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Head-to-head: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Observer Sports Writers | Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Junior signal-caller A.J. McCarron has been stellar in his second season as a starter after leading Alabama to a title in his first year at the helm. McCarron is the nation’s most efficient passer with a passer efficiency rating of 173. He has enjoyed the  protection of the country’s best offensive line, including Outland Trophy finalist Barrett Jones at center and top tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio. At wide receiver, freshman All-American Amari Cooper has torched defenses on passes down the field and in the flat. Cooper leads Alabama with 895 yards receiving and nine touchdowns through the air. Beyond Cooper, no Crimson Tide player has emerged as an elite receiving threat. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are threats to catch the ball out of the backfield and make people miss on screen plays. Without an elite passcatching option behind Cooper, the Irish secondary will key in and try to force turnovers. Though the young group in the Notre Dame secondary was scrutinized heading into the season, they performed well against more prolific passing games than the one Alabama will bring to Sun Life Stadium.

The recent Alabama national championships have been built around a strong running game. 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram and All-American back Trent Richardson powered wins in the 2010 and 2012 incarnations of the BCS National Championship Game. This year’s version of the Crimson Tide was expected to take a step back in the rushing department after Richardson departed to the NFL. Junior Eddie Lacy has taken the mantle as Alabama’s rushing threat and established a physical presence in the Crimson Tide backfield. Lacy totaled 1182 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground and rose to the occasion against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Lacy gashed the physical Bulldog defense for 181 yards behind a physical offensive line. Lacy’s ascension has been boosted by the impressive freshman-year performance of T.J. Yeldon in the backfield. Yeldon added 1,000 yards of his own on 30 fewer carries throughout the season and scored Alabama’s game-winning touchdown against LSU on the road.  Notre Dame brings its own stout defense in the run game to clash with Lacy, Yeldon and the Crimson Tide offensive line. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix and linebacker Manti Te’o form the foundation of the nation’s best scoring defense. Notre Dame has been particularly strong in run defense, holding Oklahoma to an impossibly-low 15 rushing yards and limiting high-profile Big Ten rushers in Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell.

Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has adjusted nicely to play-calling in his first season at the position. He has been interviewed for head coaching positions as a result of his success. But he faces a true chess match with the man recently named the best assistant coach in the country – Bob Diaco. Diaco has shown the ability to scheme against great offenses all season, bottling up USC, Michigan and Oklahoma.

Alabama employs a unique, two-kicker system to kick field goals. Short field goal kicker Jeremy Shelley is nearly automatic and has not missed on the season. Long field goal kicker Cade Foster is only 4-of-9 on the season but has a big leg. Christion Jones has a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and averages 30 yards per kickoff return.

Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson has guided the Irish to an undefeated record by tossing for 2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. But now, the first-year starter will face his toughest test yet in Alabama’s top-ranked defense.

The Crimson Tide bring in the nation’s No. 6 pass defense, giving up just 166.2 yards per game through the air. Senior safety Robert Lester and sophomore safety HaHa Clinton-Dix lead Alabama with four interceptions apiece. The Crimson Tide have 17 as a team and have held four opponents (Arkansas, Florida Atlantic, Western Carolina and Auburn) to less than 100 yards passing.

Sophomore linebacker Adrian Hubbard leads Alabama with six sacks on the season from his outside rushing position. The Crimson Tide have five players with more than three sacks each and have totaled 33 on the season, good for 26th in the NCAA.

The Irish, meanwhile, boast a bevy of capable receivers, with senior tight end Tyler Eifert leading the way. The Mackey Award winner tallied 44 catches for 624 yards and four touchdowns. Of Eifert’s 44 receptions, 33 have been good for either a first down or a touchdown. That figure is second to only junior receiver T.J. Jones’ 35. Eifert and Jones help make up a group of five Irish receivers with more than 20 catches.

While most people are looking at this matchup on the other side of the ball, the Irish may be able to control the time of possession by owning the ground game. Notre Dame has evolved over coach Brian Kelly’s tenure from an air-it-out spread team to a grind-it-out power squad.

Senior running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have combined for 1,620 yards and nine touchdowns and have carried the load for an Irish rushing attack that averages 202.5 yards per game. Sophomore running back George Atkinson has averaged 7.1 yards per carry while scoring five touchdowns and Golson has also chipped in on the ground. He has 305 yards and five touchdowns.

Alabama, meanwhile, brings in the No. 4 rushing defense in the country, yielding just 92.4 yards per game. BYU leads the country in that statistic (84.2 yards per game) and the Irish torched the Cougars for 270 yards on 43 carries in a 17-14 Notre Dame win.

The Crimson Tide have allowed an opponent to top 100 yards only three times out of 13, including holding Missouri to three rushing yards. In their 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide gave up 165 rushing yards on 46 attempts.

Junior linebacker C.J. Mosley leads the Alabama defense with 99 tackles, including seven for loss and four sacks. The Crimson Tide boast five players with more than 50 tackles this season.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has been an integral part to Nick Saban’s national championship runs in both 2011 and 2009. Smart, along with Notre Dame’s Bob Diaco, figures to get his shot at running a marquee program very soon. Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly have done a good job this year but are not up to Smart’s level.

Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza is tied for third in the country in field goals per game, which is more a knock on the Irish offense than a plus for Brindza. The Irish average 2.4 yards per punt return and 20.0 yards per kick return. Those figures are 115th and 84th in the nation, respectively. Senior Ben Turk averages 40.6 yards per punt.