Notre Dame went into the Los Angeles Coliseum on Thanksgiving Saturday and attacked USC from the opening bell.
The Irish struggled finishing off drives in the red zone and eventually turned to the ground game to chew up the Trojans. But playing the role of aggressor set a tone from the outset of Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory over USC.
USC is not Alabama, at least not this year. But while the Irish are better equipped to slug it out with the Crimson Tide than they’ve been in quite some time, a game plan with an overemphasis on running between the tackles is a recipe for a long night of struggle.
“I think there’s a time and place for all of that,” said head coach Brian Kelly of Notre Dame’s up-tempo attack. “Are we going to be exclusively in tempo? No, I like to pick our spots.
“Part of our offense right now will reflect more of that at times. It won’t always be that way, but we’ll pick our spots to use some tempo that we think can be beneficial for us.”
Playing a slug-it-game with Alabama usually doesn’t work. The Tide leads the country in rushing defense (79.7 yards per game), allowing just 2.46 yards per carry. Only Florida State allows less yards per play (3.89) than Alabama’s 4.09.
Like Notre Dame, the Crimson Tide uses a wave of defensive linemen to get the job done. Like Notre Dame, they understand run fits and gap integrity. Allow them to pursue ball carriers predominately between the tackles and you’re playing right into their hands.
Kelly also will try to take advantage of Notre Dame’s skill position athletes in a variety of alignments.
“We’d like (them) to try to match up to some of our guys that we think they might (present) a match-up problem when we have multiple tight ends on the field,” Kelly said.
Another way to loosen up the Crimson Tide defense is to get quarterback Everett Golson on the edge of the defense with run-pass options. That will widen the field and spread out the Crimson Tide defense, which then should allow a bit more running room between the tackles.
Make no mistake, the Irish must experience some success between the tackles. But slow and methodical is a difficult way to consistently move the football against Alabama’s defense. A team can’t expect to string together a series of 3rd-and-4 conversions.
“We’ve got to get big chunk plays,” Kelly said. “I’ll tell you that right now. They know that and we know that. If you think you’re going to win the game just trying to pound it in there, you’re not. So we’ve got to find a way to get those chunk plays.”
Texas A&M and dynamic red-shirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel managed to keep the Alabama defense on the move, putting pressure on the edge while consistently presenting the run-pass challenge to the Tide.
Golson has that ability, and the return of wide receiver DaVaris Daniels from a broken collarbone is one of the keys to Notre Dame’s chunk play success. Force-feeding tight end Tyler Eifert is in order, but veterans TJ Jones and Robby Toma need to step up as seniors and provide a complement in the passing game. This might be a game where tight end Troy Niklas emerges as the Crimson Tide prioritizes defending Notre Dame’s more frequent targets.
“If you go in there and say, ‘All right, we’re just going to play the game between the tackles,’ you’re in for a long day,” Kelly said. “I think we have to utilize the 53 1/3 by 120 (yards). We’ve got to be attacking all areas and getting the kind of match-ups we need offensively.
“When you go up-tempo, you simplify some of the calls. There’s a chance there could be some confusion on the other end. There’s no question that up-tempo is beneficial, and we’re going to utilize it. But our whole game won’t reflect that. We’ll pick our spots when we want to use it.”