Head-to-Head: Rose Bowl 2021
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, January 1, 2021
Notre Dame Passing
Notre Dame struggled to do anything offensively against Clemson. Graduate student quarterback Ian Book avoided mistakes but was sacked six times and didn’t do anything too much of note in a quiet 20-28 passing effort. The passing game has been the weak spot of the offense all year, but they do have an exploitable area in Alabama’s defense. The Tide struggled with guarding tight ends, and the Irish love to use theirs as weapons. However, Alabama’s playmaking secondary — led by freshman safety Malachi Moore, along with juniors Josh Jobe and likely top-10 draft pick Patrick Surtain II at cornerback — there’s too many matchup question marks for the Irish here.
Notre Dame Rushing
The ACC Championship game came down to one team over-performing expectations of their run game and the other vastly underperforming. Unfortunately for Irish fans, Notre Dame was the latter, rushing for a net 44 yards total (counting sacks) compared to their average of 217.6 yards per contest. While Alabama is in the same tier as Clemson in terms of talent, there’s no reason to believe that last week’s performance is a precedent for the Irish run game heading into the Rose Bowl. Furthermore, this Alabama defense has proven beatable this season. The Irish should take note of Ole Miss’ playbook, as the Running Rebs put up 647 yards and opened up deep ball passes by forcing the offensive line to sink in and address the run game. Luckily for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, he might have just the duo to replicate that in running backs sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Offensive Coaching
Weird to think this time a year ago it was announced that Chip Long and Notre Dame would be parting ways, leaving the door open for Tommy Rees, the then quarterbacks coach, to take over. While Notre Dame still boasts a deep roster of tight end and receiving options, this team has found its identity in the run game behind sophomore Kyren Williams. On the other hand, whereas Alabama is traditionally defined by its defensive front, this team is defined by its high-power offense and has shown moments of weakness in defending the run game. Rees and Book will need to produce more than the 10 points they put up against Clemson to keep up with Alabama’s offense, but the run game tips the scales in favor of the Irish.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams
Senior Jonathan Doerer may have doinked a 24-yard field goal off the right upright against Clemson in the ACC Championship, but right before that he nailed the longest field goal in ACC Championship game history from 51 yards. He’s not up to the level of consistency he displayed last season when he went 17-of-20 on kicks, but 15-22 isn’t anything to balk at, and he clearly has range. Notre Dame’s punt return game has been essentially nonexistent this season, but against an Alabama team that rarely punts, there’s a chance they could catch a break against a punter who has never had a chance to get himself into a lather.
EDGE: Notre Dame
In his first year as a starter, Mac Jones is a Heisman finalist and realistic contender. The junior leads the FBS with a 76% completion percentage and has just four interceptions against 32 touchdowns. With a quarterback rating of 95.5, he is the best signal caller in all of college football, but he may not even the best player on the Crimson Tide offense. Senior receiver Devonta Smith, a fellow Heisman contender and Las Vegas favorite to earn the trophy, has already been awarded AP College Football Player of the Year and SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors. He has 98 catches and 1,511 yards (768 yards after the catch) on the year — first in all three categories — and 17 touchdown receptions on the season. Notre Dame will meet Smith and Jones with two All-Americans of their own in senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (first team) and sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton (third team), but the Irish certainly have their work cut out for them in a team that features arguably college football’s two (and possibly three) best offensive players working in tandem.
Senior Najee Harris is a problem for opposing defenses, particularly on third down and in the red zone. He has 27 touchdowns on the year (24 rushing, three receiving) and holds the Alabama record for touchdowns in a career with 54 (44 rushing, 10 receiving). However, for all the hype, he’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry and is not particularly efficient on first or second down. Arguably, he’s the third-best running back Notre Dame has faced, behind Travis Etienne of Clemson and Javonte Williams of UNC. Alabama’s Mac Jones isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, which is the other area Notre Dame has struggled with containing, so this one feels like more of a push, given Notre Dame’s prowess in rush defense and Alabama’s ridiculous efficiency in short yardage situations.
Alabama Offensive Coaching
Steve Sarkisian is the next in a long line of heralded Nick Saban assistant coaches in Tuscaloosa. He’s gotten more experience than many as he became the interim head coach of Alabama when Saban tested positive for COVID-19 — for the second time, and in this instance showing symptoms — ahead of an Iron Bowl matchup with archrival Auburn. The Tide rolled the Tigers 42-13, FYI. Notre Dame has its own head coach in waiting in defensive coordinator Clark Lea, set to take over at Vanderbilt at the conclusion of the Irish season. If he wants to delay packing his bags and heading down to Nashville, he’ll have to call the game of his life against an offense boasting two All-American offensive linemen and three skill position players in the top five of the Heisman finalist voting. Lea is brilliant, but he has absolutely no room for error.
Alabama Offensive Special Teams
Frequently, this might not be a strength for Alabama, given its well-documented kicking issues in years past. But sophomore placekicker Will Reichard has been spectacular this season, going perfect on 73 PATs and 12 field goal attempts. With senior DeVonta Smith in the fold, the Tide’s return game is lethally explosive. Notre Dame has done well in kick coverage this year, but it’s hard to beat perfection, and that’s what Alabama’s offensive special teams feels like.