Notre Dame ran for more than 200 yards in seven games this season. But in one with big stakes — the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game — it managed just 44 against Clemson, which had cut off some running lanes for quarterback Ian Book.
The Fighting Irish have been saying all week that they are hoping to revive the rush in the Rose Bowl.
“Running the ball is our biggest focus this week for sure, being able to establish the run,” said Kyren Williams, the busiest tailback of the season for Notre Dame.
Indeed, Liam Eichenberg, an offensive lineman, placed a similar priority on rushing.
“We need to run the ball,” he said this week. “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.”
Through their first three possessions of the day, the Irish have 72 rushing yards on 20 attempts. Notre Dame’s touchdown, of course, came with a 1-yard run by Williams.
Book has tried just six passes, completing four of them so far for 43 yards.
Alabama answered fast.
The Crimson Tide took just six plays to go 84 yards for a touchdown. The scoring play: a 34-yard pass to DeVonta Smith, a wideout who is a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.
21-7, Alabama, with under nine minutes to go in the second half.
The bookies think it will be a blowout. But this won’t be a Rose Bowl shutout.
On fourth and goal, Notre Dame, trailing by two touchdowns, decided to gamble. Ian Book handed the ball to Kyren Williams, who plowed ahead into the end zone.
After the Irish sputtered earlier in the game, the drive — 75 yards on 15 plays that consumed more than eight minutes — could give Notre Dame a dose of momentum.
Williams, a freshman who dazzled throughout Notre Dame’s season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will likely prove an important part of any success the Irish have today. So far, he has run for 52 yards and caught two passes.
Notre Dame started with the ball but Alabama started with the speed, putting a touchdown on the board within the first five minutes of the Rose Bowl after quarterback Mac Jones connected with DeVonta Smith for a 26-yard passing touchdown.
Notre Dame, on the flip side, had trouble getting things going in the first quarter.
And the Crimson Tide added to their lead on a touchdown pass from Jones to tight end Jahleel Billingsley.
This isn’t out of hand yet. But Alabama already has a highlight reel moment and a 14-0 lead.
Mac Jones, Alabama’s quarterback, connected with Jahleel Billingsley, a tight end, for a 12-yard touchdown. Najee Harris, a tailback, had already streaked into Alabama lore, though.
With Alabama on its own 35-yard line, Harris took the ball and leapt over a defender during a 53-yard hustle down the near sideline.
Perhaps he took a cue from Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. women’s soccer great, who just this week tweeted at Harris: “Hurdle someone for me!”
Alabama struck on its first possession, with quarterback Mac Jones making an easy throw to DeVonta Smith for a 26-yard touchdown to cap a 79-yard drive. The game has been underway for less than five minutes.
But Notre Dame started the afternoon with possession. There are two ways to look at its first turn with the ball.
Glass-half-full perspective: Notre Dame recorded 21 rushing yards after managing only 44 during the entirety of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, which the Irish lost to Clemson.
Glass-half-empty perspective: Notre Dame fumbled (and recovered) twice and punted pretty quickly.
The glass, of course, got a little more empty soon after. 7-0, Alabama.
Everyone knows Alabama is good. Everyone knows Alabama has been good for a long while.
But this offense, just about everyone acknowledges, is really good. Indeed, the virtual Heisman stage on Tuesday night will include two members of Alabama’s offense, the quarterback Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith, a wide receiver.
Overseen by Steve Sarkisian, the former coach at Southern California and Washington, the Alabama offense has averaged 544 yards this season. Many of those yards have come through the air, with Smith picking up 1,511 receiving yards. Jones has completed almost 77 percent of his passes to lead the country on that mark. Najee Harris, a running back, has 1,578 yards to his name.
“He does a very smart job in designing scheme to create matchups and to create problems on defense,” Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, said of Sarkisian. “And then you combine that with the fact that they have like a really talented group. I think it starts in the O-line. There’s a toughness there and a physical approach that we have to match and exceed in our game and our style.”
Lea, the incoming coach at Vanderbilt, kept going: “And then they have skill at every position outside the O-line, and it’s going to force you to win in coverage, to win your one-on-ones. And they’ve got a quarterback that can deliver the ball.”
But a lot of eyes will be on Smith, who will learn on Tuesday whether he was voted as the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991.
“He’s got another gear,” Lea said. “When he hits his accelerator, he has a chance to separate. And the number of times you see that on film, you understand pretty quickly that every snap there’s an opportunity for them to score. And so we have to be leveraged properly. We have to have awareness of where he is all the time.”
We’re about to get our first look of the day at Ian Book, the Notre Dame quarterback who is now a graduate student, and the Irish offense.
Book has thrown for more than 2,600 yards this season, completed about 64 percent of his passes and rushed for 430 yards. He has largely avoided interceptions, throwing just two this season, and recorded his longest pass — 75 yards — during a game against Duke in September.
“I think he does a great job extending plays, but keeps his eyes downfield,” Pete Golding, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, said this week. “When you break down their explosive reel, a lot of their explosive plays come because he extends the play, moves out of the pocket.”
The Alabama staff has also voiced some concerns about the strength of Notre Dame’s running game, even though the Fighting Irish managed only 44 yards in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Clemson. On the season, Notre Dame has rushed for almost 2,400 yards — and its defense held opponents to 1,216.
Kyren Williams accounts for nearly 1,100 of Notre Dame’s rushing yards, but the team uses an array of personnel groupings.
“Schematically they do a lot of different things that create a lot of problems,” Golding said. “I think they’ve got some good players that they look for some matchup issues, getting them off safeties and linebackers.”
Few college football programs are as storied as the one at Notre Dame. But all of that history — seven Heisman Trophy winners, more than 100 all-Americans, 11 claimed national championships — has not led the Fighting Irish to the Rose Bowl too often.
As in, it’s happened once before today. It was 1925, Calvin Coolidge was president and the Irish went west for one of the early Rose Bowls. In a coaching matchup for the ages, Knute Rockne was in charge for Notre Dame and pushed his team to a win, 27-10, over Pop Warner’s Stanford team.
Alabama made its inaugural Rose Bowl appearance the very next season with a victory, 20-19, over Washington that to this day is immortalized in the Alabama fight song. Alabama has made five other appearances in Rose Bowl games, most recently in 1946. (Alabama won the 2009 season’s national championship in a game that was played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., but it was not considered to be the Rose Bowl game itself.)
Just on Monday, an Alabama alumna texted me a fascinating, justifiable assessment of Nick Saban’s team: “I don’t count on the defense for a stop, but on the offense for another score.”
Earlier in the era of Saban, an expert among experts on defense, that would have been unfathomable. This is, to the chagrin of Alabama fans, a defense that gave up 48 points to Mississippi, 46 to Florida and 24 to both Georgia and Texas A&M. But it’s also a defense that held Kentucky to 3, Arkansas to 3 and Mississippi State, where Mike Leach brought his Air Raid playbook, to a shutout.
Those three particularly stellar defensive performances all came after the Mississippi game, which Pete Golding, the defensive coordinator, said was a “come to Jesus” moment. That night in Oxford, Ole Miss assembled 647 yards of offense, including 379 through the air.
“We put a lot of things on tape and a lot of things that weren’t good,” Golding said on Monday. “But I think it was good from our kids’ standpoint” so they could see it.
Later on, he added: “I think with a lot of young kids these days, until it happens to them and then you can show them, ‘Hey, this is why we’re doing it, hey, here’s the situation,’ I think some of them just don’t get it.”
The wake-up call largely worked. The next week, Alabama held Georgia to 414 yards, a clear improvement. Beyond that, only one team — Florida — ever managed more than 352 total yards. The problem, Golding said, was when Alabama’s defense faltered on third down.
Entering Friday’s game, by the way, Notre Dame was converting half of its attempts on third down and most of its tries on fourth down.
Ah, the Rose Bowl. “The Granddaddy of Them All,” as the game is known, is ordinarily played in a grand old stadium with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.
It’s about to kick off indoors at an 11-year-old stadium in Texas along Interstate 30, between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Organizers said they transplanted the game to Texas, because of California’s accelerating struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. One crucial factor in the decision: California officials had refused to allow family members of players to attend the game in Pasadena, setting off a furor among top coaches.
A $2 million settlement between the City of Pasadena and the Tournament of Roses, the nonprofit association that sells the rights to the game and shares the trademark on the Rose Bowl name with the city, helped (sort of) smooth things over in California.
So why Arlington, Texas?
Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, said this week that officials determined early that if they needed to move the Rose Bowl from Pasadena, they preferred that it shift to one of the other sites in the rotation for semifinal games: Arlington; Atlanta; Glendale, Ariz.; Miami Gardens, Fla.; or New Orleans.
But Atlanta and New Orleans were already scheduled to host games on Friday. The Arizona and Florida stadiums have games planned for Saturday, leaving too little turnaround time after a semifinal matchup on Friday. AT&T Stadium in Texas, which hosted the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday, offered a central location and a sufficiently long window between games — as well as the willingness and support of local health officials to host live spectators.
Friday’s game will mark the second time in Rose Bowl history that the game will be played outside of Pasadena. The 1942 rendition was played in Durham, N.C., just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s coach, would like a word with, well, just about everyone who isn’t a Notre Dame fan.
Notre Dame has a reputation of big-game letdowns, some of them much bigger than others. But when a reporter asked Kelly this week whether Notre Dame had “something to prove,” the coach bristled.
“I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games,” Kelly said. “No, we haven’t won a national championship, that’s correct. I’m not changing the record. But we are there every single year and we’re grinding it out just like everybody else. And only one team gets to celebrate at the end of the year.”
Let’s go to the tape. Clemson pummeled Notre Dame in this season’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game, 34-10, avenging a loss to the Irish from November. In 2019, Notre Dame lost to Georgia in the regular season. Notre Dame’s 2018 season ended with a semifinal drubbing by Clemson, 30-3. The 2015 season included a 16-point loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame reached the championship game for the 2012 season and lost, 42-14, to Alabama.
So, yes, Notre Dame is certainly routinely in the mix for glory. But aside from November, when they beat a top-ranked, undermanned Clemson, Notre Dame hasn’t defeated a top-five team since 2005.
A win on Friday could let a lot of bygones be bygones.
The semifinal games are going to happen with the four teams that have been slotted in since Dec. 20. And, at least in the view of College Football Playoff officials, that was always the plan.
Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director, said in an interview this week that a coronavirus outbreak involving one of the teams would have led to a postponement of a game, but not an outright cancellation. The playoff also had no plans to substitute a lower-ranked team into the field had a program reported a surge in cases.
Teams have been monitoring players and coaches under the same testing protocols they followed throughout the regular season. Ohio State administers rapid tests every day under Big Ten guidelines, while Alabama’s daily tests go beyond the mandate of the Southeastern Conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes Clemson and, for this season, Notre Dame, requires three tests a week. There was no playoff-specific testing plan.
“The conferences and schools are accustomed to the conference protocol,” Hancock said. “We just thought it would not be appropriate to set a whole new protocol. For one thing, which conference’s protocol would have been used?”
Ryan Day, Ohio State’s coach, said Thursday that he was not bothered by the variations in testing protocols.
“I think that’s a unique situation that we don’t have the same protocols going into the game,” he said. “I’m not going to spend time thinking about that. I’m tired of that.”
He added, “As long as the guys are healthy playing in the game, that’s what matters.”
Players and coaches have had few, if any, interactions with people who weren’t tested since they left their campuses for Texas and Louisiana. Rituals that usually mark bowl weeks — team outings, charity visits, news conferences — were all canceled or converted to virtual events.
The mightiest dynasty in modern college football wants another crown. But the 14th team of Coach Nick Saban’s tenure makes offense look easy, and, in that way, it is strikingly different from some of its predecessors.
Players to watch: Three of Alabama’s offensive stars — quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wideout DeVonta Smith — finished in the top five for this season’s Heisman Trophy. (The winner will be announced on Tuesday.) But don’t forget Patrick Surtain II, a junior cornerback who allowed 25 yards receiving or fewer in eight of 11 games this season.
Something Alabama loves: Alabama is averaging almost 50 points a game. When Saban won his first championship at Alabama in 2009, the same season Alabama’s starting tailback earned the Heisman Trophy, the Tide managed about 32.
Something Alabama detests: Alabama has lost seven fumbles in this shortened season, nearly double its toll from last season.
Alabama’s warning light: Alabama’s narrowest margin of victory this season was 6 points, in a win over Florida, and Notre Dame’s defense is better, allowing fewer than 19 points a game. Saban said this week that the Fighting Irish would pose “a challenge for our offense to finish,” so Alabama fans should be nervous if they see Will Reichard repeatedly head out for field-goal attempts. (He has been excellent so far — 12 for 12 — but hasn’t gotten that many chances. Notre Dame’s Jonathan Doerer has attempted 22 this season.)
Navigating the pandemic: Aside from disclosing Saban’s November bout with the virus and an earlier false positive for the coach, Alabama has said little about the reach of the pathogen inside its football program. But Alabama did not have any games rescheduled because of its own virus troubles.
Extra point: Saban is seeking his sixth national championship as the Crimson Tide coach, a mark that would equal Bear Bryant’s record at Alabama.
Notre Dame’s lone playoff outing, a 2018 semifinal game against Clemson, was a debacle: a 30-3 loss. A game against Alabama is one of its best opportunities for gridiron glory, even if the Fighting Irish are entering as underdogs.
According to Pregame.com, casinos in Las Vegas have Alabama as an 18½-point favorite over Notre Dame, and most of the money that has been wagered has been on Alabama.
Players to watch: Ian Book, the quarterback, “kind of makes them tick,” Alabama’s defensive coordinator said this week, but he also highlighted Kyren Williams, a sophomore tailback, who has run for 1,061 yards this season. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a 215-pound linebacker, and Kyle Hamilton, a sophomore safety, have 56 tackles each, tied for the team lead.
Something Notre Dame loves: Book has thrown just two interceptions this season. In the preceding 10 seasons that Brian Kelly coached the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame’s quarterback corps averaged about a dozen interceptions a year.
Something Notre Dame detests: History, or at least talking a lot about it. Aside from a regular-season victory over Clemson in November, Notre Dame has struggled in marquee games. There was the 2018 semifinal, but also a 16-point loss to Ohio State to end the 2015 season and the 28-point loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game for the 2012 season.
Notre Dame’s warning light: Book was sacked a season-high six times in Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama’s 32 sacks have come in the last four games. Early penetration from Alabama could signal a dismal day ahead for the Fighting Irish, but look for Notre Dame to try to improve on a running game that gained only 44 yards in the A.C.C. title matchup.
Navigating the pandemic: A September game against Wake Forest was postponed because Notre Dame was facing a surge of cases around its football team. The game was later canceled, the A.C.C. said, “to preserve the integrity” of the league championship game.
Extra point: Ordinarily an independent in football, Notre Dame played in the A.C.C. for the 2020 season and will become the first team to appear in the playoff after losing a league championship game.