ARLINGTON, Texas — It could have been worse. At first, it seemed like it would be much worse. By no means did Notre Dame make No. 1 Alabama worry in the A-Rose-By-Any-Other-Name Bowl on New Year’s Day, but the No. 4 Irish did not let the Tide turn a 31-14 rout into another memorable punchline.
Of course, to Notre Dame it did not matter if the final score was lopsided.
“The margin is not the issue,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Losing is losing.”
To start the afternoon, Alabama ripped through Notre Dame’s defense with the ease expected of a historic offense with three of the top-five offensive players in the country. Each of the Tide’s first three possessions ended in a score, needing only one third-down conversion to rattle off 260 yards on 18 plays.
The Irish found the end zone once during Alabama’s initial onslaught, granting some credence to the thought that if Notre Dame could find a way to stem the Tide, it could create some tension to start 2021. But when the Irish defense did stop Alabama on two consecutive drives — three if generously counting when the Tide took over and kneeled out the final six seconds of the first half — the offense could not produce more than a missed field goal.
Then Alabama junior quarterback Mac Jones returned to the game’s earlier ways, the ones he enjoyed all season, of simply getting the ball into Heisman favorite DeVonta Smith’s hands. Smith finished with three touchdown receptions, including his toe-tapper in the front corner of the end zone that not only gave the Tide an insurmountable three-touchdown lead but also would have counted at the next level.
“Today was about making plays,” Kelly said. “They made them on the perimeter. Their skill players showed up today, as they have all year. Made it difficult for us. … They have the college football player of the year who made some dynamic plays.”
A three-touchdown lead may not usually warrant insurmountable status, but the only way Notre Dame moved the ball against Alabama was five yards at a time, over and over and over again. Its sole touchdown drive before the closing moments took more than eight minutes and 15 plays. When Smith snagged his third touchdown, there was not enough time left in the game for the Irish to put together three more such drives.
That 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive relied almost entirely on sophomore running back Kyren Williams, getting nine touches for 40 yards, including the score. He finished with 16 rushes for 64 yards and eight catches for 31 yards, repeatedly welcoming contact with Tide defenders, setting a physical and aggressive tone for Notre Dame even as Alabama’s raw speed widened the only gap that mattered.
“This was the Kyren Williams we have known to see for 10 weeks during the season,” Kelly said. “Caught the ball out of the backfield, he ran tough, was physical, protected well. He was a complete back tonight.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
It would be disingenuous to say the Tide could score whenever it wanted, because then it would not have had three scoreless drives and another ending with only a field goal, but in the early going, it was clear Alabama could pretty much score whenever it wanted. If the Irish wanted to keep up, they had to score on nearly every one of their drives, as well, and hope Clark Lea‘s defense would stand up at some point, as it did.
So when Notre Dame trailed 7-0 halfway through the first quarter and faced a 3rd-and-7 near midfield, treating it as four-down territory was logical, not ambitious. Sending fifth-year quarterback Ian Book on a designed sweep to gain some of that to open up fourth-down options fell in line with that logic.
Then punting on 4th-and-5 did not.
Maybe Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was counting on the sweep to gain two or three more yards to set up a power run from Williams on fourth-and-short. Maybe the expectations of the sweep were grander than that. No matter the maybe, a punt should not have followed in any circumstance.
“We were — from an analytics standpoint, we took the suggestion of analytics in the first and second quarter relative to field position, pinning the field position,” Kelly said. “I think I reacted off what our analytics had called in that situation.”
Notre Dame could not afford to focus on field position against the Tide, not this Tide. Much like the literal tide, this Tide does not stop. It claims its ground no matter what. It is a matter of nature. Analytics factor in all football teams ever in crafting numbers, not outright historical outliers. When the Irish downed the punt at the three-yard line, Alabama responded with four first downs on five plays covering 97 yards for what eventually turned out to be the winning score. The bulk of those yards came on …
PLAY OF THE GAME
The photo atop this article may seem a bit on-point regarding the outcome of the game, but Tide senior running back Najee Harris‘ in-stride hurdle of Notre Dame graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud was a feat of athleticism worthy of note, respect and applause no matter one’s rooting interests. McCloud hardly lowered his 6-foot frame. Harris just went up and over him and kept going for 53 yards.
THIS NAJEE HARRIS HURDLE 😱 #SCtop10 pic.twitter.com/3qiYJq9wPi
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 1, 2021
STAT OF THE GAME
Even if granting the probability that Alabama eased off the proverbial gas pedal in the fourth quarter, no need to put more on film for its title game opponent when up 24 points on a struggling Irish offense with 12 minutes to go, Notre Dame’s defense still held the Tide in relative check.
Alabama has had plenty of chances to ease off the gas the last couple seasons, but still had not been held below 52 in a month, 41 since the season opener or fewer than 35 since the 2018 national championship game, a stretch of 24 games.
This will not go down as Lea’s magnum opus in his three seasons as Irish defensive coordinator — that will be the shutdown at North Carolina on Black Friday — but it is a final strong showing before he takes over as Vanderbilt’s head coach. In his 38 games in this role, Lea held the opposing team below its expected team total in 26 of them. Even if the Tide had kept pushing Friday, it may not have cracked that 42.5-point mark, let alone reached its recent standard of 50-plus.
Alabama still gained 69.7 percent of its available yards, discounting the 67 left on the table when taking possession to end the first half. Even if including that, a 62.7 percent rate is better than Notre Dame achieved in its most impressive offensive showing of the year, 53.1 percent at Pittsburgh, to lend context.
But the Tide scored just 10 points in the final 38 minutes at AT&T Stadium. The Irish defense kept this semifinal from further inflating the average margin of victory. Entering 2021, these games had been won by an average of 21.25 points. When Kelly points out the problems Notre Dame faces are not “unique,” this is what he is referencing.
THE PLAYOFF PROBLEM
When the title here references an “all-too familiar scene,” it is less a condemnation of the Irish or a callback to 2018 and 2012 as it is an acknowledgment of that Playoff trend. Nine of 13 Playoff semifinals have been won by at least three scores.
“Everyone needs to continue to carry this narrative that Notre Dame is not good enough,” Kelly said, bristling at a question invoking 2018. “Look at the scores of the games that Alabama has played all year. We need to start to change the narrative a little bit.”
And when this subhead notes a “Playoff Problem,” that is clearly a lazy alliteration. It is not a problem. It is a credit to Alabama and Clemson. (And, to a much lesser extent, a credit to 2014 Oregon and 2019 LSU, who also each won their semifinals by three possessions. Actually, by five possessions.)
AT&T STADIUM, NOT QUITE PASADENA
The North Texas staple held 18,373 fans, about 22.97 percent its 80,000 capacity. Clouds obscured any possible sunset, not that the indoor venue would have allowed for the vista, anyway. Calling this a “Rose Bowl” was a matter of licensing pride, nothing else.
Ironically, the relatively low-scoring nature of the contest combined with only nine total penalties made for a quick game, ending half an hour before Pasadena’s 4:54 PT sunset.
There’s that famous Rose Bowl sunset. Gorgeous. pic.twitter.com/2mbI20PXzU
— Chris Vannini 😷 (@ChrisVannini) January 1, 2021
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“We’re going to keep getting here. We’re going to keep banging at it.” — Brian Kelly
10:14 — Alabama touchdown. DeVonta Smith 26-yard pass from Mac Jones. Will Reichard PAT good. Alabama 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 79 yards, 2:36)
4:10 — Alabama touchdown. Jahleel Billingsley 12-yard pass from Jones. Reichard PAT good. Alabama 14, Notre Dame 0. (5 plays, 97 yards, 2:11)
11:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 1-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Alabama 14, Notre Dame 7. (15 plays, 75 yards, 8:03)
8:49 — Alabama touchdown. Smith 34-yard pass from Jones. Reichard PAT good. Alabama 21, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 84 yards, 2:21)
5:48 — Alabama touchdown. Smith 7-yard pass from Jones. Reichard PAT good. Alabama 28, Notre Dame 7. (5 plays, 62 yards, 2:29)
12:45 — Alabama field goal. Reichard 41 yards. Alabama 31, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 47 yards, 4:20)
0:56 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14. (14 plays, 80 yards, 4:36)