Jan 6, 2013, 1:41 PM EST
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.
Dec 5, 2013, 2:14 AM EST
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Dec 3, 2013, 1:21 PM EST
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has boarded a private plane with his family to Oxford, Ohio, where he’ll be named the new head coach of the Miami Redhawks. Martin interviewed for the job on Sunday and will likely be introduced later today by Miami athletic director David Sayler. Martin will fill a job vacancy…
Dec 3, 2013, 11:54 AM EST
No deal is done, but multiple outlets are reporting that Miami (OH) will offer Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin its vacant head coaching position. Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell was fired after a 0-5 start, along with offensive coordinator John Klacik. Martin has served as the Irish’s offensive coordinator the past two…
Dec 3, 2013, 1:46 AM EST
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Dec 2, 2013, 8:14 PM EST
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Dec 2, 2013, 3:35 AM EST
Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed. “You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.” Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford,…
Dec 1, 2013, 1:01 AM EST
STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of…
Nov 30, 2013, 6:56 PM EST
Welcome to the finale of the regular season. As usual, we’re here with our buddies from Irish Illustrated, and we’re live chatting throughout the Notre Dame vs. Stanford game. It’s a beautiful day in Stanford Stadium, with a good turn out by Irish fans who headed to Northern California for Thanksgiving weekend. As usual, standard…
Nov 30, 2013, 10:20 AM EST
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Nov 29, 2013, 6:55 PM EST
Notre Dame safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate won’t be available for the regular season finale against Stanford. Rumors swirled late Thursday evening that the two safeties wouldn’t be traveling with the team to Palo Alto. Brian Kelly confirmed those rumors Friday afternoon from Northern California, citing a violation of team rules. Here’s the official…
Nov 29, 2013, 1:45 AM EST
The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.…
Nov 28, 2013, 1:16 PM EST
Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s hoping everybody is spending it with family, friends and loved ones. The Notre Dame football team is gathering today, with coaches and their families celebrating with the team as a new record for turkeys eaten is attempted. Before I get to work in the kitchen today, let’s get to the IBG (sorry,…
Nov 27, 2013, 12:19 PM EST
It took one visit to convince outside linebacker Jhonny Williams that Notre Dame was the place for him. Even amidst the wind and snow of last weekend, Williams knew the best option for him was the school just 30 minutes away from his home in Berrian Springs, Michigan. He made that decision official Wednesday morning,…
Nov 27, 2013, 3:13 AM EST
The regular season finale takes Notre Dame to Northern California on Saturday, where they’ll face No. 8 Stanford, a program that’s spent the past four seasons in rarified air. With the opportunity to win ten games for the fourth straight season, David Shaw’s Cardinal already have their ticket booked for the Pac-12 Championship game. But…
Nov 26, 2013, 11:21 PM EST
For the final Tuesday of the regular season, Brian Kelly hosted his weekly opponent preview press conference. And it’s clear that the Irish head coach understands the challenge that No. 8 Stanford presents. The Irish have played some good teams this season. But Kelly made it clear that he thinks Stanford is the best one he’ll…
Nov 25, 2013, 11:58 PM EST
When Notre Dame takes the field this weekend, the Irish will face a quarterback that grew up dreaming of playing in this game. Only Kevin Hogan always pictured himself calling the plays for the Fighting Irish. Hogan, the junior quarterback for Stanford, took the reins of the Cardinal offense in late October last season, replacing…
Nov 25, 2013, 1:52 AM EST
For the fourth straight season, Notre Dame sent its seniors out with a victory, a wonderful change from the Charlie Weis era where the Irish lost their two final home games in devastatingly painful fashion. But on Saturday, the Irish put together a complete victory, a late-season win that felt like a great pitcher grinding…
Nov 24, 2013, 7:45 PM EST
A little winter weather wasn’t enough to deter 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett from committing to Notre Dame this weekend. The junior quarterback from Orange County, California gave the Irish a building block recruit for next season’s cycle, with the offensive coaching staff finding what looks like an excellent fit for the Irish offense. Barnett’s commitment…
Nov 23, 2013, 9:41 PM EST
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before an emotional Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly made sure the message to his team was very clear. “We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again,” Kelly said after the game. “But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.” And win…
Nov 23, 2013, 5:24 PM EST
In case you missed it, the NBC pregame show had a wonderful feature on Danny Spond, giving you a window into the life of the senior linebacker, who has had to transition from the starting lineup to life after football because of severe migraine headaches. Spond rise about adversity has been one of the very…
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- And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal 54
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