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Photo by Robert Franklin | South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame Football

Rewatch Notes | Notre Dame Defense vs Alabama

January 6, 2021

There was so much that went on early this week with transfers and defensive coordinator search news that I wanted to wait to post the Rewatch notes for the defense from the Alabama game. It had nothing to do with avoiding being negative, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that way.

Alabama has a devastatingly beautiful offense. They can beat a defense in every way possible, which is why they are so difficult to defend. That’s why Notre Dame really had no shot to stop them and the coaching staff knew it. They wouldn’t have implemented the game plan on offense if they thought otherwise.

Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, and the Joe Moore Award winning offensive line proved them right. With Steve Sarkisian calling a masterful game, they could do almost anything they wanted.

There were very few mental mistakes for Notre Dame. They were simply outmatched and by great players that executed at an extremely high level.

- Alabama averaged 10.6 yards per play on 1st down. That’s over seven yards more than Notre Dame averaged.

- Clark Lea knew he didn’t have the defensive backs that could play one on one and hang with the Alabama receivers if they attacked vertically. They took that away from Alabama, which is why Mac Jones only attempted two passes longer than 20 yards down the field.

He only attempted seven passes longer than 10 yards all game.

Alabama instead won with numbers on RPOs where their athletes were superior in space. The wide receivers and tight ends had 194 yards AFTER THE CATCH. Jones was 8 of 9 (17.9 yards per attempt) on RPO throws with two touchdowns.

- Alabama had an explosive play on every 9.2 snaps. So even though they only ran 55 plays, it ultimately didn’t make an impact when the Irish couldn’t prevent the big play.

- Harris is obviously a stud and anyone only needs to rewatch that hurdle of an upright Nick McCloud once for confirmation. He’s an extremely tough player to tackle and Notre Dame had him for some stuffs, but couldn’t get him on the ground with the first guy.

Even potential negative plays turned into two or three yard gains. Notre Dame only stuffed him (held him to zero yards or less) on one of his 15 carries. That’s a big reason why the Havoc Rate was only 10.9% in this game.

- I think it took Notre Dame’s defensive line a little bit to get used to Alabama’s offensive line. It’s the best O-line they’ve seen and second is not even close.

They didn’t win any one on ones in the first three runs for Harris. Those went for 79 yards. The next 12 carries went for 46.

Unfortunately there is just no way to replicate a line like Alabama’s until they actually play and the adjustment period hurt them.

- The pass rush was better than one would assume for Notre Dame because those RPOs are like running plays for the defensive line. They are playing run and not getting a rush, plus the ball is out so quickly.

The Irish had a pressure rate of 41.6% on standard drop backs that weren’t RPOs. They were only the third team all season to pressure Jones in the double digits.

When they can get the ball out that quickly and gain that many yards without the threat of pressure, that’s a problem. Even when Notre Dame had pressure, Jones was good against it, which I’ll highlight with some explanations below.

- What can I say about Smith that hasn’t already been said? Not much, so let me just say that he caught all seven of his targets and on his five targets against Notre Dame’s cornerbacks, he gained 98 yards.

- On to some specific plays…

The first play of the game set the script for the game. It was an RPO throw to the tight end who was out wide and Alabama had a numbers advantage out there versus a disadvantage in the box. Jones makes the right read, they get easy yards.

- 2nd and 2 and the blitz was timed perfectly by Notre Dame. Drew White had a free rush, but Jones spun away from the pressure. It was a good play by him, but that should have been a sack and not by White.

Isaiah Foskey was the edge on that play and when there is an inside blitz, the edge defender has to keep contain knowing that the quarterback may be forced outside.

He was. Foskey didn’t keep contain. Jones hit the check down for a first down instead of it being 3rd and long.

It sounds crazy, but that kind of play is the difference between having a shot in a game against this type of opponent. He has to make that play.

- They kept running bubbles on the RPOs and tried to catch Notre Dame with a pump and then hit a receiver down the field for a touchdown. It was great discipline from Hamilton to not bite and then get over and make a play on the ball.

That is a first-class All-American play, yet, it needed to be an interception rather than a pass breakup considering the opponent.

- On the first touchdown to Smith, it wasn’t about Clarence Lewis using the sideline as a defender that was the issue. He did that. Smith was just too freaking explosive and got out there before he could close the gap.

The problem was that he broke down instead of attacking Smith. That works with normal human beings and not someone like Smith who accelerates as good as any receiver I can remember.

- I’ll highlight it in a film post later, but the 24-yard RPO to Smith when they motioned him across the formation on the third drive was really well done on their part. They get even numbers out there and it’s the safety who ends up being the one who has Smith in space because they have two blockers for the linebacker and the corner.

The only way to beat that is to consistently beat blocks so quickly and anticipate that the play is coming. Without that, it’s just way too easy.

- Notre Dame played really good defense on the fourth drive.

Kurt Hinish was outstanding versus the double team. The linebackers were aggressive, though, Shayne Simon lunged and missed a tackle for loss on Harris. Then the Irish get a tackle for loss on a reverse to set up 3rd and long.

It should have set up perfectly for Notre Dame to call a timeout and then have a shot at a scoring drive before the half. Brian Kelly didn’t call it, which I don’t really understand since Alabama was going to get the ball to start the second half.

Alabama milked the clock and Notre Dame barely had enough time to get into field goal range. Jon Doerer ultimately missed the kick.

- Harris got matched up with Ade Ogundeji in pass protection and that was a win for Notre Dame on the first drive of the second half. He gets the hit on Jones and forces the ball out.

Smith makes the leaping contested catch. Womp wah.

They did get a stop on the series after Marist Liufau did a nice job scraping off the block for a stop and Jayson Ademilola tipped a ball on 3rd down.

- The route by Smith’s touchdown against McCloud on the next series was so filthy. The ball placement was just as impressive. That was pretty much ball game, though, the defense continued to play hard after that. No one should be surprised based on what we’ve seen from the group all year.

It was correct that Notre Dame could hang with Alabama at the line of scrimmage. It took a couple of series, but they did that. It was also correct that Notre Dame was outmatched athletically on the perimeter and the only way around it was to have as many two on one situations as possible, which is very hard to do against an offense as balanced as Alabama’s.

Sarkisian and Jones did a wonderful job taking advantage of the numbers when they had it. That, plus elite athletes, is what leads to an offense having that much success against a good defense.

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