(MCT) — It was a Saturday in December, and the Notre Dame offense did not have a particularly sharp practice against the Notre Dame defense, which provided offensive coordinator Chuck Martin with a handy reminder.
“The message was ‘Listen, this is exactly how it’s going to be: If we don’t block any better or execute any better than we did today, then it’s going to be an awfully long Jan. 7,’ ” Martin said.
Every practice is a sneak preview for the Irish ground game of what awaits against Alabama in the BCS championship game. Notre Dame will attempt to run the ball, chew up clock and grind down the Crimson Tide defense, which ranked No. 1 in the country against the run, allowing 79.8 yards per game, and publicly admits it will gear itself to stifle the Irish rushing attack.
Notre Dame has been able to compile drawn-out, bruising drives almost on call, either demoralizing opponents or leaving them with little in the tank in the fourth quarter. No defense is better equipped to test that mettle than the Crimson Tide’s.
Notre Dame principals: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, LT Zack Martin, C Braxston Cave.
The numbers (880 yards, 4.9 per rush) don’t quite measure how Riddick developed into an irrepressible, powerful between-the-tackles runner. When the 5-foot-11 senior ran for 146 yards against USC in the season finale and broke what seemed like 146 tackles to do so, he looked like the team’s Heisman Trophy candidate, at least from the one-game snapshot.
A reprise of that grittiness, with a dose of Wood’s big-play explosiveness, is necessary. As is domination from Martin and left guard Chris Watt. Cave must be able to handle a powerful nose guard on the opposite side.
“We certainly use the left side of our offensive line, I’d say at times at a ridiculous rate,” Martin said. “I’m not giving away any secrets. Alabama can listen to the press conference, and they’re not very good at what they do if they don’t know some of our tendencies. We typically like to go left. So it’s not by accident.”
Alabama principals: ILB C.J. Mosley, ILB Trey DePriest, NG Jesse Williams, OLB Adrian Hubbard.
Williams is the boulder in the middle at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, and when he’s immovable at the point of attack, everything else settles into place for the Alabama scheme. Only three teams rushed for more than 100 yards against the Tide, though all three came in the last five games.
Mosley is the primary playmaker on the inside, amassing a team-high 99 tackles, with DePriest far behind in second place with 56 stops. No shock that dynamic is similar to the one employed by Notre Dame with Manti Te’o; everyone does his job, and Mosley arrives to finish the play.
The wild card: Are the Tide vulnerable to a mobile quarterback, given that Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M rushed for 165 yards against them? Edge players such as Hubbard (10 tackles for loss) must be disciplined.
Analysis: It’s difficult to envision Notre Dame dominating on the ground, at least not early. Success may come down to how much Irish coach Brian Kelly risks quarterback Everett Golson taking hits in the running game. Loosening up the Tide with called quarterback runs — thereby evening the tacklers-versus-blockers ratio — is one path to ensuring Riddick and Wood find holes and weary defenders later.