Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s ‘bread and butter,’ and its latest TEs, possibly Alabama’s weakness

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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The College Football Playoff is not about narrative, though plenty will assuredly follow Notre Dame no matter Friday’s result.

It is not about washing out “a bad taste in our mouth since that ‘18” Playoff game, as fifth-year quarterback Ian Book acknowledged this week, though the No. 4 Irish would gladly leave the No. 1 Tide looking for some soap entering the offseason.

No, the Playoff semifinal is about rebounding from a loss to one of college football’s all-time great individual players with a victory against one of its all-time best offenses.

That will not be a small task for Notre Dame, but it also would not be a reasonable one for any team in the country, such is the divide between Clemson and Alabama and the rest of college football.

“We truly have an opportunity, and it starts with believing,” Book said. “We believe we can win. We believe that we can win a national championship this year, and that’s where it matters and that’s where it starts.”

Technically speaking, the Irish have the opportunity, and the uphill climb awaiting them begins with slowing a “buzzsaw” of an offense averaging nearly 50 points per game. All due respect to a Notre Dame defense led by a consensus first-team All-American (senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a unanimous designation still possible), a first-team All-American safety (Kyle Hamilton) and a defensive coordinator so well-regarded he will become one of the country’s younger head coaches next season, but the Irish defense will have little hope of slowing the Tide’s two Heisman finalists if it does not get some help from Book and Notre Dame’s offense.

Specifically, for the Irish to pull off an unparalleled upset Friday (4 ET; ESPN) in the Rose née Thorn Bowl, they will need to revive their rushing game that disappeared against Clemson in the ACC title game loss.

The Tigers held Notre Dame to 83 yards on 24 carries (sacks adjusted), a far cry from the 243.3 yards per game the Irish averaged in their first 10 games this season. Some of that traced to Clemson hemming in Book’s improvised forays, some of it the result of senior Josh Lugg stepping in as an injury replacement at center, some of it simply a credit to the Tigers’ defensive scheme.

But Notre Dame cannot afford it again.

“We need to run the ball,” fifth-year left tackle and himself a first-team All-American Liam Eichenberg said. “It didn’t show up in the last game. They showed us some looks that we weren’t ready for, we weren’t prepared for, and we took bad approaches. …

“Alabama is a good defense. They’re going to line up, hit you in the mouth, and it’s the type of football we like. We’re excited about it.”

Gauging that defense through raw rushing statistics is tricky. The Tide faced two offenses utterly apathetic to the ground game in Mississippi State and Florida (teams that rode that approach to drastically different seasons), and even when facing an opponent with a decent rushing attack, Alabama’s offense so often jumped out to such a lead, the ground game needed to be abandoned quickly. Consider Kentucky, which averaged nearly 200 rushing yards per game this year. In a 63-3 defeat, not much time can be spent handing off the ball, and thus the Tide held the Wildcats to 68 rushing yards.

All the same, across the season, Alabama gave up 4.01 yards per carry. Ole Miss’s spread approach gashed the Tide for 281 ground yards, and Georgia’s more traditional approach — more comparable to Notre Dame’s — gained 159 a week later, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Rushing success can be found against Alabama, and it knows as much.

“The Ole Miss game, it really gave us a spark,” Tide junior defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis said. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to play, and we just took that game for motivation to get us where we’re at now. We try not to think about that, that’s in the past.”

And Alabama knows the Irish will be looking to bring that past back to the present.

“Watching them, they have a really strong running attack,” Tide senior linebacker Dylan Moses said. “Throughout watching their film, their offensive line is really aggressive, and their running back, he’s really quick and he picks his hole pretty well.”

None of this is to outright dismiss Notre Dame’s passing attack, but at no point this season have Irish receivers shown an ability to separate that would lend credence to relying on them against a Nick Saban defensive backfield, one led by a bona fide lockdown cornerback in Patrick Surtain.

Nor is this meant to dismiss Book’s ability to gain yards on the ground, despite the tutorial for containing him Clemson put on film, but Notre Dame’s offense will not be built around Book’s legs.

For four years now, a stretch in which the Irish have gone 43-7, they have relied on the ground game. From the brief Heisman campaign of Josh Adams to Dexter Williams’ breakout return from suspension to Kyren Williams’ 1,000-yard sophomore season, Notre Dame has gone as far as its backs and the offensive line could carry it. Now with perhaps the best back of this Irish era and an offensive line once again among the finalists for the Joe Moore Award, the rushing attack’s determining factor is more true than ever.

“It’s been our bread and butter all season that we have to establish the run,” Williams said. “We know as an offensive line, as running backs, as quarterbacks and wide receivers that we have to be able to go in there and run the ball. No matter what it is, by any means we have to run the ball, establish our physicality early in the game and allow them to react to what we do.

“We can’t be behind the chains. We know that as an offense. Running the ball is our biggest focus this week for sure, being able to establish the run.”

Alabama has not been held to fewer than 52 points in a month, fewer than 41 since the season opener, fewer than 35 since the 2018 national championship game, a stretch of 24 straight games cracking a point total that Notre Dame has reached 14 times in the same time span. (The Irish have broken 41 in 10 of those and 52 four times.)

It may sound blasphemous to suggest Notre Dame will have to outscore the Tide, but when a strong defensive performance would be holding the opponent to 38 points, it is difficult to expect an Irish victory in anything but a relative shootout.

Even holding Alabama to 38 points would likely be a result of Notre Dame’s ground game chewing clock, a bonus of that being the preferred Irish means of moving the ball, by any means.

The other most consistent means of Notre Dame’s offensive success not only complements that ground game but is also an area the Tide has struggled with this season. Irish tight ends have been praised all of 2020 — well, much like the Adams-to-Williams-to-Williams chain of running backs, “TE U” goes back a few years. Freshman Michael Mayer and junior Tommy Tremble combined for 54 catches and 606 yards this season, neither necessarily needing to come off the field for rushing or passing downs. Tremble’s downfield receiving abilities fit hand-in-hand with Mayer’s physical approach to converting third downs.

“Notre Dame is different,” Alabama sophomore defensive back Jordan Battle said. “They use three great tight ends in their offense, [Tremble, Mayer] and [senior Brock Wright]. They all play a significant role in their offense. … This team is probably going to be a hard matchup for us, one of the hardest matchups of the year.”

Ole Miss senior tight end Kenny Yeboah exploited the Tide for 181 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. In seven other games, he caught 20 passes for just 343 yards. Florida’s Kyle Pitts may be as much a receiver as he is a tight end, but he gained 129 yards on seven catches against Alabama.

Whether by schematic choice or mismatch, tight ends have found gaps in the Tide. This may be a chance to put the Irish claim to “TE U” on the line, particularly on third downs when the safety valve may be necessary for Book as Alabama dials up the pass rush that has notched 21 sacks in its last four games.

Doing so, and using those tight ends to spring Williams as well as freshman running back Chris Tyree, could give Notre Dame’s defense enough help to keep the Tide closer to 35 than 55, an endeavor as much up to the Irish offense as its defense.

While momentum is a narrative fallacy, it does exist in a practical sense in the interplay between a sideline’s offense and defense. Think back to the last time Notre Dame met Alabama, a game with more hype and expectation than this one, a game expected to be at least nominally competitive.

The Tide marched down the field efficiently to start, at which point the Irish put together a three-and-out that lasted all of 60 seconds. Again Alabama marched right through Notre Dame’s defense. The second Irish drive at least gained one first down and took up 1:52. By the time the Tide was up 21-0, Notre Dame’s defense had been on the sideline for fewer than three minutes.

Any defensive adjustments were made on the fly, rather than in conversation. The Irish defensive line never had a chance to catch its breath, outmatched as it was.

This was not momentum, per se, but the reality of one unit’s failure costing the other. Notre Dame was never going to win that evening in Miami, but a few early offensive first downs could have drastically altered the lightning-quick laughingstock nature of the rout.

So when Williams stresses not falling behind the chains, it may be most important for the Irish early. If (when) Alabama hits Notre Dame in the mouth early, the Irish offense needs to at least give defensive coordinator Clark Lea a few minutes to steady his unit.

Otherwise, Notre Dame will not have even a stumbling puncher’s chance against the Tide’s powerful offense.