In this era of wide-open, pass-happy offenses, college football’s ultimate prize will be decided Monday night by two throwback teams, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama.
The Fighting Irish (12-0) have run for nearly as many yards as they’ve managed through the air. The Crimson Tide (12-1) is coming off a dominant performance on the ground in the Southeastern Conference championship.
“Alabama is that kind of team where you just know they’re going to run the football,” Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said Thursday. “The whole world knows they’re going to run the football. Just try to stop us — that’s their mentality. It’s really kind of cool to see. There’s not going to be any tricks or trick plays or anything like that.”
The same could be said of the Irish, who are dominant on defense but a bit erratic when they drop back to throw.
While coach Brian Kelly might technically operate out of a modern spread offense, he’s scaled back his desire to pile up the points and the passing yards like he did in his previous tenure at Cincinnati. Notre Dame has relied on a running back-by-committee approach and quarterback Everett Golson to wear down opponents, averaging more than 202 yards rushing per game.
Theo Riddick has gained 880 yards and five touchdowns, Cierre Wood has 740 yards and four TDs, while George Atkinson III has chipped in with 361 yards, five TDs and a team-leading 7.1 yards per carry. Golson is also a threat to tuck the ball and run, gaining 305 yards and scoring five times.
“Coach Kelly is known to sling the ball around, but this year we’ve kind of done both,” Lewis-Moore said. “We’ve run the ball very well with Theo, Cierre and George. We’re kind of like a three-headed monster.”
If that’s the case, then Alabama is a two-headed beast.
Junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon have both rushed for 1,000 yards and combined for a staggering 27 touchdowns, taking advantage of what is generally regarded as the best offensive line in the nation.
“It’s like old-school football,” Lacy said. “We line up in the I-formation and pound it. A lot of teams are in the spread and things like that. We like to keep it old school around here. The old-fashioned way still works.”
Indeed, it does.
Just ask Georgia, which lost to Alabama in a thrilling SEC title game.
Facing a defense that might have two players selected in the first round of the NFL draft — and includes several other pro prospects — the Crimson Tide ran wild in its 32-28 victory. Alabama piled up a championship game record with 350 yards rushing, led by Lacy with 181 yards and two scores. Yeldon was nearly as good, tacking on 153 yards and a TD.
From Bob Diaco’s perspective, it all starts up front. Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator knows he must find a way to cope with the Tide’s offensive line, which includes two first-team All-Americans (center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack) and a second-teamer (right tackle D.J. Fluker). Everyone across the front line weighs more than 300 pounds, and they all play with a bit of a nasty streak.
“They’re the finest collection, tackle to tackle, that we’ve faced so far,” Diaco said. “It’s not another happy-go-lucky group of offensive linemen. This is an angry, aggressive, intense group of players that plays hard and finishes blocks.”
They won’t in any way be intimidated by Notre Dame’s impressive defensive front, which has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season.
“The backs are really the battery of that team, the battery of that offense,” Diaco continued. “But they’re facilitated by the offensive line. The offensive line is really the marquee position group of that pretty marquee offense.”
No wonder the Crimson Tide feels no great urge to throw the ball. The team is way down in the NCAA stats when it comes to passing yards — 84th at 214.5 per game — but highly effective when it does go to the air. AJ McCarron is the nation’s highest-rated passer, set a school record with 26 touchdown passes, and was intercepted only three times.
Alabama is the more likely team to break off a big play in the passing game, especially with another super freshman, Amari Cooper, averaging nearly 17 yards per catch and hauling in nine touchdown passes.
But it’s all set up by the ground game. The Tide has run the ball an eye-popping 525 times, averaging 40 carries a game and far more than its 300 passing attempts. In only one game — a last-minute victory at LSU — has Alabama thrown the ball more than its run it.
Notre Dame is a bit more likely to go to the air, but not by much. The Irish rank 75th in passing yards with an average of 218.3.
“You have to adapt,” Kelly said. “That’s how we came up the formula this year to play the way we played.”
In a triple-overtime victory over Pittsburgh, the Irish threw it 53 times. They would prefer a performance more in line with the regular-season finale against Southern Cal, in which Notre Dame displayed almost perfect balance (222 yards rushing, 217 yards passing).
Of course, it will be much tougher to run against Alabama’s defense, which leads the nation with an average of just under 80 yards per game. But, regardless of what happens Monday, Kelly has done a masterful job of breaking in a new quarterback while winning every game.
“I didn’t believe, nor did I want, to use this year as a bridge year, a transition year,” the coach said. “We had to find a way to win those games. Manage those games. Limit possessions. Hold onto the football.”
No doubt about it.
This BCS title game is going old school.