Jan 6, 2013, 1:41 PM EDT
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.
Sep 17, 2014, 1:36 PM EDT
After missing the first three games of the season, the fate of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams is still up in the air. After announcing an official investigation into academic dishonesty in mid-August, updates on the status of the five players have been limited to head coach Brian Kelly’s weekly loop of uncertainty.
Sep 16, 2014, 11:59 AM EDT
With the Irish getting a much needed Saturday off, we won’t hear from Brian Kelly until he’s previewing Syracuse for us next weekend. But with one quarter of the season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the surprises after three games, digging deep in to the stats after victories over Rice, Michigan and Purdue.
Sep 15, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
It’s still way too early.
I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.
Sep 14, 2014, 11:08 PM EDT
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t take it. Notre Dame, entering their first off week at 3-0. The offense, averaging a hearty 36.3 points a game. The defense, giving up just 10.3 points a game.
Sep 14, 2014, 1:32 AM EDT
After two weekends of crisp, mistake-free football, Notre Dame walked into Lucas Oil Stadium expecting to roll over Purdue. And they played like it.
Sep 13, 2014, 5:13 PM EDT
With two victories behind them in impressive fashion, Notre Dame has a chance to start September with three straight victories for the second time in three seasons. Off to a clean start, the Irish are tied for the best in the nation in turnover margin, sitting pretty at +6 heading into Saturday night’s game.
Sep 13, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
As usual, for those of you away from the TV on Saturday night, we’ve got your covered. Notre Dame’s primetime affair with Purdue will air not just on NBC at 7:30 p.m., but will be hosted as part of the NBC Live Extra app, as well as online at NBCSports.com
Sep 12, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
With the festivities already started in Indianapolis, let’s empty the mailbag before tomorrow night’s Shamrock Series game against Purdue.
Sep 12, 2014, 3:26 AM EDT
It’s that time of year again. The annual Shamrock Series. For a program built upon tradition and history, consider the Shamrock Series something similar — only started five years ago. (So maybe not that similar at all.)
Sep 11, 2014, 5:52 PM EDT
With a betting line that’s hovering just above four touchdowns, this weekend’s Shamrock Series game looks like it could be the most lopsided matchup since the series premiere against Washington State. But if the last five years tell us anything, expect the unexpected against Purdue.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:58 PM EDT
Two weeks in and we’ve got plenty to talk about. So if you’ve got questions on Shamrock Series, Purdue, the end of Michigan, or anything else… Drop it in the comments or hit me on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:28 PM EDT
With his team 2-0 and looking well positioned to get out of September undefeated, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was a guest on Jim Rome’s radio show Wednesday afternoon. The Irish head coach shared some interesting thoughts, while also being very candid about the Irish’s 31-0 defeat of Michigan.
Sep 10, 2014, 12:03 PM EDT
For the second week in a row, we’ll be up late watching Notre Dame, only this Saturday it may be tough to decipher who the Fighting Irish are. Travis Miller of SBNation’s Hammer & Rails gets us ready for Purdue, as this year’s Shamrock Series kicks off this weekend.
Sep 9, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
As Brian Kelly pointed out on Saturday night, the decisive victory over Michigan counts as only one win. So while Saturday night’s game against Purdue looks like one of the more lopsided on the Irish schedule, consider the past two matchups.
Sep 8, 2014, 7:33 PM EDT
During the postgame interviews, it was hard for players to hide the joy they were feeling. For a team that’s struggled to beat Michigan in the past, the 31-0 victory certainly earned the Irish every minute of the 24 hours they planned to celebrate.
Sep 8, 2014, 1:37 PM EDT
Fresh off his 10 tackle performance and leading Notre Dame to a 31-0 shutout of Michigan, linebacker Jaylon Smith earned a nomination for the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week award.
Sep 7, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
As the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry takes an indefinite break, the Irish’s most lopsided victory in the series leaves the programs in two very different places. Even as Brian Kelly plays 19 first-year contributors (true and redshirt freshmen), the Irish won all three phases of the game. Let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly.
Sep 7, 2014, 1:43 AM EDT
This might have to be it for Notre Dame and Michigan. Because in the 42nd and final scheduled meeting between the Irish and Wolverines, Notre Dame’s delivered a 31-0 knockout punch that could very well leave Brady Hoke’s program left for dead.
Sep 6, 2014, 6:31 PM EDT
On a beautiful evening for football, it’s finally time for Notre Dame and Michigan to actually play football. That means after a long week of talking, hypothesizing and over-analyzing just about every subplot known to man, we can finally watch the Wolverines battle the Irish on the field of play. Join us here for the live blog.
Sep 6, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT
With kickoff tonight in primetime, you’ll likely have a spot on the couch already saved if you aren’t lucky enough to be in South Bend. But consider this your instruction manual to watching Notre Dame vs. Michigan from anywhere.
- It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff 128
- The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue 61
- Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Purdue 14 81
- Pregame Six Pack: An all Hoosiers Shamrock Series 39
- And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers 41
- Even after shutout, Irish hope best is yet to come for young D 69