can Stephon Tuitt and the Irish get to A.J. McCarron?
We should find out fairly quickly who has the advantage in the trenches between the Tide’s offensive line and the Irish defensive front seven. Both are dominant and physical units, but I feel confident that the Irish can get consistent pressure on McCarron with their base packages.
Notre Dame must avoid turnovers (something they have done up to this point), convert on third down consistently, and cash in on their red zone chances ($=TDs). If they can do those three things, they should have an excellent chance to win this game.
Notre Dame 24 Alabama 20
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