Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s defensive offense needed, and then some, against Alabama
Despite a relative downtick in the ACC title game, No. 4 Notre Dame finished the season No. 7 in the country with 33:57 time of possession per game. Of teams to play at least 10 games, only Army and its triple-option attack averaged more.
That relative downtick was all of two minutes to 31:52, the third-lowest Irish possession mark of the season, behind the first matchup against Clemson and the 42-26 win against Florida State immediately after Notre Dame’s coronavirus outbreak.
The ball control is as much a result of a dominant running game as anything intentional, but Brian Kelly knows it may need to become more disctintly intentional than ever Friday against No. 1 Alabama in the Thorn Bowl (4 ET; ESPN).
“We’re cognizant of the fact that this is an electric offense and scores bushels and bushels of points,” Kelly said Monday. “We want to be able to play complementary football. That is, keep Alabama’s offense off the field while we’re certainly scoring, as well.”
Those are large bushels, holding 49.7 points per game this season and 52.8 per game across the Tide’s last five. It is a big ask of Notre Dame’s offense to both limit its counterpart and succeed on its own. The good news is, its best chance of scoring is usually the method that would limit Alabama.
“We are trying to run our offense, which has been one that has traditionally been a ball-control offense,” Kelly said. “That still has to be in our mind in terms of we can’t come into this game and change who we are, but the nice part about it is that’s kind of been our DNA this year.”
It still may not be enough.
Not against an offense featuring a receiver, the Heisman front-runner, with more receiving touchdowns (17) than Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book has throwing this season (15). Not against an offense that for every third down it faces, gains 2.5 first downs. Not against an offense that scored more than a third of its touchdowns from outside the red zone.
“We’ve defended teams that have one or two pieces, talented players,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said Tuesday. “The compliment I’d give Alabama, it’s a really strong unit, it’s a strong team. There’s a lot of people that contribute to their success.
“You have to account for the most explosive player (receiver DeVonta Smith), but you can’t only defend one guy because there’s other guys that can hurt you.”
Those “other guys” include sophomore receiver John Metchie — 782 receiving yards, 17.8 per catch, six touchdowns — and sophomore tight end Jahleel Billingsley, averaging 18.4 yards per reception, not to mention senior running back Najee Harris who complements his 115 rushing yards per game with 28.7 more through the air.
“You always have to be cognizant of how many people that can hurt you on the field, especially playing against Alabama this week,” sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton said. “... All 11 guys need to do their job and stay within ourselves. If I do that and all the 10 guys do that, we can take care of the run game and passing game at the same time.”
SPEAKING OF DOING THEIR JOB
Lea is balancing his new duties as Vanderbilt’s head coach with his remaining work as the Irish defensive coordinator by ignoring one half of that equation.
“My singular focus has been on preparation for this game. I know that may be hard to believe, but this is too big,” Lea said. “Whatever is to come next for me will be there when this season is finished. This is a culmination of four years of investment for me, and it’s not just about me, obviously. It’s about four years of investment with these players.”
Lea said there is already a group of people at Vanderbilt handling things such that he can focus in South Bend until this season ends. In fact, he made it sound like that was a requisite for him pursuing the Commodores’ job in the first place.
At that point, of course, he did not know Alabama awaited Notre Dame, since Lea was hired by his alma mater before the ACC title game.
“Obviously with an opponent like Alabama, every bit of my mental and emotional energy has got to be put into this game plan.”
Lea’s four years perfectly coincide with senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s, all the way to the beginning of the Irish recruitment of the Virginia product. He was named to his second of the five notable first-team All-America teams on Tuesday, leaving one more to reach consensus status and three more for unanimous honors, an acknowledgement last reached at Notre Dame by Quenton Nelson in 2017.
But Owusu-Koramoah would not even grant the premise of an NFL-based question on Tuesday, even though he is undoubtedly heading to the draft as a presumptive first-round pick.
“My due diligence is what’s in front of me,” he said.” My due diligence is to handle what is at stake right now. What is at stake is the national championship, is the Playoff game.”
Follow-up questions are more rare in the era of strictly Zoom availability, but it seems safe to assume who Owusu-Koramoah would have credited for instilling that due diligence if he had been asked: Lea.
SAFETIES — ONE GOING, ONE COMING
Hamilton said his ankle has healed. “I feel good right now. We’ve had a lot of time since the game to rest up and get our bodies right for this game coming up.”
Sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford chuckled, good-naturedly, as he said he does not intend to return to Notre Dame for a seventh (7!) season, a possibility afforded by the universal pandemic eligibility mulligan.
Clark Lea says he remembers telling Kyle Hamilton he would be on this stage before the Cotton Bowl in 2018.— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) December 29, 2020
Hamilton was in the building for the Cotton Bowl and will now play in the same stadium on Friday in the 2021 Rose Bowl. pic.twitter.com/1s6jzMMmXZ
INSIDE THE IRISH:
— Notre Dame’s postseason awards underscore Clark Lea’s impact— Alabama Then vs. Now: Notre Dame faces a new test— Revisiting preseason predictions underscores the success of Notre Dame’s 2020— The boldest of preseason predictions remains alive … if Notre Dame beats Alabama
OUTSIDE READING:— Can Notre Dame avoid Playoff embarrassment this time around?— Alabama’s Jones, Smith, Harris lead 6 Tide AP All-Americans
— Sporting News 2020 college football All-Americans
— Notre Dame players discuss Alabama defense, how it compares to Georgia and Clemson— ‘I’ve lost sensation’: Inside a COVID-19-ravaged college football season— 2021 NFL Mock Draft— 2020 CBS Sports All-America team
Crazy note from @chrisfallica: There have been only two bowl games with a larger point spread than the CFP Semifinal between the Tide and Fighting Irish: 2020 Appalachian State -21.5 vs North Texas; 2017 FAU vs Akron.— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) December 28, 2020
Those two both covered and won by a combined 106-31 margin.