When a defense faces an offense such as Clemson’s or Alabama’s, it’s not about “dominating.” It is about damage control, especially forcing field goals instead of yielding touchdowns.
Since 2017, those two prime superpowers of college football have averaged anywhere from 44 to nearly 50 points per game. Consequently, the first objective is to keep them “subpar” by not reaching 40, and thereby giving oneself a puncher’s chance.
Notre Dame did that against Clemson on Nov. 7 when it limited the Tigers to 33 points — notably forcing four field goals — in a 60-minute regulation contest. The Fighting Irish went on to defeat Clemson in the second overtime.
In the second meeting with Clemson, the Dec. 19 ACC Championship that this time included mega-star Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, the Notre Dame defense responded well in the second half and again “limited” the Tigers to 34 points overall.
Yes, part of it can be attributed perhaps to Clemson wanting to run more clock in the second half. Yet the Tigers also began the third quarter with strong field position on the first two series and were unable to capitalize. Unfortunately, Notre Dame was not able to get back into the game either on offense with the 34-10 defeat.
In retrospect, even in the victory against Clemson in November, during regulation time the Irish offense scored a touchdown on its first official play — and then not again until 22 seconds remained in the fourth quarter. That’s about 59 minutes out of 60 in between of not crossing the goal line on offense (with Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s forced fumble and touchdown return in between providing an immense boost).
On paper, it might now look like Notre Dame is going from the frying pan into the fryer by facing Alabama this Friday afternoon (Jan. 1) in the College Football Playoff.
Alabama this year is averaging a school-record 49.7 points per game, easily the most among any team that played at least four games (Clemson is next at 44.9 after “merely” tallying 34 versus the Irish). Per CBS Sports, Alabama has scored a touchdown every 10.5 plays this season.
Last year the Crimson Tide averaged 47.2 points — second only to national champ LSU’s 48.4, and the year prior it was 45.6, while national champ Clemson was at 44.3.
Earlier in head coach Nick Saban’s career at Alabama, the Crimson Tide hung their collective hat far more on defense than winning shootouts. While winning back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012, they finished first in scoring defense, allowing a ridiculously low 8.2 points per game in 2011 and 10.9 in 2012, the latter capped with the 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS Championship.
That was the year the Irish finished No. 2 in scoring defense with a 12.8 average — but also averaged a modest 25.8 points per game, the lowest in head coach Brian Kelly’s 11 seasons.
When Alabama won the national title in 2015, its 35.1 scoring average was 30th in the country. Notre Dame this year is averaging 35.2 — very good, but not in the Alabama/Clemson stratosphere.
In the last three seasons, Saban has adapted his winning formula more toward a prolific offense, which showed again in the 52-46 SEC Championship win over Florida, quite “un-Sabanesque” compared to his earlier years.
Can Notre Dame score at least 35 points against Alabama to have a chance at pulling off the upset?
The 11-0 Crimson Tide scored a season-low 38 in the opener versus Missouri, but still finished with a 49.7 average this season.
One matchup we like is Notre Dame does not have to deal with the read option against Alabama like it did with Clemson’s highly mobile Lawrence. Unlike D.J. Uiagalelei in November, Lawrence put the pressure on Notre Dame’s defense both with his legs and arm, horizontally and vertically. That helped open up far more gaps in the running game, and it showed when the Tigers totaled 219 yards on the ground Dec. 19 as opposed to just 34 on Nov. 7.
Facing a pure drop-back quarterback such as Alabama redshirt junior Mac Jones (minus-nine rushing yards through 11 games) should provide at least one less migraine for Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea and his staff. Not having that extra dimension in the lineup should enhance the defensive game plan.
Furthermore, standout Crimson Tide center Landon Dickerson suffered what appeared to be a severe knee injury Dec. 19. As has been seen at Notre Dame, the loss of a center can have a negative domino effect up front and in the overall attack.
Alabama had to win shootouts this year versus Ole Miss (63-48) and in the SEC Championship versus Florida (52-46), without even having to play one overtime. The issue is whether Notre Dame can generate that same type of firepower on offense, especially after scoring only 10 points in the ACC Championship versus Clemson.
In Notre Dame’s seven losses since 2017, it’s the offense — and specifically the running game — that consistently sputtered and never quite got untracked.
The Irish averaged 13.0 points in those seven setbacks, never tallying more than 20. It rushed for 55 yards versus Georgia in 2017 and 46 last year versus the Bulldogs, plus 47 in the 2019 debacle at Michigan.
The 44 yards on the ground versus Clemson Dec. 19 were half of the 88 it tallied against the Tigers in 2018 — and the lowest output overall since the 32 versus Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2013.
Most of the time in these championship-level contests, Notre Dame’s defense has provided a chance while the offense has given the team virtually none.
“They’ve been a buzz saw against everybody,” summarized Kelly of Alabama. “I would think there’s going to have to be some ball control — which we can play that kind of game, certainly. And you’ve got to limit big plays downfield, right?
“You’ve got to make them earn it all the way down the field. … I would think those two components would be part of the game plan, which is again, leaning on our offensive line to have some ball control elements. From a defensive standpoint, making sure we limit chunk plays.”
It’s doubtful Notre Dame can win this game with a 17-14 or even 24-21 result. Another strong defensive stance always helps, but it will have to take more of the offensive as well.
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