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Notre Dame Football

No. 4 Notre Dame must slow-dance top-ranked Alabama

December 28, 2020

Brian Kelly went for a basketball reference.

Kyren Williams opted for the dinner table.

The message, nonetheless, was completely clear: No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) must control tempo more adeptly than the New York Philharmonic to have a chance to upset undefeated and top-ranked Alabama (11-0) Friday in the Rose Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoffs.

“Certainly we're cognizant of the fact that this is an electric (Alabama) offense and scores bushels and bushels of points,” Kelly said. “And we want to be able to play complementary football. That is, keep Alabama's offense off the field while we're certainly scoring as well.

“So I think we're not running the Princeton four-corner offense, but we are trying to run our offense, which has been one that has traditionally been a ball-control offense. So that still has to be in our mind in terms of we can't come into this game and change who we are, but the nice part about it is that's kind of been our DNA this year.”

Added the tailback Williams, “It's been our bread and butter all season that we have to establish the run. We know as an offensive line as running backs and as quarterbacks and wide receivers that we have to be able to go in there and run the ball. No matter what it is, by any means we have to run the ball, establish our physicality early in game and allow them to react what we do.


“We can't be behind the chains. We know that as an offense. Running the ball is our biggest focus this week for sure, being able to establish the run.”

As important as that component was in Notre Dame's ability to knock off then-No. 1 Clemson on November 7, the win responsible for the Irish's CFP inclusion, a ball-control approach has added impetus against the Tide.

No offense in college football this season was more explosive than Alabama's, even as the Tide replaced former Heisman Trophy finalist and first-round NFL Draft pick Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback before the season and wunderkind wideout Jaylen Waddle just five games into this year.

The Tide still scored 547 points in 11 Southeastern Conference games. They scored, on average, 1.62 points per every minute of offensive possession.

Notre Dame's offense has to be its best defense this week.

“We can't be three and out,” Kelly said. “We want to hold on to the football, because we want to play complementary football and keep Alabama's offense off the field as best we can.

“We want to run the ball. We need to run the football. Based upon who we are and how we have operated this year, we will have to run the ball more effectively than we did the last time we played.”


Alabama's offense operated at an especially peak level all season in the second quarter of games; the Tide's 194 points scored in that frame closed as just 20 points less than Alabama surrendered all season to its opponents.


Notre Dame also was at its best in the second quarter, and, under first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, flashed at times an ability to spring an uptempo approach on the opposition if Notre Dame's offense dictated favorable matchups.


“I think just from a holistic standpoint, not specific to this game plan or any other game plan, I think when you have the ability to change the tempo on a defense, it presents challenges for them,” said Rees, whose inaugural offense clicked at 35.2 points per game. “Whether you're in the huddle and breaking from there, or you're on the ball right away or you're scanning to the sideline.

“I think, from an offensive philosophy standpoint, just being able to change that on the defense presents challenges. You can lock them into certain looks. You can lock them into certain personnel groups.”

Most of all, Notre Dame must be locked into its best personnel group: quarterback Ian Book behind a veteran offense line, with Williams nearby and multiple tight ends as well as veteran receivers.

“As long as we've got us as a team and the coaching staff, as, like, everybody else in the building believes in us we know what we can do,” Williams said. “We'll go out there on Friday and do what we do best and play to the Notre Dame football standards. Being the underdog is nothing new to us.

“We're just going to keep proving to the world who we are.”

It's a slow dance.

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