What Is Notre Dame's Path To Beating Alabama?

Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Listen: Notre Dame is in the playoff. It happened. Move on.

The discussion for the fourth team in the College Football Playoff was a debate of the least of evils, and Notre Dame won the debate. Fresh off a loss to the Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson Tigers in which they were never even competitive, the Fighting Irish feel like a poser among the top echelon of college teams—and they probably are.

But what if they’re not?

They are. But if Notre Dame is to even hang with the big dogs when they play Alabama in the Rose Bowl on Friday—the 20-point spread in favor of Alabama is the biggest spread in CFP history—they will need to adhere to the model they followed in their first game against Clemson. You know: the game they won.

That was a 47-40 double-overtime thriller in which Clemson’s roster was hampered by the absence of Tyler Davis, James Skalski, Mike Jones, and a little-known quarterback named Trevor Lawrence. Clemson started freshman 5-star freshman DJ Uiagalelei at quarterback, and with his Cam Newton-esque size and quickness, the concern was that he and star running back Travis Etienne would keep the ball on the ground, shorten the game, and win in short-yardage situations. 

That did not happen. In fact, Clemson had their offensive success through the air, as Uiagalelei delivered a 66% completion percentage and 10 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions. If Clemson had that game back, they’d likely turn to a pass-heavy script earlier, as 18 Etienne carries only produced 28 yards, and 13 Uiagalelei carries produced two total yards. Not great!

The battle on the ground was won, as always, in the trenches. Entering that game, Notre Dame’s defensive line was dominant: they were ranked second in Stuff Rate and 10th in Line Yards. A few weeks later, and they’re still there: Notre Dame is first in Stuff Rate and seventh in Line Yards. After that Clemson battle, they faced the best running back duo in the nation in North Carolina’s Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and held them to 85 yards on 19 carries—their worst combined performance on the season.

The size and versatility on the Notre Dame defensive line is its strength. Notre Dame dominates between the tackle box with heavy-handed gap controllers in Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, and long and stout EDGEs in Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji hold strong edges to prevent opponents from escaping the box. All four of those players are potential NFLers, though only perhaps Senior Bowler Ogundeji has a chance to be even a Day 2 pick.

They aren’t high-value draft prospects because none are elite pass rushers, but they are all stout, strong, and movable: Hayes and Ogundeji both line up as wide rushers at 270 pounds; Tagovailoa-Amosa lines up at 3-tech at 285; Hinish at the nose at 295. But when defensive coordinator Clark Lea starts spinning safeties and dropping ends and crashing linebackers in his chaotic and aggressive approach to defending spread offenses, those four down linemen have to leap from gap to gap and control ground to keep linebackers clean. It takes play strength and high-quality technique, and Notre Dame’s defensive line has that in spades.

Of course, Notre Dame didn’t have nearly the success defending the run against Clemson the second go around. With Lawrence back under center, Notre Dame couldn’t add extra bodies to the box as easily—otherwise, Lawrence would dice them up with deep passes—and Clemson used speed option and windback runs to get outside of the tackle box and avoid Notre Dame’s blitzing second-level defenders. Etienne ripped off a 44-yard touchdown run on a 4th-and-1 sellout blitz to end the first half, and after that, the deficit was 17 points—too much for Notre Dame to account for.

If Notre Dame has a prayer against Alabama, they need their strength to dominate again. Alabama and quarterback Mac Jones have the most prolific deep passing game in the country, and hanging out in single-high won’t fly even with an impact defender like Kyle Hamilton in centerfield. Notre Dame must, and will, dedicate resources to stopping the passing game, to take away the early-down throw and force Alabama into 3rd-and-longs—something they’ve rarely seen this year.

When the early-down run comes, then, Notre Dame’s defensive line against Alabama’s offensive line will decide the game. Future NFLers in Alex Leatherwood and Deonte Brown await the Irish, as well as an underclassman stud tackle in Evan Neal. But last week’s injury to Landon Dickerson puts an experienced backup at the pivot in Chris Owens. That will be the weak point in the Alabama line, and the Irish will rely on Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish to dominate that battle and create backfield penetration.

You can’t really stop Alabama from scoring a ton of points, so a three-point effort from the offense—like the one Notre Dame got against Clemson last week—won’t get the job done under any circumstances. But you can move the ball more easily on the Tide than on the Tigers—you just need extra possessions, shorter fields, and a manageable score deficit to keep your effective rushing attack at the forefront of your offensive game plan. 

Without a rushing threat at quarterback in Jones, the Irish can go light in the box, discourage the early-down pass, and fight a battle with Najee Harris between the tackles. It’s not an exciting prospect—Harris is a good football player—but it is a workable one relative to the alternative of getting repeatedly torched by DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III down the field. Notre Dame’s path to victory lies in a dominant performance from an NFL-bound front four, a heroic effort from Ian Book, and a whole lotta luck.