An early witness to the astounding transformation is Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo who has competed against Notre Dame for fifteen years. “I knew after we walked off the field, they had beaten us up pretty good,” said the veteran coach. “I knew that was the best Notre Dame team we had played.” One unit was extremely impressive during the Midshipmen’s 50-10 loss to the Irish in the season opener held in Dublin, Ireland. “I think the thing that stuck out the most to me was the front seven – their front four with Manti (Te’o). They have had good players before. I was there when we played against Justin Tuck who now plays with the New York Giants but this front four is different. We had played South Carolina the year before. They just reminded me of an SEC defensive front with their size, speed and athleticism.”
Lavishing praise on the undefeated top ranked team was not restricted to one side of the ball. “Coach Kelly changed the mentality. They are running the ball. They are not spreading people out and throwing all over the place like in past years. They play a physical brand of football,” said Niumatalolo. “It’s almost like he has taken a page out of the playbook of Alabama. Run the football, play tough, solid defense. Last year they lost some games because they had a ton of turnovers in the red zone.” Not this year. They cherish the rock. The Irish are 14th nationally, one spot above Alabama, with only 14 turnovers lost.
Notre Dame displayed an intangible common to winners. “You could tell they are a very close team,” said Niumatalolo. “After the game, you could tell the camaraderie and love that they have among the team is pretty evident.
The Notre Dame quarterback is a wildcard offensive threat producing emotional distress for defensive coordinators. “When the play breaks down (Everett) Golson has the legs to buy you some time to keep the play alive,” stated Niumatalolo. If the redshirt freshman pursues that tactic the Navy head coach believes ‘Bama has the athletes to negate those efforts.
The two most decorated members of the 2012 Notre Dame team are seniors. Stalwart linebacker Manti Te’o and tight end extraordinaire Tyler Eifert, demonstrated dramatic improvement in certain phases of their game. “The first year we played against him (Te’o), we were able to fool him on some counter plays and options,” said Niumatalolo about the Irish’s smart defensive quarterback. “This year we tried to throw everything we knew at him as far as the counter game and option stuff. We didn’t fool him once. He was tuned in. Manti makes that team go.”
Eifert, notorious for frustrating cornerbacks, safeties and outside linebackers attempting to cover him unveiled yet another skill. “This year I was impressed with him because he was more of a blocker. Coach Kelly did a great job getting him to buy into the idea. We played against him the last three years and he killed us in the pass game. He is a phenomenal receiver. They split him out creating a matchup nightmare,” said Niumatalolo. “I was waiting for some play action stuff. They threw some fades to him in the red zone.”
BYU middle linebacker and leading tackler Brandon Ogletree experienced the brute force of the Notre Dame rushing attack as the Irish pummeled the Cougar defense for 270 yards on 43 carries. “Speaking about their offense, they are really physical upfront. They are probably the best offensive line we have played this year, in terms of playing hard and finishing blocks. I respect their O-line a lot,” said the senior team captain and leading tackler. “They have a good pair of running backs. They are good downhill runners. They have a really good tight end. They get after it. I like the way they play. They play hard.”
Notre Dame utilized a power running game with double tight ends to wear down the Cougar defenders. The tight end was blocking back against the formation. “They didn’t drive the ball on us but we let them get out of the gate with a few runs,” said Ogletree. “They were all plays where we had a body on the ball-carrier but we didn’t make the tackle. Bad tackling for us but also their running backs run hard and break tackles. Tackle and wrap up was the main thing we took away from that game.”
Ogletree and company came up short in a 17-14 loss to the Irish but suggested this sage advice for the Crimson Tide. “They are going to stay on blocks and finish blocks and play hard. You just have to play harder. They don’t do anything tricky. It’s just old school, Midwest style football so you have to match their physicality and play harder than they will and tackle and wrap up. I respect the way the play because they play hard and they play the way you’re supposed to play the game.”
A second string Irish signal quarterback filed in for the injured Golson against BYU. Roll outs and scrambles were not as frequent that day to accommodate the junior pocket passer Tommy Rees. Although the Notre Dame players on the perimeter possess average speed according to Ogletree, they are capable of creating problems for defenders. “We were not scared of the deep ball because their quarterbacks had not shown that. They have people on the outside that will make you miss,” he said.
Eifert is the offensive menace feared most by Ogletree. “Find the tight end and put a body on him because that is where the quarterback wants to look. They like to get a matchup on the outside with him against a cornerback or safety where he has a size advantage with a jump ball situation.”
Notre Dame and Alabama have balanced offenses. They are two of only twenty-one FBS teams averaging over 200 yards per game rushing and passing. Purdue University defensive lineman Kawann Short was a key figure in limiting the Irish to a pair of season lows. Employing a 4-3 scheme, the Boilermakers allowed only 52 rushing yards on 36 carries with a longest run of 1 yard past a first down, 11. “We packed the box,” said Short, team captain and a Second Team Associated Press All-American. “This was the best group of running backs they have had in the last four years.”
Five of the Notre Dame victories were by seven points or less with two requiring overtime. Short offered words of caution for the Tide. “Don’t let the game be close in the fourth quarter. They are a great last minute team. As a defense you want to try and stop them early so they do not gain momentum. They were very determined and have a great group of seniors.” Alabama’s defense must contend with a dual dilemma. “The tight end is an awesome player,” noted Short. “They are a powerhouse offensive line. The offensive line works until the whistle. You have to keep working until that whistle blows.”
Football purists are bubbling with enthusiasm in anticipation of the trench conflict between Alabama’s offensive line and the front seven of Notre Dame. Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was up close and personal with the Irish unit responsible for surrendering a paltry two rushing touchdowns for the entire season. Sooner quarterback and short yardage specialist Blake Bell scored one of the two, on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter to tie the score 13-13 before the Irish forged ahead for a seventeen point road victory. “The most impressive thing about playing against Notre Dame was their combination of size and strength,” said the two-time All Big 12 selection. “They outsized us upfront and were very physical at the line of scrimmage. With Manti Te’o they are solid at linebacker as well.”
The third year Sooner starter lauded Irish nose guard Louis Nix III. “He is the most difficult player I played against in college. He is a rare talent. He has a great combination of size and strength but is deceptively quick. He has caused all types of problems for every team he has played against. No one has really contained him.” Add Ikard to the list of viewers anxious to observe the colossal battle of football beef. “I’m very intrigued to see the matchup with Barrett Jones and (Chance) Warmack and those guys and how they fare against him and how he does against those NFL caliber guys. That should be something to watch.”
Ikard had a few recommendations for the Alabama offensive line contending with the Notre Dame pass rush. “Get ready for the bull rush because it's coming. They are not what you would call quick twitch guys. They are guys that use their strength to get an edge on you to blow upfield. They are very good at it because of their level of strength and quickness. It’s one of those things where you know it’s coming but you just have to be ready to fight it,” he said. “Meet their physicality. Play as physical as you can because they will play with strength and play hard.”
Occasionally Ikard’s assignment was to neutralize Manti Te’o. “He clearly watches a lot of film because he knows exactly where he needs to be. The most impressive thing about him is how quickly he moves on the field. He doesn’t get blocked a lot because those front guys are double-teamed. He won’t even be touched and make unassisted tackles because frankly no one is blocking him,” he observed. “He plays extremely fast and very decisive on the field. When he makes a decision he is going a hundred miles an hour. The key for Alabama is to block those down guys into Te’o. If they can do that, they can open up some big holes.”
The Sooners game plan was to throw over the top of the vaunted seven, a strategy the Tide may consider. “We felt we could take advantage of them in the secondary,” said Ikard. “I feel with the offensive line they have at Alabama, they will be able to protect A.J. McCarron and take some shots downfield. It will be interesting to see how the Notre Dame secondary fares against those receivers.”
Rarely can a team refrain from employing complex schemes and pressuring the quarterback with extra defenders but Notre Dame has succeeded thus far leading the country in scoring defense at 10.33 ppg. An Irish blitz occurs far less than the Irish jig performed by the school’s leprechaun mascot. There is a reason a simplistic approach has reaped rewards. “They were very vanilla. They hardly blitzed at all,” said Ikard. “They just relied on their talent upfront to get pressure. They played it safe behind. Just keep everything in front of them. No deep balls. They did not do anything extravagant on defense. They played sound assignment football and very physical.”
Wake Forest was the sacrificial lamb on senior day in South Bend. The eleventh game set the stage for the Irish to display a myriad of winning traits producing euphoria for the home crowd. Demon Deacon Offensive Coordinator Steed Lobotzke was surprised by the lack of blitzes and the ability of a three-man front to suffocate their rushing attack. All they could muster was 55 yards on 25 carries. Reflecting on the 38-0 defeat, Lobotzke would have incorporated more option plays to enhance the running game. He believes second ranked Alabama has the personnel to compete against the top-rated team in America, Notre Dame. So do The Capstone alumni, fans, former players and those scattered across the globe cheering for the team donning the crimson and white colors.
Notre Dame opponents regular season ending stats
national ranking rushing offense, rushing yards per game average, rushing yards per attempt average, rushing attempts vs. Notre Dame, total rushing yards vs. Notre Dame
The front seven of Notre Dame held every team except Pittsburgh below their total rushing average per game:
6. Navy 275.58/5.13/40/149
39. Michigan 187.33/4.92/41/161
50. Stanford 173.21/4.38/40/147
59. Purdue 165/4.53/30/90
60. Oklahoma 164.58/4.94/24/15
62. BYU 161.58/4.08/25/66
67. USC 155/5.03/27/95
72. Michigan State 151.58/4.04/25/50
82. Miami 144.75/4.68/18/84
89. Pittsburgh 137.42/3.64/33/144
113. Wake Forest 100.50/3.00/25/55
115. Boston College 90.92/3.16/23/53