Five things we learned: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There will be a silver lining in all of this. But for now, Notre Dame’s disappointing performance in their 42-14 loss to Alabama outweighs everything.

“It definitely sucks, to be quite honest,” Manti Te’o said after the game, seated next to his head coach and teammates for a final time as a member of the Fighting Irish. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

The journey that took this football team from a demoralizing defeat against Florida State last December to the national championship will be one that’s looked at fondly when the dust settles after this disappointing, one-sided defeat. But tonight, it’s a very hard pill to swallow for players and fans alike, with Alabama outclassing the Irish early and often, soundly beating a Notre Dame team that most thought could hang as a heavyweight.

But done in by a uncharacteristically sloppy first quarter and an incredibly thorough Alabama offensive performance, the dream season was just not meant to be.

“Alabama was the better team today,” Kelly said after the game. “They ran the football well. Our strength all year has been playing physical and tackling and we did not tackle well together. They were the better football team and they deserved to win.”

As the maintenance staff cleans up crimson and white confetti from the prestine grass of Sun Life Stadium, let’s take a look at the five things we learned during Alabama’s 42-14 victory in the BCS National Championship game.

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1. Alabama won the football game because they won the line of scrimmage.

It didn’t take long to understand that the Notre Dame defense was in for a long night against the Crimson Tide. Alabama marched decisively down the field to start the game, going 82 yards in just five plays and 2:57. For the first time, the Irish gave up seven points on an opening drive, and things were only going to get worse from there.

After not allowing a single touchdown drive longer than 75 yards, Alabama put together six scoring drives of 70 or more yards on the evening. The Tide were able to chew up massive yardage against an Irish defense that had been stout all season, effectively ending the game by halftime thanks to a dominant first half that including touchdowns the first three times Alabama touched the football.

We knew it’d be strength versus strength when Alabama’s offensive line battled Notre Dame’s front seven. But nobody saw the Crimson Tide offensive line being such decisive winners.

“I think everybody knows about Alabama’s offensive line,” Te’o said after the game. “They’re very big and they’re very athletic and very strong. You know, we battled. We battled. They just did what Alabama does.”

For the Tide, leaning on their running game and impressive offensive line opened up the passing game as well. And with the media spending much of the last month trying to quantify just how good this Alabama front five was, Nick Saban’s evaluation of the unit might have been the most flattering commentary.

“I think this may be the best offensive line, and I don’t like to make comparisons, that we’ve ever had or been associated with,” Saban said.

That was clear Monday night, when the Alabama offensive front dominated the Irish front seven.

***

2. It may not have mattered in the end, but the Irish doomed themselves with an uncharacteristically slow start.

Notre Dame spent six weeks preparing for a one-game season. And while the coaches and players felt good about their preparation and outlook heading into the game, the Irish laid an early egg, never able to recover from a disastrous start.

“Coach Kelly told us before the game that there are eight minutes that are very important in the game,” Te’o said. “The first two minutes of the game, the last two minutes in the second quarter, the first two minutes of the third quarter and the last two minutes of the game.

“Obviously, the first two minutes of the game didn’t pan out the way we thought it would go.”

That might have been an understatement.

The first two minutes featured AJ McCarron hitting Kevin Norwood for a 29 yard strike, the first of many passes that attacked the edges of the Irish’s zone coverage. They included a personal foul on Dan Fox and an offsides penalty on Louis Nix. That all but marched the Tide into the Irish redzone, where they scored cashed in their first of six touchdowns.

The final two minutes of the half were no kinder to the Irish. With Alabama already up 21-0 and looking to put the game away, McCarron led the Tide down the field again, executing a two-minute drill to perfection as he found Christon Jones for 27 yards on 3rd and 6. From there, Eddie Lacy did the rest, dancing in for an 11 yard touchdown catch, ulling away in the half’s final minute.

Add in three tough breaks for the Irish on suspect calls by the Pac-12 officiating crew, and Notre Dame all but shut down a crowd that was almost a two-thirds majority for the Domers.

***

3. For 40 days, Notre Dame worked on getting good enough to play with Alabama. For 40 days, Alabama built a game plan to defeat Notre Dame.

When Brian Kelly set out to plan Notre Dame’s 42 day layoff, he focused on building his team into a unit that could go toe-to-toe with the nation’s most impressive program. That meant a focus on strength and conditioning to go along with the fundamentals and a commitment to improving young quarterback Everett Golson from the ground up.

In the end, it wasn’t enough, as the Irish couldn’t match the physicality that Alabama possessed. But the Irish were also done in by a masterful game plan designed by Nick Saban, and his two coordinators Doug Nussmeier and Kirby Smart.

It’s no surprise that Alabama limited the Irish’s ability to run the football. Falling behind early, there weren’t too many opportunities to run the football, but the Irish only netted 32 yards on 19 carries, a meager 1.7 yards a tote.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the Tide’s excellent offensive game plan, showing incredible balance by running for 265 yards and throwing for 264. With Alabama consistently beating the Irish on the edges of their defense, Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon had great success getting around the corner, stretching the Irish defense out before attacking them in the north-south run game.

Just as impressive was AJ McCarron’s evening, as he consistently attacked the deep corners of the Irish zone coverage, exploiting the holes that emerged in Bob Diaco’s young secondary.

“I watched a lot of film on these guys and they play a lot of zone defense,” freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper said. “Both touchdowns came from big holes in their zone defense.”

Giving Nick Saban six weeks to game plan usually spells trouble for the opposition. And while the Irish had to spend the layoff working on getting better, Alabama worked on scheme. Along with their physical talents, it was just too much to overcome.

4. While it wasn’t Manti Te’o’s best game in a Notre Dame uniform, the senior’s legacy will remain intact.

After missing only two open field tackles all season for the Irish, Te’o missed more than that in the first half alone. Needing a perfect game from the team’s star linebacker, Te’o struggled making plays against Lacey and Yeldon, getting caught up in the wash created by Alabama’s monstrous offensive line.

And after a postseason awards haul crowned Te’o one of college football’s finest ever, it seemed popular to try tearing Te’o down after he had been propped up for the past month. Part of that is the nature of the beast, playing football in a world of Twitter and a tidal wave of social media and opinions. Part of that is fair game, the byproduct of a subpar game for Notre Dame’s best player, who made many uncharacteristic mistakes as the defense struggled to contain Alabama.

But any worries that Te’o may have hurt his legacy — or his draft stock — are probably overblown. With four seasons of game film and off-the-charts character and leadership, some team is going to take a gamble on Te’o in the first round of the NFL Draft.

While the end of Te’o’s career came in a way many never saw possible, the senior had no regrets after his final game in a Notre Dame uniform.

“We wish the night could have ended in a different way, but the season, the year, my career here, I’ve been truly blessed to be at Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “I’ll forever be proud to say I’m a Notre Dame Fighting Irish and I’m proud of my team.”

Te’o wasn’t the only player to miss tackles, a plague on the Irish that was a combination of really impressive work by Eddie Lacey and the long layoff. But it was surprising to see from a player that played near perfect football all season.

***

5. Monday night’s results proved the Irish weren’t the best team in the country. But there’s plenty to be proud of after a tremendous season.

With the SEC’s dominance still intact and Alabama out-classing Notre Dame throughout the evening, it was clear that the best team in the country didn’t enter the game ranked No. 1. But that doesn’t take away anything from Notre Dame’s 12-1 campaign. The Irish may not be the best team in the country, but they’re not all that far away.

“We’re close. Obviously we’re not there,” Te’o said. “If we were there, we’d be holding the crystal ball. But we’re close.”

With disappointment showing through his voice, Kelly talked about the gap between his program and the one that just completed their third championship in the last four years.

“I measure success as a head coach with consistency. And some people use the word dynasty. I look at it as program consistency,” Kelly said of Nick Saban’s Alabama program. “It starts at the top and filters its way through the entire program. And what Coach Saban has been able to do has really put an exclamation point on consistently putting elite programs and football teams together at the University of Alabama.”

For those worried that it might be another 24 years until the Irish find themselves in this position again, fear not. Watching Everett Golson throw for 270 yards against the Tide was a promising step in his development. Watching TJ Jones catch seven balls and battle tough coverage gives you hope for next season. And DaVaris Daniels held his own with Alabama’s star freshman receiver, coming back from his collarbone injury to catch six passes for 115 yards.

Sure, the Irish will need to replace Manti Te’o, a hole that’ll be tough to fill both on and off the field. And with Tyler Eifert likely announcing his intention to head to the NFL and graduate, the passing attack will need to find a new leading man. But the future is bright in South Bend.

Even if it doesn’t feel that way tonight.

 

A spring perspective: Wimbush and his offensive line

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Many like to belittle spring practice as just spring practice. Similarly, others will gladly snub their noses at any positive reviews, insisting it is only warmer temperatures and sunshine eliciting optimism.

Another group sees every position change and depth chart shift as a definite indicator the program is on the right track.

The best assessment of these 15 practices falls somewhere between those two extremes, as most things in this world do.

Take the offensive line, for example. Why is it important to garner an idea of the starting five before fall? Once that is established, not only can the offensive line develop chemistry within itself, but it can also establish chemistry with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That is, in fact, what Wimbush cited as the item he needs to most improve in a WatchND interview with Jack Nolan over the weekend.

“I need to get better at making it easier for the offensive line and understanding my pocket awareness, where my escape lanes are and where I need to step up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys are working their butts off and I’m at 10 yards, [graduate student left tackle Mike] McGlinchey is getting pushed back and pushed right into me. I have to understand where my pocket is.”

That understanding will develop at an even quicker pace once Wimbush knows exactly whom he is working with on each snap. Spring’s greatest benefit is taking steps toward answering those questions.

As for his greatest strengths on the field, Wimbush pointed toward his athleticism.

“Being able to make plays, get outside the pocket, and I feel like breaking down the defense is some of my assets,” he said.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyway?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line