The nice thing about this matchup is there is no debate about the situation at hand. Against Clemson, in the rematch from their original tilt in November (which Notre Dame won, by the way), there was a thought that maybe the Irish were, in fact, the better team, despite the large point spread. It would have been reasonable for the Irish staff and team to think a similar game plan would prove effective the second time around. Whether that was the case or not, the outcome was a surprise for many. Their plans were thwarted, and they could not adjust.
This week everyone understands Brian Kelly and his team are up against it. And let’s be honest, anyone playing this Alabama team would be in a similar spot. They average nearly 50 points a game and have a point differential of 30. They are a big problem, not just for Notre Dame, but for everyone. Going into this game, the Irish mindset cannot be what it has been.
By mindset, I’m not talking about their belief in their ability to win or compete. If that isn’t already there, then the rest of this doesn’t matter. I remember hearing a quote some time ago, not sure where, you’ve got to love your talent more than anyone else’s talent. It’s ok to be honest. Alabama is the better team. They’ve proven it throughout the year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be outplayed, so the Irish must believe they will.
The mindset I’m talking about comes from the staff and the players in approaching the competition. How they approach the offense, the defense, the kicking game, all of it. They don’t need to change who they are per se, but they do need to keep Alabama on their back foot, not their front.
Having The Ball Is Everything
When Notre Dame has the ball, that means Alabama doesn’t, and that’s good. Possession is everything. Field position is not. Notre Dame needs to think about how to stay in control at all times. This includes avoiding punting at all costs, not kicking field goals, staying out of third downs.
This is not an advocation for running the ball a ton, not at all. Notre Dame can control the ball while throwing it and, in fact, should seriously consider not running it on first down on the negative side of the 50. First down runs are a.) very predictable and b.) some of the most advantageous times to throw, mostly because of A. Maybe Notre Dame can shove around Alabama at their will, but I wouldn’t count on that, so throwing when it is most advantageous to do so, is wise. It also keeps them out of the third and long game, probably the least advantageous time for this team in particular to throw. Throw early, mostly on play-action, treat it like a CFL game where you only have three downs to achieve a first instead of four. At least, before the 50-yard line.
Once on the plus side of the 50, Tommy Rees and co. should consider everything four-down territory. Field goals aren’t going to work, especially when a 21 yarder is available to be missed. It also surrenders the ball, which is bad; they need the ball. The only time they ought to think about giving up the ball is when it will lead to a touchdown, like a deep shot or explosive play, which they ought to scheme for, not merely as part of a series of routes. Be deliberate with it.
Don’t Punt, (Almost) Anytime
Punting breaks the rule of not having the ball and doing so when not trying to score a touchdown. Alabama can score from anywhere, so field position isn’t a huge priority; having the ball is. Obviously, there will be situations where you can’t light your defense on fire, but really, really try not to punt.
Turn Kyle Hamilton Loose
There aren’t too many guys on Notre Dame’s team who would start for Alabama. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is one, and Kyle Hamilton is another. Hamilton has been used in a role not too dissimilar to how Jaylon Smith was used in 2015, as the cleanup hitter. Despite missing the equivalent of two games due to injury, and another half due to targeting, Hamilton leads the team in tackles. Some of his best plays this season have been touchdown saving tackles in the open field. He’s good at everything, so he’s made an impact playing this way, but against Alabama, he needs to be free to make more plays.
Mac Jones called him similar to Ed Reed in his media availability, saying he needed to know where he was at all times. The thing about Ed Reed was he was given such freedom to move where he thought the ball was going. The quarterback didn’t know where Reed would be because Reed didn’t know where he was going and until he went there. Hamilton needs to be equally mysterious. It’s a significant role and a big ask, but he needs to be given a chance to be more of a playmaker on defense.
Much like possession is all that matters on offense, stops are the name of the game on defense; however, they come about. Given Alabama’s proclivity for scoring, Notre Dame will have to turn them over, and Hamilton gives them their best shot to do that. He can’t be simply one on one with a tight end or playing a half of the field. He has to be everywhere.
To do this, I’d take the Buck off the field, move JOK more inside, and play Kyle as that third linebacker, although his role would be nothing like a linebacker, and go four across in the secondary. Keep everything in front, invite Jones to throw short, where Hamilton and JOK are roaming, and hang in there with the running game. They’ll likely get run on a fair bit, but then that keeps the challenge at just trying to reign in Najee Harris and primarily as a runner. I know it’s a strange thing to invite the run against an excellent team at running, but this isn’t a typical game, and these aren’t normal times. Notre Dame has to change their mindset to compete here, in more ways than one.