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Gameday Analysis: Notre Dame-Alabama

Observer Sports Writers | Monday, January 7, 2013

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The BCS National Championship Game is finally here. With kickoff just hours away, see what The Observer’s beat writers think will be the keys to tonight’s game.

Allan Joseph, Editor-in-Chief

Key player: It’s one of the most-talked about matchups of the game, but that’s for a reason. Junior nose guard Louis Nix will square off with Alabama graduate student center Barrett Jones. Two of the very best at their position will be going after it on nearly every snap to establish control of the center of the line. If Nix can gain the upper hand and force Alabama to double team him, Notre Dame’s defense will have a big day.

Key unit: The trio of Irish running backs (seniors Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson) will be the key to the Irish offense. If they can establish a running game early and also make Alabama’s life difficult by catching passes out of the backfield, the Crimson Tide defense will be playing on its heels all night long.

X factor: Junior linebacker Prince Shembo hasn’t seen much of the spotlight in the buildup to the game, but he could be the difference-maker. The outstanding pass rusher draws a lot of one-on-one blocking matchups because of the defensive line, but he’s tough to block, as he’s quicker than tight ends and linemen, but stronger than running backs. If Shembo has a big game, Notre Dame will be able to harass Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron with just a four-man pass rush – and might even pick up a few sacks in the process.

Final thought: This game is going to come down to the fourth quarter. Both coaching staffs know how to manage the game, and they’ll make the right calls late. That means it’ll come down to which players make the biggest plays – whether a tipped pass is incomplete or intercepted, whether a run on 3rd-and-2 moves the chains or whether a receiver can hold onto the ball down the sideline. The littlest things will matter for those biggest plays. And this will be a game for the ages.

Andrew Owens, Assistant Managing Editor

Key player: Irish receiver DaVaris Daniels, a little less than two months removed from surgery on a broken clavicle, is critical to Notre Dame’s offensive success tonight. You know what to expect out of T.J. Jones and Tyler Eifert, but Daniels can give the Irish the ability to spread the field a little more and assist sophomore quarterback Everett Golson.

Key unit: We’ve heard a lot about the matchup of Notre Dame’s defensive line and Alabama’s front seven, but I’m more interested in the Irish offensive line against the Crimson Tide defensive line. If Notre Dame is going to have a chance, it must protect Everett Golson and create holes for running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

X factor: Irish middle linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese’s production is very important to Notre Dame’s success, as they can bolster an already-impressive Irish front seven. If Louis Nix and Manti Te’o experience any struggles against the Crimson Tide front, the contributions of Fox and Calabrese could go a long way to securing an Irish victory.

Final thought: This is it. After 45 long days, it’s here. It all comes down to this. Both teams have prepared. Both teams are focused.  Both teams want it. Every championship marks a notch in history, but this one means even more. Either Notre Dame wins its most important championship in history to break a 24-year drought or Alabama’s run turns into a dynasty. We should be in for a classic.

Chris Allen, Sports Editor

Key player: There are so many players who need to play well in order for any team to bring home a crystal ball. Almost any way I break it down, this is going to be a close game decided by a few points. The most important player in the game, then, is Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza. Alabama’s main field goal kicker, Jeremy Shelley, had a shining performance in last year’s national championship. The stage is new to Brindza, and he will undoubtedly face a big kick at some point in the game. If he has a repeat of his good performance against USC, he will be a huge asset to the Notre Dame offense.

Key unit: Alabama’s freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper will put a stress on the Notre Dame secondary both in the flat and down the field. It will be up to the Irish cornerbacks to contain Cooper, and if they can, I suspect Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron will have a hard time moving the ball at times. Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell and nickel back Elijah Shumate have been stellar all season, and they can cap off their year by locking Cooper down.

X factor: There are truly no words to describe the oddity that was John Goodman’s final season for Notre Dame. The graduate student wide receiver fought through an injury-plagued year and only caught seven passes, yet he somehow amassed four highlight-reel catches among those and hauled in three touchdowns. The long layoff has been kind to Goodman. He’s healthy. He has a natural big-play instinct. I think he’s going to catch a touchdown tonight.

Final thought: Think back to pre-season. Did you think Notre Dame would be here? If you did, you are one of the few. For a team with so many questions to turn in a season like this has been unthinkable. Win or lose tonight, the 2012 Notre Dame season will be remembered a long time. If it is Notre Dame who raises the crystal ball, it will be remembered as long as football is played in South Bend.

Matthew DeFranks, Associate Sports Editor

Key player: I think we all realize both teams will try to pound the rock inside early, often and over again but it will be the team that can keep the opposing defense off-balance will have the most success. So in the most important game of the season, the most important player is Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. McCarron has been given the “game manager” tag but is more than capable of burning a team that stacks the box too heavily. Vertical bombs and completions on play-action passes can keep the top-ranked Irish defense guessing and give the Crimson Tide an edge. But it’s all up to McCarron.

Key unit: In a game like this one – close on paper and played between teams with similar styles – it will be the little things, like special teams, that stand out. So I’m going to go a little off the board here and say the field goal units will be the key ones. Everything else seems to stack up fairly evenly, so a late kick or a blocked extra point may just be the difference between a national championship and a No. 2 ranking. The snappers, holders and kickers need to all be in sync to be successful.

X factor: George Atkinson has earned a reputation as the big-play speed guy in the backfield for the Irish. Atkinson may not get the most carries in the world but he makes them all count with patient running, quick cuts, agile moves and breakaway speed. If Atkinson can come in and provide chunk plays while also giving Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood rests, it’s just another weapon for the inconsistent Irish offense.

Final thought: For the past month and a half, everyone from student journalists to radio talk show hosts and your roommate to your grandmother has been analyzing this game. What could happen? What might happen? What will happen? But honestly, no one knows. No one knows what is going to happen. They don’t know if Manti Te’o will leave his mark as the best linebacker ever at Notre Dame. They don’t know if the birth of a dynasty is apparent. They don’t even know who will receive the opening kickoff. But we do know that a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the two best college football programs can’t be a bad thing.

Andrew Gastelum, Associate Sports Editor

Key player: Everett Golson will undoubtedly be the key player in this contest. If he can keep the Alabama defense guessing and use his agility to make plays, Notre Dame will be successful. But if Golson reverts to his fumbling problems of the past and commits a few turnovers, it could turn out to come back and hurt the Irish. As the quarterback, he will have all eyes on him when he scores and when he makes mistakes. But in this game, Golson will become a legend.

Key unit: Notre Dame’s offensive line will directly determine the outcome of this game. Can the front five pave the way for a critical Irish rushing attack? If it can, the offensive line not only puts points up on the board but it steals time of possession from Alabama’s lethal rushing duo. The offensive line also must be able to give time and space for Everett Golson to make plays and convert on big third downs as well. The offensive line usually goes unnoticed but the result of this game will rest on its broad shoulders.

X factor: A major part of the Irish offense will revolve around Tyler Eifert, while Alabama will surely make defending him a priority. Eifert will be a big target on key third downs and the Irish need him in the passing game to move downfield. Meanwhile, Eifert’s biggest impact may come in establishing a running game with his blocking on the edge.

Final thought: Remember, Alabama throttled LSU in last year’s national championship. In fact, LSU didn’t even score a point. Many say that Alabama might come out overlooking Notre Dame  but I don’t buy it. Alabama has a chance to achieve a status that Nick Saban has cut out of the team’s dictionary this week: dynasty. For Notre Dame to win, I firmly believe the Irish will have to play nearly flawless – especially when they get into the red zone. Momentum is a key factor to college football, and right now, Notre Dame has none. It’s a one-game season now, and this one game will come down to a big play to swing the championship.