I usually post this column either right after the game or the morning after. In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s 31-14 loss to Alabama, though, watching the second game with a few 12% abv bourbon barrel-aged stouts seemed like the better option. And yesterday, I just didn’t have it in me.
Notre Dame didn’t take nearly enough chances
In my preview, I wrote that Notre Dame needed to take more chances than they are comfortable with taking to have any hope of pulling off the upset. They didn’t do that. For the most part, Notre Dame ran its offense. That’s fine when you’re playing Pitt or Boston College, but not when you’re playing Alabama or Clemson.
Alabama was going to score points in this game no matter how good the Irish defense was, so the offense had to score points to keep pace. Ian Book rarely ever fired the ball downfield, even when he had one-on-one coverage.
They didn’t try to get any of their faster receivers involved at all. Lawrence Keys was targetted for the first time in the 4th quarter with the outcome long decided. Braden Lenzy didn’t touch the ball. When Notre Dame did run a jet sweep to a receiver, it was to Bennett Skowronek, who might be the slowest receiver on the roster.
Year one of Tommy Rees was mostly successful until the last two weeks when Rees looked overmatched against elite opponents. Rees and Kelly have to find ways to get this passing game jump-started in the offseason all while finding a new quarterback and rebuilding the offensive line.
The defense mainly did its job again.
While the offense was disappointingly predictable, the defense mainly did their job. Yeah, DeVonta Smith made highlight-reel plays, but the guy is a Heisman finalist and AP Player of the Year for a reason. He’s really damn good. Najee Harris posterized Nick McCloud, but Harris was just on the cusp of being a Heisman finalist as well.
Considering all of Alabama’s firepower, they scored 31 points, their lowest total of the year. Some will argue that Alabama let up, but they had their starters in until the end, and Nick Saban was getting sideline penalties for having a tantrum, so it’s not like Alabama was running backups out there.
Just like in the ACCCG, the defense did enough for Notre Dame to win. They didn’t force the turnovers that Notre Dame desperately needed, but overall the defense did enough to give Notre Dame a chance.
I knew it was over when that punt didn’t hit any Alabama player
Watching the game live, I knew we had no shot after that Jay Bramblett punted miraculously bounced through like four Alabama players without touching a single one of them. Are you kidding me? How does that happen? What kind of deal with the devil does Nick Saban have that even when they have so much more talent than an opponent, they also get the lucky bounces?
Notre Dame needed one or two bounces like that to go their way, and they didn’t. It’s incredible now how in 2012, 2018, and 2020, some weird kick/punt non-fumble play went against the Irish. It’s like fate is just taunting us Notre Dame fans in these big games. Like, hey, we know y’all need one of these to go your way, so we’re just going to keep giving you a play like this in each of these big games to torment you.
Notre Dame held up in the trenches, unlike 2012
The biggest positive for me in this game was Notre Dame’s performances in the trenches. In 2012, the game was over in pre-game warmups when Alabama looked like the varsity and Notre Dame the JV in warmups. That was not the case on Friday. Notre Dame’s offensive line held up against Alabama. Ian Book had time to pass – he didn’t always take advantage of it, but he had it. Kyren Williams had room to run and, for the most part, maximized his runs.
Defensively, even when the backup defensive line was in the game, they were getting a push. At one point, Notre Dame had Howard Cross and Rylie Mills in the game in crunch time, and they got a push. That is very encouraging for the future because it shows that while the Irish are lacking at some positions, they have their lines pretty well figured out.
Talent AND coaching are equally responsible for the outcome on Friday
Alabama has a lot more talent than Notre Dame. No one can argue that, and if they try, any other argument they make is invalidated. That said, talent was the only reason that Notre Dame lost the game. Talent is why Harris could jump over McCloud, and talent is why DeVonta Smith made all the plays he did. Talent isn’t, however, why Notre Dame didn’t take chances on offense. It isn’t why Notre Dame came out thinking they could just run their offense against Alabama and have a chance.
In watching the Sugar Bowl, you saw Ryan Day and Ohio State dial-up different wrinkles for Justin Fields to scheme up advantages for the Buckeye offense. And that is a Buckeye offense loaded with enough talent that they could have just tried to run their base offense.
The one play that summed how little gambling the Notre Dame offense was going to do was the 3rd and 7 quarterback sweep the Irish called in the first quarter near midfield. I still don’t know how you call that play without planning on going for it on 4th down.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but Notre Dame still has a lot of work left to win one of these games
In Brian Kelly’s spicy post-game press conference, which I loved, by the way, he said one thing that stuck with me. The problem he and Notre Dame is facing isn’t unique to Notre Dame. It’s the same problem all but like three programs in the country have right now. The gap between Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State, and everyone else right now is massive.
There are some things Notre Dame can do to close the gap and be more competitive in these games with their current roster, but they have to be willing to do some serious self-scouting this off-season. If Notre Dame looks at this game tape and says to itself, “you know what, we just need to keep on doing what we’re doing, and we’ll breakthrough,” the outcome the next time Notre Dame lines up against one of these behemoths, the result will be the same.
I’ll dive into some of this more in another article, but the most significant change Notre Dame needs to make is at receiver and quarterback. The talent is there. It just hasn’t always been utilized.
All this said Friday could have been worse, folks. Let’s reload and do this all over again in 2021.