Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin was asked this week to give an idea of what the action in Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game might look like if fans could watch from the sidelines.
“You’ll see a bunch of big guys running into each other, a bunch of hits, probably some trash talking, hands going into each other’s faces,” said Martin, a 6-4, 304-pound senior from Indianapolis and one of four captains for the Irish. “It’s going to be a very physical game. That’s what we’ve prepared for the last 40 days. So has Alabama.”
Physical. Brutal. Bloody.
Those are words players and coaches have used to describe the battle they expect to be in when two of college football’s most tradition-rich programs — and nastiest defenses — collide at Sun Life Stadium.
There will be plenty of references to Touchdown Jesus, the great Bear Bryant, Rudy, Forrest Gump and the 25 combined national championships (Alabama claims 14, Notre Dame 11) the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish lay claim to.
But shortly after the 8:30 p.m. kickoff, all of that will take a backseat to the meaty forearms of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, the big hands of Tide center Barrett Jones, and the offense that can find a way to put up points.
Top-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) has the No. 1 scoring defense and fourth-ranked rushing defense. The Irish have surrendered two rushing touchdowns this season.
No. 2-ranked Alabama (12-1) has the top run defense. It ranks second in scoring defense.
For years, those defensive credentials have been expected of Southeastern Conference schools, who have won six national titles in a row. It appears the Irish have brought a defense that can match up well.
“To be honest, I don’t think the SEC had a defense this season comparable to Notre Dame’s,” said ESPN analyst and former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard. “A combination like [6-3, 326-pound nose guard] Louis Nix, [6-6 303-pound end Stephon] Tuitt and Te’o [a 6-2, 255-pound inside linebacker] roaming the middle? No SEC team has that. This is going to be the biggest challenge Alabama’s offense has faced all year — including the SEC Championship Game with Georgia.”
Bama, in search of its third national championship in four years and another chunk of college football history, does have a better offensive résumé.
Quarterback AJ McCarron (26 TDs, three INTs) was the nation’s most efficient passer. Junior Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon formed the first 1,000-yard rushing tandem in team history.
Freshman receiver Amari Cooper, who was at Miami Northwestern a year ago, proved in the SEC title game he is a legitimate deep threat. And three mammoth All-Americans — Barrett (6-5, 302), left guard Chase Warmack (6-3, 320) and right tackle DJ Fluker (6-6, 335) — anchor the Tide’s downhill, smash-mouth attack.
“I think that’s the most interesting thing about this game — the way Notre Dame will cope with that,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said of Bama’s offensive line.
“Notre Dame is a team that has two high safeties every game to protect their secondary. They give up yards, but when they get in the red zone they get extremely stingy. Alabama can knock you out of a two-safety-high look because they are not afraid to hammer the football,” he said. “It’s not the first quarter, it’s not the second quarter, it’s those body blows that keep hitting you in the gut. How many times do the Irish keep answering the bell? This game is going to be decided [by whether] Notre Dame can continue to do what they’ve done in the red zone and keep Alabama from scoring sevens.”
The Irish, led by elusive sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, has a trio of talented running backs who help coach Brian Kelly play a similar style of ball-control football. The X-factors for the Irish: versatile senior Theo Reddick, who lines up all over the field, and 6-6, 251-pound tight end Tyler Eifert.
“Alabama is not what it was when it comes to having guys that do everything,” said Pollock, referring to how the Tide lost five defensive starters to last year’s NFL Draft — including four among the first 35 picks. “They’ve got more guys like [linebacker] Nico Johnson, who plays the run and is physical and [linebacker] CJ Mosley, who is a pass guy. When you’ve got guys like that can play tight end, running back, advantage Notre Dame because they get to use them as chess pieces, put them where they want to put them, motion them and find creative ways to get them the football.
“Alabama is the best in the country at finding out what you do best and taking it away,” he said. “But they’re scripted, they’re like robots. You take that away and make it unscripted, you make it backyard ball, and there is no right answer. It’s just Johnny Manziel running around making plays. It’s hard to defend. Corralling Golson’s feet is going to be huge in this ballgame for Alabama.”
The Tide, tabbed as a 10-point favorite, has followed coach Nick Saban’s orders all season and stayed away from the dynasty talk. With Saban it’s always about “the process,” the next step in their journey.
Winning Monday, though, would make Alabama the first team since Nebraska (1994-97) to win three titles in four seasons and equal the 49 wins the Huskers compiled over that stretch.
“It would mean a lot to win back to back,” Bama cornerback Dee Milliner said. “But when you get hooked up in a repeat, you forget your train of thought.”
Notre Dame, in search of its first national title since 1988, has no problem playing the underdog role.
The Fighting Irish have done it all season, starting the year outside The Associated Press poll’s Top 25 rankings and climbing week to week. The venture started in Dublin versus Navy and continued with wins over Oklahoma, USC, Stanford and a triple-overtime thriller over Pittsburgh.
“People always say that in order to be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Notre Dame receiver T.J. Jones said. “So, if we want to be the No. 1 team in the nation and go undefeated, we have to beat an Alabama caliber team.”