Three keys to victory for Notre Dame, Alabama
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Your long national hypemare is over. Monday night, Alabama and Notre Dame will finally take the field at Sun Life Stadium to decide the national champion.
1. Keep Everett Golson moving: A lot of the talk this past month has been about how Alabama knows how to use a five-week layoff to prepare for a national title game. What most forget is that Notre Dame has now had time to give its first-year starting quarterback what essentially amounts to another spring practice. Just as Alabama's AJ McCarron -- a first-year starter in 2011 -- looked like a more polished quarterback when he came out slinging in last year's BCS title game, Notre Dame's Everett Golson has had the opportunity to truly take command of the Fighting Irish offense. "This long layoff is talked about relative to the process for your football team and preparing them, but I will tell you there probably is only one player that has benefited as much with this time off, and that's Everett Golson," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "He's gotten an opportunity for three and a half weeks to continue to grow."
Golson has made some huge plays already for the Irish -- see the throw to Chris Brown in the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma game -- but he also has gotten yanked for Tommy Rees in some big spots. Kelly has been less inclined to do that as the season has progressed, and he should have little reason to do it now. Against Alabama, Golson's mobility could prove extremely helpful. He isn't Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, whose scrambling ability helped hand Alabama its only loss, but Golson can run well enough to escape a sack and extend a play by a few seconds. That could make all the difference. "Extended plays are how they've made a lot of big plays. ... The guy has really great arm talent because he can throw one side of the field to the other," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "I can see in my mind three plays we watched over and over, he scrambles to his right, throws it all the way across the field to his left to a wide open received where a guy just lost him. They had him covered and they lost him. To that kid's credit, that creates a different angle of the offense that's hard to prepare for."
2. Force McCarron to make a mistake: For all Johnny Football did, Texas A&M ultimately beat Alabama because the Aggies intercepted McCarron twice. The first broke McCarron's school-record streak of 292 passes without an interception. McCarron doesn't slip up often, but he isn't infallible. If Notre Dame's rushers can get in McCarron's face -- or even if 6-foot-6 defensive end Stephon Tuitt can tip a pass or two closer to the line of scrimmage -- the Fighting Irish have some sure-handed defenders who can make a game-changing play. Cornerback Bennett Jackson, a former receiver and kick returner, intercepted four passes. Meanwhile, linebacker Manti Te'o intercepted seven passes.
McCarron doesn't throw many bad passes, so the Irish will have to take advantage if they force one. Te'o's ability to snag a tipped pass or float into a passing lane undetected could be critical against McCarron. "The thing that stands out to me about Manti is he always seems to find the ball, as do all great players on defense," Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "You look at the interceptions, the tackles. He always seems to be around the ball. He has great natural instincts. Obviously he's a phenomenal athlete. It's going to be very important that we know where he is at all times."
3. Nix the run: The Alabama offense averages 5.6 yards per carry. When it gets rolling, an aircraft carrier could float through the holes it opens. The only way to keep those holes from opening is to hold gaps. Louis Nix, Notre Dame's 326-pound nose guard, will try to clog both A gaps. In the SEC, Alabama's line faces some excellent defensive tackles, but Nix will be the best the Crimson Tide have seen. Meanwhile, the combination of center Barrett Jones and guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen will be the best group of interior linemen Nix has faced all season. If Nix can keep his substantial girth near or behind the line of scrimmage, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon will run directly into the arms of linebackers. If Nix gets blown off the ball, Alabama's backs will get to the second level with ease.
Nix may have a secret weapon, though. On plays when Steen -- a huge country music fan -- helps Jones on a combo block, Nix can serenade the Tide into submission.
1. Let AJ be AJ: One of the smartest moves Alabama coach Nick Saban made in 2011 was telling McCarron after the regular-season loss to LSU that the Tide would be better served if McCarron didn't stifle his emotions on the field. McCarron is a fiery guy, and he plays better when he doesn't have to keep his feelings in check. "He's an emotional guy," Alabama center Jones said. "If you ever watch him after his touchdown celebrations... They're really, really awkward, first of all. He runs down the field and just kind of waves his arms like this. [Jones was either imitating McCarron or the Elaine dance from Seinfeld.] That's just because he's so emotional. He's got all that emotion bottled up. When he scores, it all comes out."
In last year's BCS title game against LSU, Alabama coaches called passes on 16 of Alabama's 18 first-down plays in the first half. While the Tide may not go that pass-heavy Monday, letting McCarron air it out could loosen up the Notre Dame defense. If McCarron is on, the Irish can't stack the box. If they can't stack the box, Alabama's line and backs should be able to move the ball. If the Irish choose to keep eight in the box anyway and dare McCarron to beat them, then he'll have to duplicate his performance in the final series at LSU.
2. Don't let the cornerbacks get lonely: Alabama's toughest challenges have come when the Tide have had to dedicate most of their defensive resources to neutralizing running threats. LSU's deep stable of tailbacks and Texas A&M's Manziel each forced Alabama to leave its cornerbacks alone against receivers for much of the game. Alabama corners Dee Milliner and Deion Belue are good, but the Tide are accustomed to having corners like Dre Kirkpatrick who can shut down any receiver alone. This year's group has proven susceptible in one-on-one situations.
If Alabama's front seven can handle Notre Dame's running game and keep track of Golson, the corners will have help over the top. That should be enough to shut down the Irish passing game. If Golson starts extending plays and Smart and Alabama head coach Nick Saban have to dedicate another defender to the redshirt freshman quarterback, then Milliner and Belue may have to play the game of their lives.
3. When in doubt, dance with the 300-pounders who brought you: Jones, Warmack, Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker make up the best offensive line in the country. (Texas A&M is the only line that can even attempt to debate this point.) This group specializes in blowing open holes. Even if Nix and Tuitt prove tough to block and stuff a few drives, this group eventually should be able to get the better of any defense. If Alabama can stay patient, its offensive line should eventually wear down even the best defense.