Theo Riddick

What went wrong for Notre Dame in its loss to Alabama?

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The only questions Alabama players and coaches will answer following another BCS championship game victory will be 1) who will be going pro (see what we did there? That’s a Nick Saban joke.) and 2) how do they feel about the term “dynasty?”

The questions Notre Dame must answer are more difficult and unwelcome.

Though ranked No. 2 in the country entering tonight’s game, the Tide was a 10-point favorite over the Irish, so the general storylines were more closely geared toward what Brian Kelly‘s program needed to do to win its first national title in over 20 years.

It started up front along the offensive and defensive lines. The trenches. Alabama’s O-line is anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones and has paved the way for one of the best rushing attacks in the nation while keeping the jersey of its quarterback, A.J. McCarron, clean. McCarron had just three interceptions on the season, a compliment not only to his decision-making, but the time he was given to make those decisions.

Notre Dame’s front seven needed to be able to disrupt Alabama’s run-first game plan without the help of an additional body in the box. Instead, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon ran for most of the Tide’s 265 yards on the ground. When Notre Dame was able to get penetration up front, missed tackles and bad angles allowed Lacy and Yeldon to use their athleticism to get past the initial rush. For McCarron? He went 20-of-28 for 264 yards and four touchdowns. It wasn’t exactly chaos in Alabama’s backfield.

With little pressure up front, Notre Dame’s linebacker unit and secondary got torched in one-on-one matchups with Alabama’s skill players. Linebacker Manti Te’0 wasn’t the only Irish defender getting embarrassed, but considering his postseason accolades and role on the team, he was getting the most negative attention. Tape from the 2012 season shows that Te’o had only two missed tackles all year. He might have had two in one quarter tonight.

It was undisciplined defense all around and Alabama was so balanced and multiple on offense that it didn’t seem fair.

And Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t shown the quick-strike ability consistently to mount a comeback even if the defense stiffened up. The Irish have been flighty on that side of the ball all season as Everett Golson kept developing at quarterback and there were times when Tommy Rees had to step in to keep things going. But when Notre Dame clicked on offense, namely against Oklahoma and Miami, it has the playmakers in Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones to put up a lot of points.

Notre Dame had to have an offensive performance similar to the one it had in October against the Sooners. That didn’t happen either. Alabama’s defense under coordinator Kirby Smart did a nice job of disrupting Golson all night. There was no tempo, no rhythm for Kelly’s team.

Plus, the Irish probably needed either a big mistake from Alabama or an exceptional special teams play — something to swing field position or momentum for a quick and easy score. Not only was Notre Dame not able to take advantage of any mistakes, but it didn’t benefit from early judgement calls from the officials either (the Eifert catch out-of-bounds and Christion Jones muffed punt come to mind). With injuries to Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore along the D-line, the Irish couldn’t even catch a break on the injury front. Meanwhile, Barrett Jones played the entire game with a Lisfranc injury and never left the field.

That kind of night. Nothing went right for the Irish. Yes, Alabama was clearly the better team, but the Tide was also far more prepared and executed its game plan perfectly.

Now, it’ll be a long eight months as Kelly and his coaching staff look for some answers.

Notre Dame kicks its way to the BCS national championship

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Probably. But only because we’re still technically required to include that word.

The newest official BCS standings come out tomorrow evening, and the top-ranked Irish do not play next week. Still, it’s impossible to think that Notre Dame won’t be No. 1 when the final BCS rankings come out early next month. Why? Because top-ranked Notre Dame did what it was asked to do: win every game on its 2012 schedule, including Saturday night’s 22-13 victory over rival USC.

Running back Theo Riddick was the game’s MVP with 146 yards and a touchdown. When the Irish needed yards, Brian Kelly went to Riddick. When the Irish needed touchdowns, Kelly… did not go to Riddick. At least not on a drive that could have officially iced the game.  Facing a 1st-and-goal at the USC 9-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Kelly elected to go to an empty set and put the ball in quarterback Everett Golson‘s hands after Riddick and Cierre Wood had rushed for 47 combined yards on just four plays earlier.

And, like four other times previously, the Irish had to settle for a Kyle Brindza field goal.

But that’s been Notre Dame’s formula all year — although not always on purpose. The Irish offense has shown big-play ability at times this season, but tying it all together for an entire game, let alone an entire season, has been a chore for the offensive-minded Kelly. So Notre Dame has relied on its defense. At no time was that more necessary than USC’s second-to-last offensive possession. Trojans backup quarterback Max Wittek finally connected with Marqise Lee (after trying all game) for a 53-yard gain down to the Notre Dame 2-yard line. The pass was perfectly defended; it was simply a better pitch and catch by Wittek and Lee. But then, Notre Dame’s defense bowed up and held the Trojans on a goal line stand when Wittek’s play-action pass went through the hands of fullback Soma Vainuku.

Why Lane Kiffin, still needing two scores to win, didn’t opt for the field goal is perplexing. Then again, much of why the Trojans, the preseason No. 1 team, sit unranked at 7-5 is difficult to comprehend. Will Kiffin lose his job because Pat Haden is racking his brain for answers? That too is hard to tell.

Likewise, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who had the foresight to predict that Notre Dame would be in this position three months ago. The Irish became the first team to go from unranked in the preseason AP poll to reaching BCS championship game in the same season.

Not that there haven’t been doubters along the way. When college football was still working with three to four undefeated teams, it was Notre Dame — not Alabama, Kansas State or Oregon — expected to be on the outside looking in once the final BCS standings were revealed. But, because college football is a tricky siren luring all us sailors to our inevitable and often gruesome demise, it was only Notre Dame that evaded the 2012 season unscathed.

It wasn’t sexy, and like all teams, Notre Dame needed some good fortune along the way. But this team got the job done when it mattered.

For that, no matter how you think the Irish stack up against other competition, Notre Dame has rightfully earned a spot in the BCS championship game. Notre Dame will play the champion of the SEC, winners of six straight national titles, too. What better way to prove yourself than to knock off the champs?

Remember the annoying “S-E-C!” chants raining down from inside JerryWorld when Alabama defeated Michigan at the beginning of the season? Notre Dame — hated Notre Dame, for all the preferential treatment it receives in college athletics — has the opportunity to silence them.

Wait for it: Notre Dame might actually be the lesser of the two evils here, especially if its championship opponent is Alabama. We’ll give you a minute to keep your head from exploding.

The ratings of an Alabama-Notre Dame BCS championship would be through the roof. Viewers by the masses would tune in for support, hate, curiosity and a stew of other (and possibly subconscious) reasons. Why? Because love ’em or hate ’em, Notre Dame matters, and its success (or failure) is going to be magnified.

But for now — finally — the Irish have the product on the field to back it up.

Notre Dame rallies, then holds on against BYU

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Saturday’s game against BYU was considered a trap game for No. 5 Notre Dame with a trip to Oklahoma coming up next week. Indeed, the Irish nearly fell victim to an upset that would have inflicted a blow to their BCS championship hopes.

But a George Atkinson touchdown run early in the fourth quarter gave Notre Dame a 17-14 lead. That’s where the score would stay until the end of the game. It wasn’t sexy, but Notre Dame is still undefeated.

Last year’s starter at quarterback, Tommy Rees, started over Everett Golson (concussion) and had a modest 7-of-16 day for 117 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Notre Dame relied heavily on the run, keeping it on the ground 43 times for 270 yards. Both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood went over the 100-yard mark.

Next week’s game in Norman will be the Irish’s toughest test of the season and this offense has struggled the past couple of weeks. Once again, the Notre Dame D may be called upon again to win in a low-scoring game.