The defining battle and defining question of the BCS Championship Game is simple: Can Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o and the Notre Dame defense withstand Alabama’s dominant offensive line?
Two-time All-American Barrett Jones headlines a group that has paved the way for a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy (1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (1,000 yards and 11 scores), who racked up 350 yards in the SEC title game win over Georgia.
It’s the run defense that has led the Irish to this point. Behind linebacker Te’o (103 tackles) and defensive end Stephon Tuitt (13 tackles for loss), the Irish rank fourth in the nation against the rush (92.4 yards per game)and held teams to an FBS-best 10.3 points per game.
If the Crimson Tide can control the line of scrimmage and the clock – they’ve held on to the ball for at least 33 minutes seven times, including a season-high 37:35 against the Bulldogs – they can then put more pressure on the Fighting Irish offense and force it do something it hasn’t done very well: throw the ball.
Notre Dame enters the game ranked 75th in passing offense and has just 13 TDs through the air (103rd).
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A year ago, the BCS title game was AJ McCarron’s coming out party. He shed the game-manager label and proved he could put the team on his shoulders, throwing for 234 yards and earning offensive MVP honors in the win over LSU.
If the Irish defense can have any success in limiting the Tide’s ability to run the ball, McCarron may be asked to deliver a similar performance and exploit the only real chink in the armor of the vaunted Notre Dame D.
The Irish rank 21st in pass defense and have allowed a paltry seven TDs all season, but those numbers don’t relay the 356 yards they allowed against Oklahoma’s Landry Jones or show that outside of Te’o seven picks Notre Dame has just nine interceptions.
While senior safety Zeke Motta (61 tackles) is a proven commodity, it’s a patchwork secondary that includes two converted wide receivers in cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell and a former running back with safety Matthias Farley.
It’s a group that hasn’t faced a passer as steady and mistake-free as McCarron, who leads the nation in pass efficiency (173.0) and has thrown just three interceptions in his last 16 games dating back to last season.
Limiting the ‘Bama ground game can keep the Irish in this matchup but then the question becomes whether QB Everett Golson & Co. can generate enough offense against the Tide’s defense?
For all the attention heaped on the Te’o-led Irish unit, it’s Alabama’s defense that ranks as the nation’s best, ranking first in total defense and against the run, second in scoring D and sixth vs. the pass.
It’s hard to see a Notre Dame attack that scored 22 or less points seven times being able to break out against the Tide.
Expect the SEC’s run to continue with a seventh straight title and the fourth in a row for the state of Alabama.