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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Jan 9, 2013, 4:24 PM EDT

Alabama Crimson Tide's head coach Nick Saban holds up The Coaches Trophy after the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game in Miami

That resounding thud you heard Monday night was reality setting in for millions of Notre Dame fans. After a season where just about everything went right for the Irish, after echoes were awaken, odds were defied, and luck had returned, it was hard for even the most jaded of fans not to feel like they were about to witness something magical. That destiny had found its way back to South Bend.

A handful of days in South Florida only emboldened those beliefs. While the odds looked long according to Las Vegas, more than a few analysts felt like the Irish would hold their own, and even the biggest skeptics had become believers in Brian Kelly’s football team. And for the thousands of Notre Dame fans that flooded the region, that invaded South Beach, it was hard not to believe that this team would find a way to get things done.

And then the game started.

After good kickoff coverage and a nice stop on first down, Alabama took advantage of the Irish’s aggression and went to playaction, where cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Matthias Farley got their heads caught in the backfield, making for an easy throw to a wide open receiver running a flag pattern. From there, it got worse, Eddie Lacy zipped past Zeke Motta in the backfield, danced through traffic and was finally hogtied and taken down by Dan Fox, who was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty. With Alabama already inside the Irish 30, a hard count added five yards to the Irish misery, when Louis Nix jumped offside. Stacking five men across the line, the Irish stuffed TJ Yeldon on 1st and five, before Lacy returned.

On the next snap, Lacy sprinted up the middle for an easy 20 yard touchdown. Freshman Sheldon Day was no match for All-American center Barrett Jones, who twisted Day out of the A-gap. Prince Shembo was swallowed by two offensive linemen. Te’o missed Lacy, diving at his feet as he sprinted by. KeiVarae Russell did the same. Matthias Farley was no match for Lacy with a blocker in front of him and from their, the route was on.

As the proprietor of this operation, I’m going to flip things around a bit. I’m a bad news first kind of guy and that’s the way this is going to be presented here. So let’s get on with the inevitable.

Here’s the bad, good, and ugly from Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame.

THE BAD

The rush defense. Let’s get the big stuff out of the way. It was an ugly performance for ND’s front seven, after looking to be one of the toughest challenges for Alabama yet. From the get go, things started poorly and the Tide marched down the field for three straight touchdowns to open the game, with drives of 82, 61 and 80 all but icing the victory. Prior to Monday night, the Irish hadn’t given up a scoring drive longer than 75 yards.

“They ran the ball effectively. For us, we’ve been able to manage the run game. They were able to run the ball effectively, and then obviously when you do that, it opens up so much of the play‑action game,” Kelly said afterwards.

The Irish defense was often swallowed by Alabama’s offensive line, unable to shed blocks throughout the night. While Louis Nix played well along the front, contributing five tackles and two TFLs, the rest of the unit struggled, and the Irish just couldn’t stop Alabama when they subbed out their starting three, leading to difficult nights — understandably — for first year players like Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann and reserve Kona Schwenke. When Kapron Lewis-Moore went down with a heart-breaking knee injury, the Tide had already controlled the game, but any chance the Irish could stop the Bama ground game became even less likely.

Missed tackles were a product of Alabama’s excellent blocking up front, poor angles by guys like Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, who found themselves having to knife through a crease hoping to trip up a runner, and Manti Te’o trying to fight his way through traffic to make tackles. With all eyes on the Irish’s No. 5, he struggled with the size and blocking of Alabama’s front, unable to get off a block before it was too late.

With six weeks to break down the Irish’s defensive principles, the Tide created a series of playcalls that looked to expose Bob Diaco’s scheme. After the game, center Barrett Jones discussed the Tide’s counter to what they expected the Irish defense to do.

“They’re good because they are so simple,” Jones told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “But, also, they’re simple. We knew if we had certain shifts, they would get into certain formations that we felt like we would have good runs against. We were right — every play, almost. This is not a flaw in Notre Dame. We watched a lot of film. We had a lot of time to figure out what they did in certain formations.”

The pass defense. With Notre Dame selling out to stop the run, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had the perfect answer: a devastating playaction passing game. Quarterback AJ McCarron was accurate all night, hitting on 20 of 28 throws, and just missing a few more big completions.

But McCarron had plenty of help from the Irish secondary, who too often got caught trying to play run support and left gigantic chunks of the field wide open. Just as helpful was Alabama’s tremendous diagnosis of the weak spots in the Irish zone defense, with the Tide continually attacking the deep corners and also having luck on the slants and posts as well.

The Irish defense’s lack of depth in the secondary had been well hidden by Diaco, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott all year. But watching youngsters Farley, Russell and Elijah Shumate do their best in coverage against Alabama’s receiving corps gave you an idea that the youth was finally being served.

The first fifteen minutes. Add in a few more seconds to count the Tide’s third touchdown drive, and it was a nightmare start for Notre Dame. As I quoted in my Five Things, you can’t say the Irish didn’t know starting fast would be crucial. But after deferring on the opening kickoff, the Tide just controlled the game, dominating the first fifteen minutes before coasting to a 28-0 halftime lead.

The running game. Falling behind early certainly didn’t help establish a ground game, but it was slim pickings for Theo Riddick and the Irish running game. Being held to 1.7 yards per carry doesn’t give a team much of a shot, and for a team that averaged more than 200 yards per game, that was a huge disappointment.

50-50 calls. Nothing wreaks worse than blaming referees in a game that’s decided by 28 points.

But it was a really tough start for the Pac-12 officiating crew. Tyler Eifert had what looked like possession of the football with feet in bounds on a critical 3rd and two catch, and then bobbled the ball before holding onto it as he fell out of bounds. Yet the Pac-12 officiating crew ruled that he was juggling the ball on the field, and even after Brian Kelly called timeout to give the replay booth more time to review it, they disagreed, as boos chorused down from the stands.

The very next play, Notre Dame got an even tougher break, called for kick catch interference after Ben Turk’s 50-yard punt. The Irish came up with the fumble, which would have given them the ball at the Alabama 24, a huge turn of events.

Replays showed that Matthias Farley, who was flagged for the 15 yard penalty, didn’t touch Christon Jones, the Alabama returner, and moreso was blocked into the return by cornerback Deion Belue. Kendall Moore nearly caught the punt mid-bobble before the scramble for the ball. With a really late fair-catch signal, Farley did all that he could to avoid making contact with the return man, and the Irish were on the spot to recover the fumble, yet it was all for naught, as referee Land Clark marked off 15 yards for the Tide.

“That’s a horrendous call,” Brent Musburger said at the time.

Already feeling aggrieved at the lack of replay review on Eifert’s catch, the pro-Notre Dame crowd overwhelmed the stadium with boos directed at the Pac-12 officiating crew.

“It’s amazing what a bad reputation Pac-12 officials have,” Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel said on Twitter. “And it’s amazing that they continue to perpetuate it.”

As you’d expect, the coordinator of officiating gave a clean bill of health to the crew on the field. But with momentum swinging in the wind, a few close calls early went Alabama’s way, and Notre Dame never recovered.

Missed tackles and Lost leverage. Zeke Motta played as hard as he could, and his 16 tackles were a career high. But he missed a half-dozen others, joined by a slew of teammates that too often came up tackling grass.

Also frustrating for Irish fans was watching Danny Spond and Prince Shembo give up leverage on the edges of the defense. Setting the edge was something that Spond and Shembo both did remarkably well this season. But against Alabama, too often the OLBs were swallowed up and taken out of the play.

It wasn’t noticeable this season because both Spond and Shembo played great, but one of the issues that come with starting those two at outside linebacker is that they lack the size and height Diaco and Kelly want in their edge players. With Shembo sliding down to the line and Ishaq Williams taking a ton of snaps, the outside linebackers didn’t have great games and didn’t do well against the size Alabama presented up front.

Manti Te’o. After spending the entire season playing great football, Te’o picked a tough game to miss some big plays. He still came up with ten tackles, but Te’o struggled with the phyiscal bulk of the Alabama run game, and the three-man front that the Irish employed had Te’o too often going head up with a guard, a battle even the best of players will struggle to win.

Special Teams. The special teams units featured new personnel and saw quite a few starters sprinking into the units. But that didn’t stop the Irish from struggling to get anything going in the return game, with George Atkinson really struggling all season at kickoff return after a record-setting freshman season.

Davonte Neal showed some bad decision making on punt returns, catching a ball inside the five yard line when he tried to make a play and then muffing another return when his fumble rolled out of bounds. The Irish special teams certainly weren’t in the top five reasons why the team lost, but it was discouraging to see nothing in the return game, and a huge penalty (that may have been the wrong call) go against the Irish.

THE GOOD

Everett Golson. All things considered, Golson played a strong game, especially after he was forced to mostly throw as the Irish were behind. Golson completed 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards. He threw a touchdown to Theo Riddick and extended many plays with his legs, connecting 13 times with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, two receivers that’ll be keys to next season’s Irish offense.

After struggling for most of the year to find chemistry with Tyler Eifert, he connected with the All-American tight end six times for 61 yards. (He was three inches and one marginal call away from making that eight catches for 100 yards.)

Still, for as ugly as the game was, the future looks very bright for Golson, who markedly improved in the six weeks leading up to the game. While the offense only managed 302 total yards, Golson never looked flustered and showed good decision making, turning the ball over only once on a remarkably acrobatic interception.

TJ Jones. It was a nice evening at the office for Jones as well, who battled all night and made a ton of tough catches with coverage usually blanketing the Irish receivers. For Jones, the 2012 season was a tremendous success, and a year that’ll set him up for a great senior season.

DaVaris Daniels. Returning from a broken collarbone, Daniels played terrific, catching six balls for 115 yards. Quite a nice way to finish off a freshman season of eligibility. Daniels looks every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver, and putting up 115 yards against Alabama has to have people feeling good about his future.

Red Zone offense. Sure, they only had two opportunities. But against a really stout defense, Notre Dame got in for touchdowns both times. The first touchdown featured a nice wrinkle by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, running the option off a zone read look that helped Golson dive in for a touchdown. The second came courtesy of a nice throw to Riddick and good execution by the offense.

We said before the game that the Irish would need to get seven when they got in scoring range. While it didn’t end up mattering, they did their job in the red zone.

The Notre Dame turnout.  Throw out the sixty minutes of football. This was a tremendous experience for Notre Dame fans, alumni, and former players. With almost 50,000 people on the beach during a pep rally, ND Nation turned out for their school, and the support was overwhelming.

On the sidelines before the game, it was great to see guys like Mike Floyd and Brady Quinn shaking hands and patting backs. Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate were spotted, with Tate coming in after winning a playoff game. Former greats like Tony Rice and Jerome Bettis were in town, with the 1988 team having a reunion that brought together many former players, all united behind Brian Kelly and his team.

While the Irish showed they have work to do, even Alabama fans were amazed at the turnout at Sun Life Stadium and in the parking lots surrounding it.

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. It was an incredibly difficult game for Notre Dame and its supporters to stomach. After listening to six weeks of SEC crowing, Alabama ran through the Irish’s mighty defense with ease, doing exactly what many SEC fans thought they would do. The result was a worst case scenario for Notre Dame, empowering skeptics who thought that the Irish didn’t deserve to be in Miami, even with a 12-0 record.

But in today’s current system, those arguments should fall on deaf ears. And any categorization of Notre Dame’s season other than a resounding success is completely ridiculous. After losing ten games over two seasons, the Irish entered the season with a freshman quarterback, a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, and in need of replacing the school’s all-time receiving leader and three of four starters in the secondary, including a first round draft pick.

That the Irish didn’t play anywhere close to their best football on Monday, especially early in the game, is tremendously disappointing. But even their best is likely a few rungs short of where the Crimson Tide program is.

“They’re not just better than us; they’re better than everyone,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told SI’s Pete Thamel. “It doesn’t diminish the regular season. That foundation is here. We’re back in elite status.”

Elite status is a great step forward. The Irish beat rivals USC, Michigan and Michigan State this year. They beat a Stanford team that finished No. 7 in the country, and defeated No. 2 Oregon. The Notre Dame offense is in good hands and will surely take a large step forward during the offseason, as Everett Golson becomes more comfortable after a season of learning on the fly. Replacing Theo Riddick and possibly Cierre Wood will be difficult, but Notre Dame has a home-run threat running back in George Atkinson, who averaged 7.1 yards a carry, and Amir Carlisle waiting in the wings. Add in wildcard Cam McDaniel, five-star recruit Greg Bryant and guys like Will Mahone and Tarean Folston, and the Irish will be able to run the ball.

Defensively, filling the shoes of Te’o will be a large task. But Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will give Notre Dame the best one-two punch of any defensive line in the country, and all the depth behind. The Irish will also return three of four linebackers, and the secondary will welcome back Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood, and potentially Jamoris Slaughter, who felt very optimistic about his sixth year chances.

The future is bright in South Bend. Sure, the game was a tremendous disappointment. But more so because it just felt like this magical Notre Dame was destined for victory. But destiny doesn’t stop Eddie Lacy.

With recruiting headed down the home stretch, Notre Dame is still targeting some of the nation’s highest rated players, looking to add to the No. 1 recruiting class they’ve assembled. They’ll also have a very clear picture of what they need to do to be able to plant their flag at the summit of college football, pointed out ever so dominantly by an Alabama team that showed the sizable gap between the Irish and the Crimson Tide.

With their mission statement for the offseason abundantly clear, the focus is already on 2013.

“Pasadena 2014,” Nix said.

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