Notre Dame is no stranger to the big stage under coach Brian Kelly, having played in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama after the 2012 season and also appearing in a College Football Playoff semifinal to cap the 2018 season. But the Fighting Irish have yet to taste victory with a national title on the line during Kelly’s 11-year run. In fact, the Fighting Irish have not been particularly competitive in those high-stakes moments. They lost 42-14 to Alabama in that BCS title game and then fell 30-3 to Clemson in the 2018 CFP semifinals.
But as one of the sport’s most-storied programs gears up for its next big moment, it’s setting out to change the narrative despite longshot odds. The Fighting Irish are nearly three-touchdown underdogs for the Rose Bowl game to be played against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as one of the two CFP semifinals. Even if no no one else believes they can win the national championship, though, Notre Dame believes it can. What makes the Fighting Irish capable of pulling off the monumental upset? Let’s break it down.
1. A proven defense
Slowing the Crimson Tide down is the chief challenge for any opponent, as Alabama ranks No. 5 nationally in total offense at 543.9 yards per game, but Notre Dame is uniquely equipped to handle the task because it already stymied one of the four teams ranked ahead of Alabama in average yards per game this season. The Fighting Irish limited high-powered North Carolina to just 298 total yards in a 31-17 victory over the Tar Heels on Nov. 27. Much like Alabama, North Carolina boasts a multi-faceted attack that uses the passing game and running game.
Notre Dame held UNC scoreless in the second half and limited the electric running back duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter to a combined 85 yards rushing. Alabama’s offensive line is better than North Carolina’s, but Notre Dame should have plenty of confidence entering the semifinal matchup because of how it handled things against one of the few offenses that can compete with Alabama’s in overall production. Don’t believe UNC’s offense was really that good? Just ask Miami. Two weeks after struggling against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels put up 62 points and 778 yards on the road against a Hurricanes team that had pitched a shutout vs. Duke the week before.
2. A ball-control offense
Notre Dame’s defensive effort will be the main key in this matchup. One of the best ways to keep Alabama from scoring is to prevent it from having the football, and Notre Dame happens to rank No. 9 nationally in time of possession, controlling the football for an average of 34 minutes and 12 seconds per game. That is tops among the four teams in the College Football Playoff. Controlling the clock against Alabama will require the Fighting Irish to run the football more effectively than they did against Clemson in the ACC title game. The Crimson Tide’s run defense is solid but not impenetrable, allowing 3.17 yards per carry to opponents. That’s a tick more than the 2.79 yards per carry that Clemson allows.
Notre Dame will need to take that difference and turn it into a mile against the Crimson Tide after Notre Dame star running back Kyren Williams was limited to 50 yards on 15 carries in the ACC Championship Game loss to the Tigers. Offensive line play is the strength of Notre Dame’s offense, and if the big guys up front can clear some holes for Williams, it will give Notre Dame a window to compete against Alabama and whomever would be next in the CFP title game.
3. Final chapter for Ian Book
If you thought Alabama’s defense had fully recovered from giving up 48 points against Ole Miss on Oct. 10, the Crimson Tide’s struggles in the SEC Championship Game suggested otherwise. Florida’s Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while nearly leading the Gators to an improbable comeback victory. That performance made it clear that Alabama’s secondary is still not a finished product, which leaves an opening for Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book to create some magic in the semifinal matchup.
While the Fighting Irish do not have receivers nearly the caliber of those at Ole Miss or Florida, they do have some physical pass-catchers in tight ends Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble who will present Alabama with a different look. Assuming Book does not come back for a sixth season in the program, this will be his last act at Notre Dame. He’s thrown just two interceptions this season, and is capable of capitalizing if Alabama’s secondary slips up.
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