Notre Dame can't keep pace with Alabama in CFP Rose Bowl loss

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

This one was supposed to be a different type of big game for Notre Dame.

Instead, it was more of the same.

Playing at a different level with a different gear, top-ranked Alabama rolled to a 31-14 victory over fourth-ranked Notre Dame on Friday in the CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl, played in Arlington, Texas because of coronavirus issues in Southern California.

“Certainly, a disappointed locker room,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “It’s just been an incredible group of guys to be around on a day-to-day basis.”

Alabama came into the contest averaging 49.7 points per game. Its 31 points were a season low.

The self-proclaimed Granddaddy of them all was played in front of 18,373 fans at AT&T Stadium, home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and the only venue that Notre Dame (10-2) has visited in its two CFP semifinals.

The Irish have been outscored by a combined 61-17 in those two semifinals.

“The margin is not the issue,” Kelly said. “Losing is losing.”

Trailing by two touchdowns, Notre Dame promptly opened the second half with a defensive stop, then seemingly mustered some offensive momentum with six plays that pushed toward midfield. Ian Book then threw an interception in Tide territory to squelch any chance of making this one interesting.

Five plays and 62 yards later, wide receiver DeVonta Smith was in the end zone with a touchdown catch for a third time to make it 28-7.

The game kicked off at 20 minutes after 4 p.m. eastern time. Eight minutes later, and barely five minutes of elapsed game time, Alabama was in the end zone with a Smith touchdown catch. Five of Alabama’s first seven plays from scrimmage gained first downs. By quarter to five in the east, the Irish were down 14-0.

For the Crimson Tide, it was on. For the Irish, it essentially was over.

“Today was about making plays,” Kelly said. “They made them on the perimeter. We simply didn’t make enough plays. Just wish we made a couple more plays when we had the opportunity.

“Proud of the way our guys competed.”

Friday marked the first time that Notre Dame lost consecutive games since closing the 2016 season with two losses. The Irish finished 4-8 that year. Friday’s loss was only the eighth over the last four seasons, each of which finished with double-digit wins, a first in program history.

Book finished his collegiate career 30-5 as the starter. He left the game late in the third quarter with an apparent upper-body injury after being smothered on a sack by 311-pound defensive lineman Christian Barmore. He was replaced by Drew Pyne. Book missed the final two plays of the drive, which ended in a punt, before returning for the next series.

The game, and Book’s collegiate career, ended with a red zone incompletion as time expired.

“He’s a winner,” Kelly said. “We’re going to miss him. He just wins football games. There is no other story.”

Alabama (12-0) advances to the College Football Playoff national championship on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla., to face the winner of No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State. That game in New Orleans followed the Alabama-Notre Dame game.

The Irish entered Friday’s game 19.5-point underdogs – the largest point spread in the seven-year history of the four-team college playoff.

Irish coach Brian Kelly promised to be aggressive, and chose to take the ball after winning the coin toss. A time-consuming, yard-chewing drive was supposed to follow, but then freshman Chris Tyree was smacked on the opening kickoff and fumbled. That pushed the Irish back to their own 8. Four plays later, they were faced with a third-and-15 from their own 22 before a punt.

Getting behind the chains was one of the can’t-dos going into this one. Notre Dame then did it. The offense was on the field for all of five plays and 2:10 of their opening drive.

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) runs as Alabama defenders DeMarcco Hellams (29), Jordan Battle (9) and Josh Jobe (28) follow in pursuit during the 2021 College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.