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Pregame Six Pack: For all the marbles

Jan 6, 2013, 1:41 PM EDT

Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — We are finally inching closer. After forty days of waiting, Notre Dame and Alabama will go to bed tonight and wake up on game day. An eternity for football teams that thrive on the day-to-day process and structure a season provides, the layoff adds just another variable into an equation already riddled with uncertainty.

For Notre Dame, those unknowns are well established. Can the Irish move the football against the mighty Tide defense? Can they stop a power run game unlike any they’ve seen? Can somebody finally topple the SEC? The answers to all these questions will be apparent on Monday night. But until then, the waiting is the hardest part.

With head coach Brian Kelly running his team through their final prep work, let’s break out one final six pack. Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame and Alabama get ready to play for all the marbles.

***

1. In a match-up of strength versus strength, Notre Dame’s size might be it’s biggest asset.

The last time Notre Dame had a team that harbored true national championship aspirations, Brady Quinn, Tommy Zbikowski, and Travis Thomas were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In Quinn and Zbikowski, the Irish had the skill players needed to make a run. But Thomas, a 212-pound running back turned outside linebacker, exemplified Notre Dame’s biggest issue: A glaring lack of size.

That 2006 team was exposed in their date with the SEC, when LSU overpowered the Irish on their way to a dominant Sugar Bowl victory. But in Brian Kelly’s three seasons, a lot has changed. And when Alabama’s stout offensive line takes the field on Monday night, they’ll be facing the biggest defense they’ve seen all season. And one of the biggest in all of college football.

From a sheer tonnage perspective, the Irish will trot out 1,928 pounds in the front seven when they take the field on defense in their base 3-4 alignment. Of the top ten rushing defenses in the country, no other front seven cracks 1,900 pounds. It is likely the biggest front seven in all of college football.

Size is only one part of the equation. But as Notre Dame’s defense has shown all season, their ability to play physically at the point of attack has been truly elite this season.

“This is as good of a front seven as we’ve seen,” Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.

***

2. With a stacked trio in the Notre Dame backfield, the Irish coaching staff will need to successful juggle touches one last time.

In Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame has a trio of running backs that defenses need to account for. It’s a challenge that Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spoke candidly about, as the long layoff gave the Alabama coaching staff time to analysis the Irish running game.

“You try to find tendencies,” Smart said. “You try to say, what do they run with this guy, run with that guy?

“When you bring Notre Dame down, they run a lot of the same plays with the same backs, so there’s not a true tendency unless you get to bead on one during the game.”

That type of versatility is a headache for a defensive coach. But it also creates problems for the Irish coaching staff. Namely, how to find enough touches for everyone.

“Truth be told, they all could be a feature back,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “But there’s only one football.”

Down the stretch, Kelly and Martin decided to ride Riddick, utilizing the senior back’s versatility to create mismatches. But on Monday night, giving all three backs a shot at catching fire will be important, with Wood and Atkinson true wildcards for the offense.

In a season where finding carries for all three guys was difficult, pulling the right strings one last time with be critical.

***

3. Notre Dame’s most miraculous win of the season shocked an Alabama player, too.

During a week where every reporter was searching for a unique angle, credit CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz for finding a good one.

Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri thought his brother had pulled off the upset of the season when he turned off the Pitt-Notre Dame game. Prepping for a battle with LSU, the Tuscaloosa native didn’t know the Irish charged back to victory until that evening, making for a tough conversation with his brother, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri.

“I was like yeah, this one’s in the bag,” Alabama’s Sunseri told CSNChicago.com on Saturday.

Sunseri didn’t get to watch the rest of his brother’s game, seeing as Alabama was in the midst of its biggest game of the season to date at LSU. But when he got back in to the locker room at halftime, he noticed Notre Dame won in triple overtime. Later, he called Tino to talk about the game.

“He just said it was a perfect storm kind of thing,” Sunseri said. “It wasn’t just the missed field goal, he said, he said ‘I could’ve made more opportunities’ — he tried to put all the pressure on himself. The missed field goal was a big part of it, but he tried to put it all on himself saying he could’ve done more, he could’ve done certain things to put themselves in better situations.”

The Sunseri brothers are part of a big football family, with father Sal a former Tide linebacker and coach and now the current defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Vinnie, a sophomore that’s made 52 tackles this season and starts in the Tide’s nickel and dime formations, will look to get a modicum of revenge on behalf of his brother.

***

4. For the Irish to have a shot at victory, Everett Golson and the offense will need to continue their ascent.

Far from hard-hitting analysis, Notre Dame’s offense needs to play well to win. And that’s a fact that’s not lost on Chuck Martin, who spent some time over the layoff keeping his offense humble by popping on the Purdue game tape.

“It was almost mind-numbing pathetic how bad we were,” Martin said, when thinking back to the Irish’s ugly 20-17 victory.

And while Martin acknowledges that this will be the toughest defense they’ve faced all season, he’s confident that the work put in over the past 40 days has done a great deal to help keep the unit improving, and building up young quarterback Everett Golson. It’s been a process where the offense went back to the basics, brick by brick looking for ways to improve.

“We looked at our run game,” Martin said. “We looked at all parts of red zone, and particularly since they don’t give up many opportunities.”

“It’s execution, it’s playing physical, it’s in the run game, carving out some space for our running backs, and then obviously in the pass game, giving Everett some time and then him making sure he figures out that coverage and where to get the ball and put the ball in the right place.”

***

5. The similarities between Alabama and Notre Dame extend to the recruiting trail as well.

There are a ton of similarities in the recruiting philosophies of Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. And as Notre Dame fans have been finding out, that’s a really good thing.

With two programs that both subscribe to “the process,” and two head coaches that keep in-house details out of the media, hearing Kirby Smart open up about Alabama’s recruiting philosophy was surprising. And it also mirrored some of the things we’ve heard out of Notre Dame coaches, particularly as they seek a certain profile of players.

“We certainly have player descriptions, player profiles that we want. If guys don’t fit that certain description, they may be a five-star great player,  we’re just not interested because we recruit to a certain standard,” Smart said. “We say we want the guy to be this tall, this big. Does that mean there’s not exceptions? Sure, there’s exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions. So we’re trying to get six corners that are all 5-11 or bigger, we want D-linemen that are all 6-2. There’s criteria for those positions that we want to recruit to.”

Smart’s words might as well be clipped from those said by Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco back in August. When discussing recruiting philosophies, Diaco talked about the Irish recruiting profiles, specifically their search for height and size.

“We really don’t like small players, in general,” Diaco said this summer. “We believe that if we have a big defense, we’re going to have a chance to have a good defense. How good? We don’t know. But when we come off the bus, if we’re as big or bigger than our opponent, we believe we’ll have a good chance to have a good defense.”

Notre Dame fans might remember a few eyebrow raising recruits that the Irish didn’t chase. Specifically, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, who took offense to the Irish passing on him.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden said. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Bolden contributed 31 tackles to the Wolverines defense as a true freshman, playing up to his recruiting ranking. But as Smart and Diaco both pointed out, these are two of the best defenses in the country because they bring a tremendous amount of specificity to the recruiting process.

***

6. While they might be mighty Alabama and the defending national champions, the Crimson Tide was a group of over-achievers as well.

It may be tough to call a team that started the year ranked No. 2 and is in the middle of what looks like a college football dynasty over-achievers, but Nick Saban all but did it today.

“To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,” Saban said. “If you look at all the players that we lost last year, the leadership that we lost, the injuries that we’ve had, the scheudule that we played, the adversity that had to be overcome, the new roles that so many people had on this team, the young players who had opportunities to really kind of show what they could do and how quickly they would mature to be able to do their job in a way that would give us a chance to be successful as a team, I’m really proud of what this team actually was able to accomplish together as a group.”

All of those factors weigh into why Notre Dame could spring the upset Monday night. While this Alabama team is a great one, they aren’t the 2011 squad, a team that had five of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft. They’re also a team that’s seen its depth chart hit with injuries, including ones to several key contributors that still may be lingering.

After building a juggernaut that can simply reload instead of rebuild, Saban has done so, relying on a new crop of veteran leaders as well as dynamic young players.

It’s been a strong enough team to get to the biggest stage in the sport for the second consecutive season. We’ll find out if it’s good enough to win it Monday night.

 

  1. irishirish777 - Jan 6, 2013 at 2:19 PM

    Well, here we go, for all the marbles. I have been a ND fan since the 80′s and have been waiting for this a long time. All the talk, for and against ND, I have heard all that time. It has been quieter lately since the Irish are top of the polls. However, we really need to finish this year off right with this win. This will make a statement that will silence any critic. ND has a great team and will pull out a victory if they just play their game. Bring your “A” game boys because you can bring home the W. don’t shoot yourself in the foot and NEVER EVER give up. Win or lose I’m proud to be an ND fan! My prediction, ND 24. – Bama 21
    Go Irish!!!!!

    • drdannddad - Jan 7, 2013 at 8:47 AM

      The last time the Irish played for the National Championship, I watched the game with my kids, who were quite young at the time. Tonight, we will watch the game together again, but this time my “kids” are now in their 30s. I never thought it would take this long to get back to the big one, but thank goodness we are finally there again. And I have to admit, I have a good feeling about this one. Go IRISH!

      ps: I’ve been an ND fan since the 1960′s, and remember vividly watching the 1973 New Year’s Eve game against Alabama with my family when I was 16 years old. Great, great memories!

  2. joewilliesshnoz - Jan 6, 2013 at 2:27 PM

    ‘Tide 31 – Irish 17

    • iamnotacoolguy - Jan 6, 2013 at 3:08 PM

      If Alabama scores 31 it will be because something hokey happens (pick 6 or special teams touchdowns). I really don’t think there is team in all of college football that could line up and score 30+ on this defense after they have had 40 days of preparation. They haven’t given up more that 26 points to anyone the entire season! I have seen some Tide fans think they are going to score 40 or more points. That just will not happen. Oklahoma was supposed to be able to score points and they only got 13. It should be a close game. If Golson makes plays with his arms and his feet Alabama will surely have some trouble. Should be a great game.

  3. mayesdays - Jan 6, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    For those of us that aren’t there, could any one give us some insight to what South Beach is like with ND fans? Obviously I am jealous. Go Irish!

    • drdannddad - Jan 7, 2013 at 8:57 AM

      One of my friends e-mailed to let me know her college-age daughter flew to Miami {from Chicago} following her winter break. She said her flight was LOADED with ND fans, and they partied, cheered and sang the fight song the entire flight. It sounded like a really good time!!

  4. danno27 - Jan 6, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    It’s been a while since I’ve commented on here even with my RSS feed. This was a great article. It simply will not get better than this matchup in college football. The bluest of the blue bloods.

    If the Irish keep it close through the first three quarters, we win.

    What an experience this has been – and I am not even going to be in South Beach!

    Go Irish . . . to the tune of 19 – 10.

  5. andy44teg - Jan 6, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    Correction: This IS THE BEST front seven you’ve faced all year, Dougie Nussmeier…

  6. dutch31 - Jan 6, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    The game is simple. If ND can stop the run with just their front 7 they will win. Period! ND 24 Alabama 13.

    GO. IRISH!!!

  7. 4horsemenrideagain - Jan 6, 2013 at 6:11 PM

    ND:38
    UA: 9

    Anyone who wants the score for next year’s NCG against Ohio state, just ask. Hint: ND wins that one running away as we’ll.

  8. 4horsemenrideagain - Jan 6, 2013 at 6:11 PM

    well.

  9. montjamz - Jan 6, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    Times up! ROLL TIDE

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:57 AM

      ROLL TIDE is derived from the fact that all of you ‘Bama fans drive your houses to the game, right?

  10. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:06 PM

    @4horse…as much as I like the optimism, I don’t think we can blow them out like that. They have a pretty effective D just like us. I think we win this game but I think it’s gonna be a real squeaker. What concerns me about that is the one thing nobody’s been talking about: Kyle Brindza. He has been extremely clutch at times and at other times, not so much. If we keep the game close and it comes down to relying on Brindza’s foot for all the marbles, I’m gonna say a quick novena and probably poop myself. I’ve had major insomnia all week long and can’t help but think this game is one of the main causes. I’ve never been this amped up for any game, including 1989 Fiesta Bowl vs WV. Somebody suggested that my wife dial 9-1 at the start of the first quarter and hold onto the phone for the rest of the game, just in case I need the paddles.

    • kapnd73 - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:47 AM

      Jersey, it seems I’ve caught your insomnia. And now another thing to be nervous about – Brindza’s foot, thanks a lot! It’s possible (restraining myself from saying likely) that several of our red zone efforts may result in field goal attempts. I’m starting my novena now that they all be successful.

      Does a glass of red wine calm you? We don’t want to lose you – so: the dialing 9-1- is a good idea, plus take some uncoated baby aspirin right before kick-off…or during any pre-game Alabama highlight reels. And hopefully Keith will help keep us all sane on the Live Blog.

    • goirishgo - Jan 7, 2013 at 9:16 AM

      Jersey,

      I’ll be watching most of this one standing up. Flew the kids in for it too.

      Go Irish from another NJ fan!

  11. NotreDan - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    Been a while boys.

    Been reading, getting ready.

    It’s time. 24 hours to go.

    Not gonna make a prediction, I just hope we have a chance in the 4th. If we do, I like our chances.

    One last time…

    GO IRISH!!!!!!

  12. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:41 PM

    Seahawks just knocked off the Skins. Reminded me how much I hate seeing Pete Carroll win on any level. Good for Tate though.

    • papadec - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:34 AM

      joisey – I have a hard time rooting for the Seahawks with Pete too – and I live here. But, my kids were born out here & we try to focus on Tate & the fact that it is our home team. They are exciting, this year.

  13. letafan4ever - Jan 6, 2013 at 8:57 PM

    I’ve been having no luck recently getting into UND.com Anyone else having that problem?

    • papadec - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:31 AM

      letafan – I was there a few hours ago – no problem.

      • letafan4ever - Jan 7, 2013 at 9:23 AM

        Thanks for answering. Must be something on my end :(

  14. 11thstreetmafia - Jan 6, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    It is nice to see classless Lane Kiffen prove he is an average coach at best, though.

  15. getsome99 - Jan 6, 2013 at 9:05 PM

    This game is all about ND turnovers and AL special teams. As long as ND plays smart, protects the football, and avoids big plays on special teams, they will win.

  16. runners00 - Jan 6, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    I am not at South Beach. I am in Naples, which is 100 miles west. My flight was packed with ND fans. I’m at a conference here and nearly all out of towers had the same observations: Fighting Irish travel well. Hotel is sold out and has a fair amount of ND and Alabama fans.

    As for the game, I think it hinges on our offense. Can we move the ball against such a tough defense? If we can and we take care of the ball, we win. I just dont see them scoring on out toght defense. I think it’s been a really special season so far. coach Kelly will have the kids ready again tomorrow night. I think we will win a very tight and low scoring game.

    Go Irish!

  17. mmanor01 - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:14 PM

    Down in South Beach. It is insane. Irish everywhere you look. Not too many ‘Bama fans to be honest. Pep rally on the beach was unreal with 100k people. We couldn’t even get close and had to watch on one of the big screens. Lou was the best. Quote about Mark May, “Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you’re an asshole”.

    • mayesdays - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:15 PM

      Thanks for the info! Awesome quote!

    • goirishgo - Jan 7, 2013 at 9:19 AM

      So true.

  18. ndnphx - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:19 PM

    I have digested all of the pregame chatter, and make the following observations:

    1. Alabama has faced no defense that approaches the caliber of ours all year. See: SEC performances in bowl games.

    2. Alabama’s defense can be had, big time.

    3. We have yet to put a complete game together on offense, and I think we’re about to.

    4. I’ve been witness to four ND national championship teams. Good as they each were, none of them possessed the amazing chemistry of this group.

    5. ND is going to win.

    • nudeman - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:45 PM

      Anyone’s D can be had including that of ND.
      Key to the whole puzzle is Everett. If he takes the next step forward and makes plays with his arm and legs, ND wins.

      If he plays just OK or gets hurt and Rees has to play meaningful minutes, good nite Gracie.

      I really believe it’s that simple.

    • nudeman - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:49 PM

      Ndphx
      Where do u live? I’m in N Scottsdale

      • ndnphx - Jan 7, 2013 at 11:01 AM

        Nude, I’m over in Moon Valley. Is there still an Irish HQ @ DC Ranch?

      • nudeman - Jan 7, 2013 at 11:37 AM

        ndphx
        There is a great Irish game watch locale in DC Ranch where I’ve watched games with another poster here, don74. It’s called West Addison (as in the street Wrigley is on in Chicago); solid sports bar, 100 TVs, DJ who plays the victory march on request, good crowd.

        Having said that, I’m probably watching from home tonight as my 11 year old daughter is into the game and I can’t in good conscience make her sit in a sweaty sports bar for 3 hours.

        BTW, don’t know what your career is, but I’m in the job market right now and looking to connect with any and all professionals in the area who might be helpful. If you want to tee it up sometime or whatever, 480 717 9990.

        Apologize to all for the personal commercial.

      • goirishgo - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:26 PM

        Nude,

        What is your field?

      • nudeman - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:36 PM

        goirishgo
        Nice of you to reply
        Enterprise Tech sales/sales management
        Phoenix area is death for my field.

        Thanks for any help you can offer.

      • ndnphx - Jan 7, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Nude, I’ll be in touch, and will do some brainstorming about possible contacts 4 u in the meantime.

        Pretty cool that you get to watch the game with another rabid fan, especially since she’s a daughter!

      • nudeman - Jan 7, 2013 at 1:16 PM

        ndphx
        Thanks.
        19-16 Good Guys win tonight

      • goirishgo - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:54 PM

        Nude,

        I am in NJ but know some folks in AZ. I’ll do some legwork and get back to you.

        Let’s get a win tonight!

  19. ndgoldandblue - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    Everyone’s making picks, so I thought I’d chime in. It’s no secret I’m more of a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Maybe it’s because I’m too young to know Notre Dame as a football power, and I’m old enough to be hardened by too many years of mediocrity. I’m not as pessimistic as c4evr, mind you. I’m just not as confident as the rest of you. All of it adds up to a bad feeling about tomorrow night’s game.

    I don’t know…part of me thinks the Irish will pull it out, but my instincts tell me to prepare for the worst. For Notre Dame to get the victory, I think one thing is absolutely necessary: Brian Kelly has to out-coach Nick Saban. I think back to the Oklahoma game. Of all the games the Irish played this year, that was the best called game from the Irish coaching staff, particularly BK.

    As Irish fans, we’ve all seen situations where BK’s play-calling has been a bit head-scratching. Toward the end of the USC game, for example, Riddick was rolling. So, why call a quarterback run and a fade to Eifert? I’m not complaining. The Irish won the game. But that was a golden scoring opportunity, and the team had to resort to a field goal.

    During the Oklahoma game, however, Kelly’s play-calling was fantastic. I don’t want to say that it was perfect, but it was very, very good. Frankly, I think that’s the kind of game that BK has to call in order for the Irish to win tomorrow night. It’s gotta’ be as close to flawless as possible.

    • nudeman - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:39 PM

      Agree.
      Golson has to play well and BK needs to not lose his nerve.
      They absolutely must get some big chunk plays and he can’t be afraid to call for some shots down field.

      • ndirish10 - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:03 AM

        Nude, agree wholeheartedly, if Golson plays well ND wins. Also, if running up the gut with Theo works, I hope BK continues it if they are in goal line situation, unlike how he would change it to empty backfield v. sc. That was killing me! GO IRISH!!!

  20. ndirish10 - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    Irish, you’ve gone undefeated this season might as well finish it the same. GO IRISH!!! ONWARD TO VICTORY!!! BEAT THE tide!!!

  21. ndirish10 - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:59 PM

    Wishing the Irish the best, from across the country, coast to coast. Subway Alumni from Monrovia, CA!!! GO IRISH!!!

  22. dutch31 - Jan 7, 2013 at 5:09 AM

    I totally agree about the USC play calling in the red zone. And was beside myself that night.

    But over the last 46 days i feel that to score red zone TDs Golson needs to be able to give Eifert a cstchable pass. He has shown very little touch on that through and it is pretty much unstoppable with an average throw. Eifert best TE I have EVER sern in college football. ( probably still had some welts from the FSU catches last year). But once his hands are on the ball its caught!!

    Packing the cooler with essentials!

    GO. IRISH!!!!!!!

  23. getsome99 - Jan 7, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    Dammit Nude. Have you not learned anything this year? The starting QB playing well is an understatement, but not the key to this game. Golson can play a great game, but if he turns the ball over and we make stupid mental mistakes (critical penalties) then all bets are off. We can still win if Golson plays a mediocre, yet mistake free game.

    • mtndguy - Jan 7, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      How is it a good game if Golson turns the ball over? Nude is right on, if Golson plays a good game (obviously not turning the ball over), then ND wins. Of course in order for Golson to have a good game, the O Line has to play well, which in turn will open up the run game, and give Golson enough time to find open receivers.

  24. badgerbuck - Jan 7, 2013 at 3:07 PM

    I’m worried that if the game gets out of hand will BK lose his grip with reality and make a fool of himself and notre dame? He has done it before.

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