Mike DuBose could probably figure out that Alabama must:
• Keep dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson from extending plays.
• Keep Mackey Award-winning tight end Tyler Eifert covered.
• Stop Notre Dame’s three-headed running back monster.
The “whats” are clear for Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and the nation’s top defense in terms yards allowed per game, but the “hows” get more complicated.
Things get complicated because Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin keeps Eifert shifting to create matchup problems.
Things get complicated because Martin will use running back Theo Riddick, a former wide receiver, in the passing game.
Oh, and did we mention Golson? He scrambles with a mindset to buy time for the pass first, Smart said, and has a funny way of keeping the whole field and every receiver in play.
“You look at their scramble reel, and there’s a lot of plays that a guy has really great arm talent because he can throw one side of the field to the other,” Smart said. “I can see in my mind three plays we watched over and over, he scrambles to his right, throws it all the way across the field to his left to a wide open receiver where a guy just lost him.
“They had him covered and they lost him.”
It all means that Alabama’s secondary has to cover longer. Also, Alabama’s defensive line must plug the A and B gaps and stay disciplined in pass rush lanes.
Things get most complicated for Alabama’s linebackers, who get drawn in to managing Golson’s scrambling, the running game and Eifert. Good thing the Crimson Tide’s linebackers coach is Smart.
On the surface, the matchup of Alabama’s defense against Notre Dame’s offense looks like a clash of strength against weakness. NCAA statistics rank Notre Dame just 49th nationally in total offense and 74th in scoring offense.
But Martin’s crew has been a work in progress under a new coordinator and sophomore quarterback in his first year as a starter. Martin said Friday that Golson started showing comfort with Notre Dame’s checks-loaded system in the Oklahoma game on Oct. 27, and Smart said Golson’s progress is visible.
“He plays with a lot more confidence, a lot more skill, more decision making,” Smart said. “They’ve allowed him to do more, more flexibility in the system, in the scheme.
“He’s grown a lot. I can only imagine in the last 35 days, however many it’s been, they’re going to let him do some more. We expect that.”
As Golson has come more online, Martin has been more able to use his weapons.
The running back trio of Riddick, George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood is most interesting. Smart touts the speed of each one.
Riddick is most interesting as a true dual-threat back. He has converted a team-high 49 first downs by rush and 15 more on pass receptions.
“Riddick is probably quicker than the other two,” Smart said. “Great one-step quickness, the ability to make you miss, good stiff arm. Didn’t think a former receiver would run with that much power.”
Alabama counters with the nation’s top rush defense, but the passing game becomes tricky. Having Eifert and Riddick in the pattern occupies linebackers, and what happens when Golson scrambles?
Lots of things can happen with the 6-foot-6 Eifert. Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said the Tide hasn’t faced a player like him.
“He has size and speed at the same time,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have to be on our Ps and Qs, technique, when guarding him, making sure we’re not too high or too low on him.”
Even when Eifert is covered, he’s taller than all but one of Alabama’s linebackers, and the 6-6 Adrian Hubbard is more of a pass-rush specialist. The rest of the linebackers on Alabama’s two-deep are no taller than 6-3.
For that matter, all of Alabama’s safeties are 6-2 and under, so Golson can throw high and expect a catch. How high?
“Even yesterday (in practice), we threw three or four balls that I actually stopped, looked away because I knew they were incomplete passes,” Martin said. “And then heard somebody yell, ‘Great catch, Tyler.’ I’m like, ‘He caught that one?’”
Notre Dame has quirky and capable offensive weapons, and Golson’s development has given Martin more ways to use them. Defend the design, and Golson can extend the play and create.
Alabama showed just how easily even a well-disciplined defense can lose a receiver when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel bobbled the football, scrambled out of the pocket and found a wide-open Ryan Swope in the back of the end zone.
Alabama must stop the run with its front seven then maintain discipline against the pass. If Notre Dame can run well enough to coax a safety up close to the line, then Golson, Eifert and crew will have an easier time making plays in the passing game.
The keys to stopping Notre Dame are simple, but the unique talents of Notre Dame’s weapons make stopping them complex.