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Book, Irish fall short in CFP yet again

| Saturday, January 2, 2021

In recent years, Texas has not been a good place for Notre Dame football.

On a gloomy, overcast day in Arlington, the atmosphere inside AT&T Stadium was just as bleak as that outside of it, with No. 4 Notre Dame struggling from the opening kickoff in a 31-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl. Entering the game as the biggest underdog in CFP history, the Irish had no answer for the All-American riddled Crimson Tide, which was led by the dynamic offensive duo of quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith.

It was a day of missed opportunities for the Irish, who found themselves unable to gather momentum despite remaining within striking distance of the Tide for the better part of the first half. Between a missed field goal from Jon Doerer, an inability to convert after forcing Alabama punts, a called back Michael Mayer touchdown and an Ian Book interception, Notre Dame was out of the game before they were ever in it.

“We battled. I thought we did some of the things that we wanted to today, but we simply didn’t make enough plays,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We did not score in the red zone when we had opportunities. We moved the ball into the red zone. We missed a field goal. We had two opportunities in the red zone to score, where this would be a competitive football game. And we didn’t make enough plays.”

Alabama’s Jones was 25/30 (83%) for 297 yards and four touchdowns, but the Heisman finalist wasn’t even the star of the show — that title belonged to Smith, AP’s College Football Player of the Year, the first receiver to ever earn the award. Smith’s three touchdown receptions tied a Rose Bowl record, and with his seven catches for 130 yards, he all but cemented his status as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner.

For the Irish, Ian Book cobbled together 229 yards behind 27/39 (69%) passing, throwing a pick and no touchdown passes. He rushed for 55 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, but it wasn’t enough from the winningest play-caller in Notre Dame history.

“They just made more plays than we did tonight,” Book said. “And we talked about that all week. We were going to try to win the time of possession and then when it’s time to make a big play, make a big play. And they made more big plays. That’s why they came out victorious tonight.”

First-year back Kyren Williams was the leading ball carrier for the Irish, getting 64 yards and a score on 16 runs.

“I feel like this offense has the exact same firepower as the team we just played,” Williams said. “Like Ian said, they just made more plays than we did. So I feel like with this work we can only get better and improve.”

After winning the toss, Kelly elected to receive the ball to start the game. Instead of creating momentum with the opening drive, the Irish fumbled and recovered the kickoff reception, scraping together enough yards for a single first down before punting it away five plays and less than two and a half minutes later.

Once it was Alabama ball, the Tide wasted no time. Mac Jones strung together three straight completions for three straight first downs, Najee Harris showed off his speed to move the chains again, and DeVonta Smith caught a 26-yard pass to give Alabama a 7-0 lead. Though Notre Dame managed to avoid a three-and-out on the next possession, it was another short-lived drive, with the Irish punting again after six plays and 3:44 minutes.

When the Tide got it back, Jones and Harris stole the show once more in another scoring drive — this one highlighted by a 53-yard carry by Harris, who, to extend a mid-drive run, hurdled a standing Irish cornerback Nick McCloud. Jones got the score when he lofted a 12-yarder to tight end Jahleel Billingsley, and five plays, 97 yards and 2:11 later, scoreboard at 14-0, Notre Dame got the ball back with just about four minutes left in the first.

The next Irish possession ran through the end of the first and into the start of the second, 18 plays and 8:03 minutes long in the second-longest drive in Rose Bowl history. The drive was carried by the one-two running back punch of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, who, between the two of them, converted for all of the drive’s four first-downs. It was Williams who finally pushed the rock into the end zone, bullying his way in on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line to put the Irish on the board for the first time, 7-14.

Alabama answered quickly, taking just six plays and 2:21 minutes to march 84 yards. This time it was Smith, and the receiver showed off his speed as he ambled into the corner of the end zone on a 34-yard reception, extending the lead to two touchdowns again, 21-7, with 8:49 remaining in the quarter. The Irish got it back but punted, and the Tide did the same, and Notre Dame seemed to have a golden opportunity before halftime to close the gap again.

Book took control of the drive with a pair of keeps and completions, moving the chains to midfield, but senior kicker Jon Doerer shorted a 51-yard attempt badly, and the Irish trotted into the locker room on the wrong side of a 21-7 score.

“I don’t think we executed well in those first few drives, and we just had to settle down,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “Coach Lea always preaches to us to start fast. When you don’t do that, you see what happens. So I don’t think it was us being timid or shy or anything, but just the deal where we didn’t execute to the fullest of our ability.”

The Tide got the ball to open up the second half, but Notre Dame came up with a huge stop on third down to force another punt. The next possession seemed to be yet another chance for the Irish to get back into the game, but Book’s leading pass to first-year tight end Michael Mayer led by a few yards too many, and the ball landed in the hands of Alabama linebacker Christian Harris instead.

“Ian got flushed out of the pocket,” Kelly said of the play. “He just needed to put a little bit more on that, kind of floated it a little bit. I think if he had another shot at that … that would have been a fastball instead of a level two with some touch to it.”

Back on offense behind the interception, and led by Jones’ 87% completion rate, the Tide marched it down yet again, as Smith, on tiptoes in the end zone, caught a 7-yard pass for another score. At 28-7, Notre Dame couldn’t make anything happen the rest of the third quarter.

In the fourth, Alabama struck again with a 41-yard field goal to make it 31-7. When Notre Dame got the ball back Book found Michael Mayer in the end zone, but the score was called back for an illegal shift penalty; unable to make a play again after the flag, the drive instead ended with a turnover on downs.

The Irish forced a Tide punt on the next possession and worked it down the field again, and this time they made it count as Book ran it in for a yard to make it 31-14 with less than a minute left in the game. Notre Dame attempted and recovered an onside kick on the next play, refusing to go down without a fight, but it was too little, too late for the Irish; the game — and season — ended there.

“It’s tough. It’s pretty hard to explain,” Book said. “It fell short. Our goal was to win a National Championship and we didn’t do that. So some of, a lot of us, [Robert Hainsey] and I, we’re done. It’s up to these guys now. But I trust them and I plan on them being back here, and I’ll be watching.”

Cemented in the record book as the winningest quarterback in school history, Book did what he could for the Irish, but against two Heisman finalists and six first-team All-Americans, it simply wasn’t enough.

Both teams had 24 first downs on the day. Alabama recorded more yards of total offense (437 to Notre Dame’s 375), winning the battle both on the ground and through the air. The Tide also had fewer turnovers (0 vs. 1), but it was the Irish who controlled the clock, 33:43 to 26:17. Regardless, with the outcome, Notre Dame’s season concludes, while Alabama advances to vie for the national title against The Ohio State Buckeyes.

Despite the loss, Kelly expressed his optimism about the season and what it means for his program.

“Great year,” he said. “It’s not where we wanted it. We wanted to win a National Championship. But Notre Dame Nation, you guys can get some sleep, recharge your battery. And we’re going to get ourselves back in this position again. So you don’t need to jump off a bridge, a building. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to rededicate ourselves in the offseason, back in the weight room. And we hope to get right back here in Dallas next year.”

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