We’ll get into matchup elements below, but let’s first examine four significant data trends that will, largely, be ignored by the sports entertainment hype industry wearing the “journalism” mask.
(1) An Inconvenient Tide Truth-The 2012 Bama defense is much more vulnerable than 2011’s.
We will compare the three “big” games in each season. In 2011 Bama, with an easy SEC East rotation, looked to two divisional challengers in the SEC West, LSU and Arkansas. Now the Razorbacks had played in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. They had Tyler Wilson at quarterback, and were coached by Bobby Petrino, before, apparently, he read Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance” and Nabokov’s “Lolita.”
The Tide held Petrino’s scoring juggernaut to 14 points, 14 First Downs and 226 TOTAL YARDS!
In the regular season game against LSU, the Tigers got 15 first downs, 9 points and 239 total yards.
In the BCS championship rematch, the Tigers got 0 points, 5 first downs and 92 TOTAL YARDS.
Breathtaking and Suffocating. But then first rounders Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Donta Hightower, along with second rounder Courtney Upshaw graduated with two other defensive starters, 5th rounders Dequan Menzie and Josh Chapman. They didn’t just have great NFL “measurables” but they were, expecially Hightower, Kirkpatrick, Upshaw and Barron, GREAT college defenders.
Sure at Bama they prefer to reload rather than rebuild, but the defense that allowed 11 first downs, 7.6 points and a miserly 182 yards to its three biggest opponents is in the archive. The FORMER Tide defense.
This year, the Tide faced three BIG foes. The rematch with LSU, the game with A&M and the SEC championship against Georgia.
LSU got 22 first downs and 435 yards on the way to scoring 17 points, MORE THAN THEY GOT IN TWO GAMES IN EACH CATEGORY AGAINST THE TIDE IN 2011.
A&M amassed 23 first downs and 418 yards on the way to 29 points in the victory in Tuscaloosa.
And in the SEC championship, Georgia’s Bulldogs got 18 first downs and 394 yards on the way to 28 points.
In a year, the Bama defense, in the big challenge games, went from giving up
11 first downs to 21 first downs.
From 182 ypg to 416 ypg.
From 7.6 ppg to 24.7 ppg.
Against the quality opponents.
The Tide’s defense this year is formidable, but vulnerable, and a mere shadow of the 2011 defense.
(2) Notre Dame’s defense responded best against the biggest opponents. The five biggest challenges on Notre Dame’s 2012 schedule, at the time the games were played, were, in order, Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. Two of those teams, Michigan and Stanford, had played in BCS bowls in 2011 and USC was ranked #1 preseason.
The Irish allowed no touchdowns at all to Michigan State and Michigan, an UGLY defensive score to Stanford and one touchdown each to OU and SC. That’s two offensive touchdowns to those five opponents. When pressure was greatest, the defense was greatest. CLUTCH.
(3) as previously documented, the October Notre Dame offense was more prolific than the September Notre Dame offense. The November offense was more productive and efficient than the October offense. Extrapolations of anything are risky, but good coaching and a growing quarterback are rational explanations for the uptick. While not assured, it would be expected that, ceteris paribus, the January 7th offense will be the best offense that Notre Dame will have had all season.
Now for the data-starved, we delve into stat-geekery. All true students of stat know that the mean is pablum, while the MEDIAN is the red meat for the adult statistical palate.
This chart shows the medians for points, first downs, rushing yards, passing yards and total yards, calculated for September, October and November (note, yeah, the total yards doesn’t compute but the Median is ciphered for each cell, thereby the apparent anomaly.)
|Month||Points||First Downs||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||Total Yards|
Now there are two ways to turn this hologram. You can look at the season’s averages and see a mediocre, ineffective Irish offense. Or you can turn the hologram, and see the narrative, the progression, the organic offense, the dynamic evolution. A quarterback, a coach, an offense getting better before our eyes. Excellent! the media and ephemeral analysts will underestimate this offense.
(4) Kelly has experience preparing for, and winning, playoff games. Lots. From 2001-2003, Kelly’s Grand Valley State teams were 11-1 in the playoffs, losing only to North Dakota by a 17-14 tally in Florence, ALABAMA, in 2001. And nobody ENCIRCLES the wagons like the Fighting Sioux
In 2006, Kelly’s Central Michigan team whomped OHIO for the MAC championship in Detroit.
This is not his first rodeo, and while the level of competition is as night to day, there is a transportable skill and competence set in preparing and winning multiple playoff (sudden death) games in various locations.
Now to the matchups
WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL
A word about the Alabama offensive line. This may be the best OL in College Football since SC’s line of 2005 with Sam Baker, Winston Justice, Deuce Lutui, Ryan Kalil and Jeff Byers, a great college player. Fluker was a phenom coming out of Foley in ’09, #1 OL and 3rd best player in America. Caused a stir at his all star game. Cyrus Kouandjio, the younger of the two Dematha brothers, came up in ’11, rated #1 tackle and 4th best player in America. He caused a stir at his all star game, and was focused on diet and agility, seeking to be a “transitional” offensive linemen. Don’t underestimate these guys.
Lacy and Yeldon are the best pair of running backs we will have faced all year. Yeldon can fool you, he glides, unlike the choppy Lacy, but Yeldon covers ground quickly in the open field. both were 1,000 yard rushers.
Nevertheless the Notre Dame front seven is America’s best.
There are two HUGE challenges and one sizable challenge for the Notre Dame D.
(1) Diaco and Elston MUST play the depth. Day, Springman, Schwenke, Councell, Calabrese Ishaq have to play a lot in the first three quarters, probably more than they played in tight games all year. This takes guts and discipline, because you are watching the guy with less talent on the field, while the more talented player smolders on the sideline. But it is a sine qua non of victory. Our starters are great but will need to be fresh in the fourth quarter and a potential overtime.
(2) The secondary must significantly improve its tackling ability and execution. There will occur one or two plays when Lacy or Yeldon are isolated against one of our secondary people. They can not get juked. they must wrap up, they must bring the man down. Russell, Jackson and Shumate. Motta, Farley and Barati. Their coaches know this. These could be pivotal, game changing plays, one way or the other.
There is a third sizable challenge.
(3) Bama runs screen plays as well as any team in college football. They disguise them, and they block beautifully downfield. Our D is very good at screen recognition. We have to limit Bama’s screen effectiveness.
McCarron? he’s good, but not transcendent. He has done well when the Tide runs well. Heck, we’ve faced the Purdue duo, Landry Jones, Nunes, Morris, Nelson, Sunseri, Rettig, Price. We faced a nice batch of quarterbacks. McCarron is not a clear knockout over many of them.
Amari Cooper is a great player, but we DID face down Lee and Woods. And the Oklahoma bevy of receivers was vastly better than the crew we will face on January 7th.
The tipping point is their front line against our front seven, and our tackling of the Bama runners by our secondary. If we lose there, the game is lost.
Jeremy Shelley did not miss any of his 11 field goal attempts. PERFECT. Brindza can not miss more than one in the game.
Saban tried a fake punt against Georgia. The conservative Irish approach on special teams is appropriate. Merely stop the fake punt or field goal. For the year, in Steele’s composite rankings, Bama finished 13th, the Irish 34th. The “do no harm” approach worked for the Irish. Again, don’t LOSE the game on special teams.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL
This gets interesting, and we incorporate, by reference items (1) and (3) from the intro. Bama’s defense is not as good as in 2011 and the January 7th Irish offense is a far cry from the September 1st Irish offense.
We have balance. We have three guys who can run the ball, though Atkinson’s inconsistency is maddening. Riddick and Wood run well, and are resilient enough to keep at it when their early runs are stuffed.
To be most effective PASSING, Golson’s runs must be limited, probably in the single digits. Bama hits like we do, and we can not afford to get Golson banged up. Called runs must be judicious.
We have no Floyd, but there are receiving assets. There are:
Wily vets: Toma and Goodman
Hard Knock guys: Riddick and Jones
Young, tall, fleet, the future: Daniels and Brown
America’s best receiving tight end: Eifert
Saban is going to be annoyed when he finds out that he and Smart cannot cover Eifert one-on-one.
Saban/Smart have not had to face the Stanfordesque double TE packages that Notre Dame will throw at them.
No one, yet, has had the temerity to try to “outmuscle” Alabama’s defense.
Kelly/Martin will throw some of that at them.
Notre Dame’s big weapon is Golson’s marvelous ability to leave the pocket, keep his eyes downfield and complete the pass. Saban and Smart love to do things by the numbers, and Golson is a scheme wrecker.
(1) ball security when running-his biggest risk
(2) he must continue to throw the ball away. In this game, an incomplete pass will often be an outstanding play.
(1) first down-if the Irish average four or more on first down, they’ll be in good shape
(2) If they average three or fewer, they’ll be in bad shape
(3) keep Golson on the linear progression he’s been on all year.
(4) challenge Bama deep with Daniels and Brown. A couple successful intermediate to deep balls can change the calculus of the Tide defense.
(5) The offensive line must play its best game of the year. Saban will not blitz often, but he and Smart are creative at altering the blitzes and disguising them. Expect them to challenge Notre Dame’s right guard.
THE X FACTOR
J.D. Salinger, the author of “Catcher in the Rye” wrote a collection called “9 Stories.” In that was a wonderful story about a precocious child entitled “Teddy.” One thing Teddy thought was that when Eve handed Adam the apple that it was infected with “logic,” thereby cursing mankind to make mundane rather than great, creative decisions.
We have the most charismatic defensive coordinator, perhaps assistant coach (perhaps Joe Moore, you can still be charismatic and be a chain smoker of Camels) since the great Johnny Ray. He’s just a different breed of cat, alternately quoting and referencing Thomas Aquinas and Freddy Krueger, categorizing his linebackers by their werewolfness. Diaco is thorough and nothing escapes him, and in the privacy of his office, probably realizes that this will be the last time he coaches a Notre Dame defense in a championship game. Realistically, he’ll have moved on at this time next year. But there is something inspired in Diaco. He touches players differently and more deeply than almost anyone else. It’s not logic, it’s just Diaco.
There’s a coach in Norman they call “Big game Bob” Well, our Bob gave our 5 toughest foes just two offensive touchdowns, in the aggregate. That’s pretty “Big game.” And he and his men will be ready for a virtuouso performance.
Buckle your chin straps boys. It’s gonna be a doozy!