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Fighting the Tide

Chris Allen | Monday, December 3, 2012

All season long, No. 1 Notre Dame’s offense has gone up against the top-ranked scoring defense in the country, its own, in practice. On the precipice of a national title, the offensive unit will need to overcome the second-ranked scoring defense of No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

Despite only allowing 10.7 points per game this season, the Tide defense is widely regarded to have dropped off from the play of its unit in 2011. Alabama shut out LSU 21-0 in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, but lost highly-touted safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebackers Donta’ Hightower and Courtney Upshaw to the NFL. Alabama beat writer Chase Goodbread said the 2012 defense has not been quite as dominant as its predecessor.

“I don’t they’re as good a defense as they were a year ago. They’re not as good as last year,” said Goodbread, who covers the Tide for the Tuscaloosa News. “I think the strength is stopping the run, they were No. 1 in the country at stopping the run, but the passing defense isn’t what it was a year ago.”

Just as Notre Dame’s unit features a top-notch defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco, the Tide march to the beat of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Smart, who took home the 2009 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, is considered a leading candidate for many head coaching vacancies. This season Smart filled holes left by the departure of more than half of his 2011 starters and preserved the Tide’s defensive identity.

“Kirby Smart does a great job, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it he’s going to be a head coach pretty soon,” Goodbread said. “It might be this winter depending on what kind of offers he gets. He’s done a good job year-to-year pretty much, no matter what he’s had to work with.”

The defensive unit also works under the tutelage of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who comes from a defensive background. Saban played defensive back for Kent State in the early 1970s and served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1994. Goodbread said Saban’s focus on the defensive backfield has helped first-team All-SEC junior cornerback Dee Milliner.

“[Saban works with the defense] every day,” Goodbread said. “Every practice, he’s there in the individual drills especially. He works exclusively with the secondary, you know he’s a former defensive back himself when he was a player and he spends a lot of time with the corners and safeties. He’s probably had more of an impact on [Milliner] and all the corners than just about anywhere else.”

Milliner, who played much of 2011 as a corner in nickel and dime packages, has emerged as a star on a defense that lost many stars coming into 2012. Goodbread said Milliner and junior linebacker C.J. Mosley will need to step up to stop Notre Dame in the national championship.

“Milliner has to have a good game for sure. He’s the best defensive back they’ve got,” Goodbread said. “[Junior linebacker] C.J. Mosley just got voted the MVP of the team by his teammates at the team banquet on Sunday night. He’s probably Alabama’s best overall defensive player, a good linebacker, was up for the Butkus Award.”

Against the nation’s top run defense, the Irish running back corps will face its biggest test of the season. Senior running back Theo Riddick, who led Notre Dame in rushing in 2012, said the Irish faced many tough defenses this year.

“I think we played a lot of good defenses. A lot of teams do a lot of different things so it’s kind of hard to pinpoint which defense is better than others,” Riddick said. “It all depends on the matchup. There’s too many teams.

“Stanford was really good. Pitt was really good. USC was really good. There were a lot of good defenses we faced this year.”

Riddick said the key to putting points on the board against the stellar Tide defense is protecting the football.

“[We have to] not turn the ball over,” he said. “With that great of team or any team actually, if you turn the ball over you lessen your chances to win.”

The Irish and Tide will clash with the national championship at stake on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Contact Chris Allen at [email protected]