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Football: Top ND defense prepares for Bama offense

By Andrew Gastelum | Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series previewing the matchup between Notre Dame and Alabama on Jan. 7 in the BCS National Championship Game.

For Notre Dame to return to the national stage, Irish coach Brian Kelly said his defense would be the key factor. Three seasons after Kelly’s hiring, on the biggest stage of them all, No. 1 Notre Dame will face the very team on which it modeled its defensive blueprint.

“To move Notre Dame back into national prominence, we had to begin with our defense,” Kelly said. “Our focus in recruiting and developing our talent and recruiting in particular and getting the right staff was on the defensive side of the ball. You look to the SEC and the teams that were playing for national championships and obviously Alabama leading that charge was built on defense.”

Notre Dame (12-0) will come into the BCS National Championship Game with the top scoring defense in the country, allowing only 10.3 points per game. The Irish gave up more than 20 points only once this season, a 29-26 triple-overtime win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. As recognition for his unit’s success, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco won the Broyles Award on Tuesday, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.

“Defensively, they have maybe the best front seven in the country and statistically they’re in the top-10 in just about every defensive category,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It’s just an all-around good football team with tremendous balance on offense and a very physical defense.”

On the offensive end No. 2 Alabama (12-1) follows the lead of junior quarterback A.J. McCarron, who has thrown for 2,669 yards and 26 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Last season, McCarron helped the Crimson Tide to a national title with a 21-0 win over LSU while earning Offensive MVP honors for his 234-yard performance on 23-for-34 passing.

“I think what makes them very difficult is they have a great playmaker on the perimeter as well where you can throw it down the field,” Kelly said. “I think everyone’s talked about their great offensive line, but I think the backs are physical. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our football team and it’s constructed the right way.”

But with two 1,000-yard rushers in physical running backs junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon, Alabama undoubtedly poses the biggest rushing threat Notre Dame’s fourth-ranked defense has seen this season.

“The offensive line is huge and they’re really good,” Irish graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “One thing that really stood out to me was the way the running backs ran. They’re physical guys, Lacy and Yeldon. Those guys are really hard to take down. We’re going to have to wrap up in the game. We have to be prepared for their tough running.”

Lewis-Moore found comparisons between Alabama’s physical rushing attack and that of Stanford’s – the Cardinal rushed for 147 yards in a 20-13 overtime loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 13.

“I think they’re a lot similar to Stanford, playing [senior running back] Stepfan Taylor,” Lewis-Moore said. “He’s a real physical back, he’s always moving forward. [The Crimson Tide] have a lot of similar running styles, I think.”

Lacy (1,182 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns) and Yeldon (1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns) combined for 350 rushing yards in Alabama’s 32-28 win over then-No. 3 Georgia in Saturday’s SEC championship. Of the 350 rushing yards, 304 came in between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“It’s going to be a physical run game,” Irish senior safety Zeke Motta said. “You watch them on film and think we stand up against these guys just fine. I’m not worried about that.

“You’ve got to [like the challenge]. You’ve got to embrace the challenge and use that to help you prepare.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu