Tommy Rees doesn’t need a refresher on the last time Notre Dame played against Alabama.
He was there for the 42-14 destruction in the 2013 BCS Championship Game backing up starting quarterback Everett Golson.
“That was a long time ago for us,” said Rees, Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator seven years after his final season playing quarterback for the Irish. “I was there. I remember it. It wasn’t a fun night, obviously.”
The outcome of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama (11-0) could be similar for the No. 4 Irish (10-1) if Notre Dame’s offense can’t fix the issues that ailed it in the 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship on Dec. 19.
The solutions don’t require a doctorate in football strategy.
“I know that sounds simple or it sounds almost elementary, but when you play great teams, the more positive plays you can string in a row, the better you’re going to be,” Rees said.
The most critical of those positive plays will come on third down and in the red zone. Struggles in those areas crippled Notre Dame’s chances of hanging with Clemson in its ACC Championship rematch.
The Irish finished just 3-of-12 on third-down conversions in the loss to Clemson in part because they never faced a third down of less than five yards. Five of the failures came on third-and-8 or longer.
“Not getting off schedule, not getting behind the chains and putting ourselves in third-and-long situations is something that we’ve tried to refocus on over the last 10 days or so,” Rees said.
The Irish still rank ninth in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage (49.3%), because they established an ability to pick up yards on first and second down throughout the season. If Notre Dame’s offense can reestablish that against Alabama, the Irish could exploit one of Alabama’s few weaknesses: third-down defense. The Crimson Tide rank No. 77 in allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 40.6%.
“The weeks we’ve been really good on third down,” Rees said, “we don’t put ourselves behind the chains and we don’t put ourselves in situations that are harder to convert.”
Red-zone struggles have confronted Notre Dame all season long. The Irish rank No. 94 in the FBS in red-zone offense with a scoring percentage of 78.6% with 33 touchdowns and 11 field goals on 56 red-zone attempts.
Only four teams (Coastal Carolina, BYU, Florida and Alabama) have made more red-zone trips than Notre Dame’s 56, but 11 teams have scored more than Notre Dame’s 33 touchdowns. Alabama’s defense has allowed touchdowns on only 50% of its opponents’ red zone trips, which is tied for 13th-best in the FBS.
Against Clemson, Notre Dame failed to convert on its only red-zone trip and couldn’t get into the red zone more frequently due to the previously mentioned third-down issues. The first three drives of the game included 157 yards, but only three points.
“It’s critical as a team, as an offense, to understand where those points were left,” Rees said. “How did those points get left off the board? And how as coaches can we put our guys in better positions to make sure that we’re finishing drives with six?
“We talked about it after the game. Those first three drives we were moving it great, but they account for three points. So at the end of the day, all those plays that got us down in a great position, they don’t mean anything.
“So how do we make sure that we’re able to stay on track and then execute in the most critical situations? Because if there’s situational execution there on the first three drives, it could be 13-0 going into the second quarter or whatever it was. Those are all things that we’re focused on.”
Rees pointed to cornerback Patrick Surtain II and linebacker Dylan Moses as focal points of the Alabama defense. Rees called Surtain, a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, “probably as good of a corner as I’ve seen in college football any year.”
In addition to trying to exploit Alabama’s defense, the Irish offense will have to try to match whatever point total Alabama’s explosive offense, which averages 49.7 points per game, will set. That may dictate how Notre Dame’s offense tries to control the ball, but Rees believes the ability to change tempos can be valuable.
“Whether you’re in the huddle and then breaking from there or you’re on the ball right away or you’re scanning to the sideline, from an offensive philosophy standpoint, being able to change that on the defense presents challenges,” Rees said. “You can lock them into certain looks. You can lock them into certain personnel groups.”
Those options can be lost when a team falls down 24-3 in the first half like the Irish did in the ACC Championship this month or 28-0 in the first half like the Irish did the last time they played Alabama. That why the first and second quarters Friday will be just as important as first and second downs.