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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s problem not ‘unique,’ but undeniable in Rose Bowl loss to Alabama

The CFP Semifinal presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Wide receiver DeVonta Smith #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes for a touchdown over the defense of Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first quarter of the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal Game at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One at AT&T Stadium on January 01, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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ARLINGTON, Texas — A bristling Brian Kelly was right Friday night when he repeatedly and gruffly argued losing in lopsided fashion to Alabama is not uniquely a Notre Dame problem.

Except, in Friday’s relocated Rose Bowl, it was a Notre Dame problem, a 31-14 problem in a New Year’s Day loss that ended the Irish season much like their last trip to Dallas did, in 2018’s Playoff semifinal, much like their last game against Alabama did, in 2012’s national championship.

“You need to look at the scores that everybody played against Alabama and Clemson,” Kelly said. “Everybody’s got the same issue.”

It was a Notre Dame issue that Heisman frontrunner DeVonta Smith defied any outside containment as he scored three touchdowns by repeatedly doing nothing more complicated than running away from Irish defenders.

It was a Notre Dame issue that its receivers could not find the slightest open space downfield to offer explosive rebuttals to Smith’s dominance.

It was a Notre Dame issue it never stood a sincere chance against the latest Tide, serving as little more than a stick in the sand quickly getting overwhelmed by a force of nature, to use a metaphor applicable to most of Alabama’s opponents this season, if not all of them, and the vast majority for the last decade.

“When they’re on the perimeter, nobody has shut them down,” Kelly said. “Tell me who has tackled those guys. Everybody has the same problem that I do. It’s tackling those guys and getting them down, and it’s the same issue.

“I don’t have a unique problem at Notre Dame. … Look at the scores of the games that Alabama has played all year, and I think we need to start to change the narrative a little bit.”

Kelly was right. He does not have a unique problem at Notre Dame, but it is a problem at Notre Dame all the same.

Smith finished with seven catches for 130 yards, while the Irish receivers managed eight catches for 96 yards combined. Of course, perimeter playmaking was never going to be how Notre Dame kept up with Alabama — the Irish ground game played well enough with 4.3 yards per rush (sacks adjusted), but it could not keep pace with the Tide’s three opening scoring drives covering 260 yards in 18 plays — but perimeter playmaking is now, more than ever, the difference between Notre Dame and the true national title contenders.

Clemson had Hall of Famer Travis Etienne and breakout receiver Cornell Powell to supplement superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Ohio State has speedster receiver Chris Olave running underneath quarterback Justin Fields’ deep balls, not to mention bulldozing running back Trey Sermon. And Alabama has Smith, leaping running back Najee Harris, circus-catch-making tight end Jahleel Billingsley, speedster receiver John Metchie and injured star receiver Jaylen Waddle to make Mac Jones look like college football’s best-ever quarterback. (Yes, that’s right, the Tide was without its best receiver.)

The Irish had Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek, fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley and former quarterback Avery Davis trying to get open for Notre Dame’s all-time winningest quarterback.

That trio did all they could, absolutely no one should knock them, they provided the complementary offense needed for the Irish to reach 10-0 and the Playoff this season. But when Notre Dame needs to keep up with Smith, Harris and Jones, that receiving corps became a problem in North Texas.

Even Kelly acknowledged that was the underlying issue, as he justly pushed back against the default narrative.

“We have to continue to find more playmakers,” he said. “We’ll keep working at it. We’re committed to doing it and we’re not going away.”

Obviously, that is easier said than done. Otherwise, the Irish would have turned to junior Braden Lenzy (a nagging hamstring essentially robbed him of any practice time this year), junior Kevin Austin (broke and then re-broke a foot) or freshman Jordan Johnson (never elevated his play in practice in his debut fall). Instead, all Notre Dame could do was watch Alabama slice through Clark Lea’s final Irish defense.

It would have been unfair — not to mention unproductive given Kelly’s disposition did not level out over Zoom in the bowels of AT&T Stadium — to ask if the defense was beaten via talent or execution. When the talent is as stellar as Smith, the execution takes care of itself.

“We weren’t misaligned, but we felt we could get and rally to them a little bit more physically,” Kelly said. “They exploited some matchups into the short field where we thought we could get out and box that a little bit better, and that didn’t happen.

“Then the bubble to the field, essentially what happened is that we were a little tentative. We shut our feet down, and you can’t do that against highly-skilled players. You have to be aggressive and attack those skill players in space. If you shut your feet down for a second, they are gone.”

As Smith was and would be again. ESPN play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough could have, and perhaps should have, turned his first Smith touchdown call of, “Goodbye, farewell, touchdown,” into the game’s refrain.

That wasn’t a problem inherent to the Irish this season, just on Friday. Smith’s dynamism made Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian look so good he is now the head coach at Texas. It made Jones’ life so easy he never had to worry about Notre Dame’s pass rush. The best player in the country this year shifted the entire balance of the game whenever Alabama had the ball.

A receiver in the class of 2017, Smith’s only counterpart on the Irish roster announced an intention to transfer on Saturday, and Jafar Armstrong spent much of his Notre Dame career at running back, in theory a dual-threat but hardly the playmaker Smith is.

For the Irish to make good on Kelly’s promise, the recruiting search will need to uncover more speed. To be fair, perhaps it just did this cycle in consensus four-star receiver Lorenzo Styles.

“We simply didn’t make enough plays,” Kelly said. “We’re going to continue to battle, continue to recruit and continue to put ourselves in this position to win a national championship. …

“We’re going to go back to work, we’re going to keep recruiting and we’re going to put ourselves back in this position again.”

Having been in that position twice in three years puts Notre Dame at the top of college football’s second tier, behind only Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The lopsided realities of 2020 recruiting keep those three ahead of the rest of the country — “There’s certainly a few teams that have a couple more weapons that can be explosive.” — but a handful of teams continue to fight to be the one with a chance to catch lightning in a bottle. LSU caught it last year. The Irish did not this year, but as long as they continue to dominate in the trenches, their physicality will keep them in that second tier.

While the proverbial Big Three have unquestionably added to their talent advantages over the second tier, that grouping — Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia primarily — has also widened the gap between them and the 124 other teams in the country.

Kelly knows what the problem is. It is not the same problem the Irish used to have.

“We were physical, we ran the football,” he said. “There wasn’t a physicality issue out there. Last time we played Alabama (2012) and Clemson (2018), I felt like there was a physicality issue. We’ve got that.

“We know where the story needs to end.”

If Kelly ever ends the Notre Dame story where it “needs” to, be warned.

“We’re going to keep getting back here and everybody can keep saying Notre Dame is not good enough. You know what? You’re going to have a problem because we’re going to keep winning games and keep getting back here and we’re going to break through, and then I am going to be terrible to be at a press conference with.”

Now that would be uniquely a Notre Dame problem.

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