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THE BREAKDOWN: Notre Dame vs. Alabama ­­— preview, staff picks and more

Pittsburgh v Notre Dame

Pittsburgh v Notre Dame

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Ask any Notre Dame fans for a defining moment from the Irish’s magical run, and they’ll mention the goal-line stand against Stanford, the victory at Oklahoma and the resilience against Pittsburgh.

Ask any Notre Dame critics for a defining moment from the Irish’s insufferable run to the BCS national championship game, and they’ll mention the unimpressive escapes against Purdue and BYU, the injury that knocked USC quarterback Matt Barkley out of the season finale and the missed field goal that would have won Pitt the game (and the penalty the Irish should have been hit with for having two No. 2s on the field).

The word ‘‘luck’’ got thrown around a lot last week in South Florida, usually with a Southern drawl from Southeastern Conference-country writers, some of whom seemed offended that Notre Dame was even in the title game. They asked if the Irish had faced anyone like Alabama before. They asked if the Irish had to play ‘‘above their best’’ to have a chance. They asked if they needed a little ‘‘luck of the Irish.’’

The crux of the questioning: Notre Dame is back, yes. But do the Irish belong?

‘‘We didn’t come down here to lose a football game,’’ offensive tackle Zack Martin said. ‘‘We know they’re very good, but we’re pretty good, too.’’

Good, yes. Great? To many,
the jury’s still out. Lucky? Sure. No team gets this far without some luck.

‘‘You have to have the ball bounce your way sometimes,’’ linebacker Danny Spond said. ‘‘There’s been a time or two that’s happened for us. But we’ve always believed that this is the stage we’ve played for, that we’ve worked for. So luck, that’s not persistent for us by any means.’’

Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin laughed when asked (essentially) if Notre Dame was more lucky than good.

‘‘Was Pitt lucky when we fumbled the ball going in [to the end zone in the second overtime] with no one touching our tailback [Cierre Wood]?’’ Martin said. ‘‘Was Pitt lucky, maybe, when we had an opportunity to throw an inside vertical in the first quarter to a guy wide-open? There are hundreds of plays. You guys tend to pick out one or two that you remember. We remember a lot more than you guys do.’’

Brian Kelly bristled when asked if he was coaching a ‘‘team of destiny,’’ saying: ‘‘I have not built any programs based upon we’re going to get good luck or we’re a team of destiny.’’

So are the Irish in the same league as Alabama, a program that will be playing in its third national title game in four years, the benchmark for all other teams? There’s no way to answer that question until Monday night, when it’s determined on the field.

But this much is certain: The Irish defense is legitimate and should give the Tide trouble, the sky is the limit for quarterback Everett Golson and Notre Dame is unlikely to slip back into irrelevance any time soon.

Oh, and this much is certain, too: The Irish aren’t just happy to be here. And they certainly don’t feel lucky to be here.

‘‘There’s no time to reminisce,’’ tailback Theo Riddick said. ‘‘Even with seven weeks off, there’s no time for that. Because all of that means nothing if we don’t win this game.’’

STAFF PICKS

MARK LAZERUS

20-17 - Alabama

RICK MORRISSEY

27-13 - Alabama

DAN McGRATH

24-16 - Alabama

RICK TELANDER

24-20 - Alabama

HERB GOULD

24-23 - Notre Dame

when the irish have the ball

ON THE GROUND

It’s not quite thunder and lightning, but Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have formed one of the best tailback tandems in the country this season. Riddick has proved to be a strong power runner, with Irish coordinator Chuck Martin calling him ‘‘pound-for-pound, as good a football player as they make.’’ And Wood is as explosive as ever, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in a limited role. The Irish line has little depth, but the starters are savvy veterans who paved the way for 270 rushing yards against BYU and 150 against Stanford, the Nos. 2 and 3 rushing defenses in the country. No. 1? Alabama.

IN THE AIR

Notre Dame’s starting quarterback (Everett Golson) is a redshirt freshman, one of its top receivers (DaVaris Daniels) is coming off a broken clavicle and Alabama has the No. 4 pass defense in the country, with an All-America corner (Milliner). Yet Riddick and Eifert said the Irish think they can exploit the Tide secondary. Golson’s ability to extend plays with his legs certainly helps (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel gave the Tide fits). Golson usually sticks with safe passes on quick routes, but coach Brian Kelly said he wants the Irish to be aggressive and go after ‘‘big-chunk plays.’’

key matchup

Milliner likely will draw Eifert in an All-America matchup whenever Eifert is split out wide. Milliner and safety Vinnie Sunseri will pay close attention to Eifert, particularly in the red zone, where Eifert is most dangerous.

when the crimson tide haS the ball

On the ground

There has been much discussion about whether Alabama’s offensive line is the greatest in college football history, with five legitimate NFL prospects, including three All-Americans and the top center in the country in Barrett Jones. They’re big, they’re fast and they’re ridiculously strong. They paved the way for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to run for 1,000 yards each, the first time that has happened in Alabama history. But this is strength against strength, as the Irish boast maybe the best front seven in the country. Notre Dame is fourth in rush defense (92 yards per game) and allowed a mere two rushing touchdowns all season.

in the air

Alabama will run, run and run some more. But all that does is make quarterback A.J. McCarron all the more dangerous. McCarron was the most efficient passer in the country, and he can make any defense pay if it gets lulled to sleep by the Tide ground game. Just ask Georgia. In the SEC championship game, Alabama ran for a whopping 350 yards. But it was a beautiful 45-yard play-action pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper that gave the Tide the lead for good with 3:15 left. The Irish secondary can’t get too aggressive against the run, or it’ll pay through the air.

KEY MATCHUP

These two 300-pounders will clash on nearly every snap. If Nix wins the battle, it will allow Manti Te’o and Co. to penetrate and stop the run. If Jones gets a good push, Lacy and Yeldon might have a field day. This one will be decided in the trenches.

X-FACTOR

Everett Golson has played on plenty of big stages before, including night games at Oklahoma and USC, but he never has been in a situation like this. In fact, nobody on the Irish roster or coaching staff has. Alabama was here last season, and many of its key players know what to expect. If Golson can get past the early nerves and play his game — loose and free, scrambling and chucking — the Irish can win. If he gets overwhelmed, the Irish might be in for a long night.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This won’t be a track meet, so field position is going to be critical. Punters Ben Turk and Cody Mandell will play a significant role. Alabama’s Christion Jones averages 10.6 yards per punt return and brought back a kickoff 99 yards against Mississippi. The Irish, meanwhile, are 115th in the nation in punt returns. Irish kicker Kyle Brindza set a school record with 23 field goals, but he missed eight. Alabama’s Jeremy Shelley is a perfect 11-for-11, but his long is 38 yards.

Notre Dame

Coach: Brian Kelly
Record: 12-0

Offensive starters

No. Player Pos.

5 Everett Golson QB

6 Theo Riddick RB

7 T.J. Jones WR

9 Robby Toma WR

52 Braxston Cave C

57 Mike Golic Jr. RG

66 Chris Watt LG

70 Zack Martin LT

74 Christian Lombard RT

80 Tyler Eifert TE

81 John Goodman WR

DEFENSIVE starters

2 Bennett Jackson CB

5 Manti Te’o ILB

6 KeiVarae Russell CB

7 Stephon Tuitt DE

9 Louis Nix III NG

13 Danny Spond OLB

17 Zeke Motta S

41 Matthias Farley S

48 Dan Fox ILB

55 Prince Shembo OLB

89 Kapron Lewis-Moore DE

Specialists

27 Kyle Brindza K

35 Ben Turk P

60 Jordan Cowart LS

19 Davonte’ Neal PR

4 George Atkinson III KR

STATISTICS

PASSING

Pct. Yards TD INT

Golson 58.9 2,135 11 5

RUSHING

Att. Yards Avg. TD

Riddick 180 880 4.9 5

Wood 110 740 6.7 4

Atkinson 51 361 7.1 5

Golson 89 305 3.4 5

RECEIVING

No. Yards Avg. TD

Eifert 44 624 14.2 4

Jones 43 559 13.0 4

Riddick 35 364 10.4 1

Daniels 25 375 15.0 0

INTERCEPTIONS

No. Yards Avg. TD

Te’o 7 35 5.0 0

Jackson 4 57 14.3 0

SACKS

No. Yards

Tuitt 13 93

Shembo 10.5 63

Alabama

Coach: Nick Saban
Record: 12-1

Offensive starters

No. Player Pos. 9 Amari Cooper WR

10 A.J. McCarron QB

31 Kelly Johnson TE

42 Eddie Lacy RB

61 Anthony Steen RG

65 Chance Warmack LG

71 Cyrus Kouandjio LT

75 Barrett Jones C

76 D.J. Fluker RT 83 Kevin Norwood WR

89 Michael Williams TE

DEFENSIVE starters

6 HaHa Clinton-Dix S

13 Deion Belue CB

28 Dee Milliner CB 33 Trey DePriest LB

35 Nico Johnson LB

37 Robert Lester S

42 Adrian Hubbard LB 47 Xzavier Dickson LB

49 Ed Stinson DE

54 Jesse Williams NG
92 Damion Square DE

Specialists

5 Jeremy Shelley K

29 Cody Mandell P

51 Carson Tinker LS

22 Christion Jones PR

8 Cyrus Jones KR

STATISTICS

PASSING

Pct. Yards TD INT

McCarron 66.8 2,669 26 3

RUSHING

Att. Yards Avg. TD

Lacy 184 1,182 6.4 16

Yeldon 154 1,000 6.5 11

RECEIVING

No. Yards Avg. TD

Cooper 53 895 16.9 9

Norwood 26 395 15.2 4

Jones 25 328 13.1 4

Williams 21 166 7.9 3

Lacy 20 172 8.6 1

Bell 17 431 25.4 3

INTERCEPTIONS

No. Yards Avg TD

Clinton-Dix 4 91 22.8 0

Lester 4 51 12.8 0

SACKS

No. Yards

Hubbard 10 49

Stinson 8.5 23



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