Alabama ends Notre Dame's national championship dream again
ARLINGTON, Texas — The leap that Notre Dame still needs to make to win a national championship couldn’t have been more apparent.
Alabama running back Najee Harris literally showed it when he hurdled Irish cornerback Nick McCloud in the middle of a 53-yard run in the first quarter and to set up Alabama’s second touchdown in as many drives to start the game.
For as good as No. 4 Notre Dame (10-2) was in 2020 and as much as it deserved its spot in the College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama (12-0), the Irish once again weren’t able to break through the ceiling that’s been on the program during head coach Brian Kelly’s 11-season tenure.
Alabama’s 31-14 victory Friday night left no doubt that it was a cut above Notre Dame in the relocated Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Irish don’t have a former five-star running back like Harris, who finished with 15 carries for 125 yards and four catches for 30 yards. They don’t have a wide receiver like DeVonta Smith, a Heisman Trophy finalist who caught seven passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns, despite everyone wearing a Notre Dame logo knowing he was going to be a tough matchup.
Even Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in program history with 30 victories as a starter, wasn’t at the same level as Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, another Heisman finalist who threw five incomplete passes and four touchdowns on 30 passes for 297 yards.
Those kinds of performances, like Harris’ leap over McCloud, even remind the Crimson Tide exactly how talented they are.
“I don't know why I'm surprised every time (Harris) does it because I've been seeing it for three years,” said Alabama tight end Miller Forristall. “You're just like, ‘Geez.’ I play with some really good players and I'm thankful.”
Finding the silver lining in Friday night’s performance will be difficult for the Irish. Even for a defense that held Alabama to 31 points after it averaged 49.7 points through its first 11 games.
“As a unit, our job is to go out there and limit the offense to zero points if we can,” said sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford, who finished tied for a team-high nine tackles. “We don't try to take moral victories by holding them to 31 points. If our offense can't get it going, then our job is to go out there and limit them to no points. If we can’t, limit them to field goals in the red zone.”
It wasn't as ugly as the last time Alabama trucked Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship to finish the 2012 season. But the Irish were left chasing after a slow start in front of an AT&T Stadium crowd of 18,373.
Notre Dame received the opening kickoff, which freshman running back Chris Tyree fumbled but sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser recovered to keep possession at the Irish eight-yard line. The Irish punted after five plays, which included a backward pass from Book that running back Kyren Williams couldn’t catch and bounced out of bounds for a five-yard loss.
Alabama’s offense made its first drive look easy. The Crimson Tide rolled up 79 yards on seven plays in 2:36. Smith caught a screen and ran past an unblocked freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis for a 26-yard touchdown.
Notre Dame played conservative on its second drive with a designed quarterback run on third-and-7 from its own 42 that netted just two yards from Book. Instead of attempting a fourth-and-5 near midfield, Kelly said the Irish leaned on analytics that indicated they should punt and try to pin Alabama deep early in the game.
Punter Jay Bramblett did his job with a 53-yard punt downed at the three-yard line, but the rest of the plan fell apart. Alabama needed just five plays for 97 yards and another touchdown. Harris’ 53-yard run was immediately followed by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Jones to tight end Jahleel Billingsley.
“Coach Lea always preaches to us to start fast,” said ND’s consensus All-America linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who tallied six tackles. “When you don't do that, you see what happens. So I don't think it was us being timid or shy or anything, but just the deal where we didn't execute to the fullest of our ability.”
Notre Dame’s offense found its legs on its third drive. The Irish remained patient and leaned on the running game for a 15-play, 75-yard drive that Williams capped with a one-yard touchdown plunge on fourth-and-goal.
Notre Dame cut the lead, and its defense had a chance to catch its breath during a drive that lasted 8:09. But Alabama’s third possession ended the same as its first two. Smith caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Jones to put Alabama back up two touchdowns.
“When they're on the perimeter, nobody has shut them down,” Kelly said. “Tell me who has tackled those guys. Everybody has the same problem that I do. It's tackling those guys and getting them down.”
Rather than succumbing to an early knockout, the defense did regain its balance to force Alabama punts on its next two true drives, which were sandwiched around an Alabama kneel to end the first half, That, after Jonathan Doerer’s 51-yard field goal attempt for Notre Dame was tipped and fell short.
The Irish still had life, but an interception thrown by Book put Notre Dame on life support. Book escaped pressure to his right when right tackle Robert Hainsey was pushed near him by Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr., but he underthrew freshman tight end Michael Mayer and linebacker Christian Harris intercepted the pass.
“He just needed to put a little bit more on that, kind of floated it a little bit,” Kelly said. “If he had another shot at that, he probably would have put — that would have been a fastball instead of a level two with some touch to it. I think he felt like he was in a better position than he was. And a good play by Alabama in that situation.”
Fittingly, Smith delivered the knockout blow with his third touchdown catch, a seven-yard toe tapper, on the ensuing Alabama drive.
Book, who finished 27-of-39 for 229 yards with one interception, briefly left the game late in the third quarter after being sacked by Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore. Freshman Drew Pyne replaced him for two snaps, including a seven-yard completion to wide receiver Ben Skowronek on third-and-23.
Alabama tacked on a 41-yard field goal by Will Reichard with 12:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Irish possessed the ball for much of the remainder of the game. The first drive ended with a turnover on downs at the Alabama 13. Book rushed for a one-yard touchdown to cover the betting spread. Then the Irish recovered an onside kick that led to another drive that ended without a score as Book tried to hit Skowronek or wide receiver Avery Davis in the end zone as time expired.
Book wasn’t able to find much success with his wide receivers through the first three quarters. Even with the late rally attempt, Skowronek (four catches for 41 yards) was the only wide receiver to finish with more than two catches. Leading wide receiver Javon McKinley was limited to two catches for 20 yards. Slot receivers Davis and Lawrence Keys III each caught one pass.
The Irish leaned on Williams who led the Irish in carries (16 for 64 yards and one touchdown) and receptions (eight for 31 yards). Mayer grabbed seven passes for 62 yards. Book was sacked twice and netted 55 rushing yards.
“They had a good plan against us,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “They do a great job. I think Brian Kelly is a great coach. His entire staff deserves a lot of credit for the plan they put together to play against us, as well as all the things they've done all season long to get here.
“Their players really play hard. They play with great discipline.”
Scheme, effort and discipline weren’t enough to beat this Alabama team. Maybe No. 3 Ohio State (7-0), which beat No. 2 Clemson (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, 49-28, will fare better in the national championship game on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Kelly vowed to get his team back to the playoff for another chance at the goal that’s eluded Notre Dame since the 1988 season. It falls on Kelly to figure out how to summit that mountain even if he’s tired of trying to explain how he’s going to do it to national and local reporters.
“We’re going to keep recruiting. We're going to keep getting back here,” Kelly said. “Add everybody can keep saying, ‘Notre Dame’s not good enough.’
“Well, you know what? You're going to have a problem, because we're going to keep winning games, we’re going to keep getting back here and we're going to break through. And then I am going to be terrible to be at a press conference with. Terrible.”
When the first two questions asked of Kelly in the postgame press conference were about losing by a wide margin in the playoff again and the next step the program needs to take to get closer, Kelly wasn’t pleased. But that’s probably how Irish fans felt when their team fell down 21-7 to the Alabama football factory in the second quarter too.
“We wanted to win a national championship,” Kelly said. “Notre Dame Nation, you guys can get some sleep. Recharge your battery. And we're going to get ourselves back in this position again.
“So you don't need to jump off a bridge, a building. We're going to keep working. We're going to rededicate ourselves in the offseason, back in the weight room. And we hope to get right back here in Dallas next year.”