By RALPH D. RUSSO
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — No. 1 Notre Dame allows 10.3 points per game, best in the nation. No. 2 Alabama allows 10.7. So the BCS championship should be a defensive struggle, right? First to 12 wins.
Well, maybe. Those offenses are pretty good, too.
A look at some of the key matchups in Monday night’s BCS championship game in Miami.
— Alabama center Barrett Jones vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III.
Jones is a two-time All-American who will be starting his third national championship game. Nix is a 326-pound run stuffer, a magnet for double-teams and a big reason the Fighting Irish have allowed only two rushing touchdowns. When Pittsburgh ran the ball well in the first half against Notre Dame, Nix was on the sideline with the flu. In the second half, when Nix came in, Pitt’s running game was not nearly as effective. How much help Jones needs with Nix will go a long way toward determining whether the Irish can hold up against an Alabama running game that averages 5.6 yards per carry.
— Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert vs. Alabama cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue.
Eifert is an All-American and the leading receiver for the Fighting Irish with 44 catches for 624 yards. He is the type of tight end that is all the rage in the NFL right now. Huge (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) but with the speed and agility to get down the field and make big plays. Alabama’s safeties, specifically Robert Lester, are better equipped size-wise to matchup with Eifert, but the Notre Dame loves to get their big target matched up against a cornerback and have him outmuscle the smaller player.
— Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon vs. Notre Dame inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Dan Fox.
It’s not just about stopping the run. Te’o, Fox and that Notre Dame front seven have been so good in run defense, allowing 3.2 yards per carry, it’s allowed defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to play his safeties deep to protect inexperienced cornerbacks. If the linebackers need help containing Alabama’s two 1,000-yard rushers, that leaves cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson exposed.
— Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt vs. Alabama defensive ends Damion Square and Quinton Dial and strong side linebacker Adrian Hubbard.
The Fighting Irish like to run left. A lot. The Fighting Irish coaches make no secret that Martin has been their best lineman. That should keep Square, a solid 286-pound senior, busy. Of course one of the keys to Alabama’s defensive success is its depth. Martin and Watt won’t get any breaks.
— Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson vs. Alabama coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Golson will be making his 11th career start. He has come a long way this season, but he’s still relatively inexperienced and learning on the job. Saban and Smart are masters of mixing coverage and pressures and making quarterbacks generally miserable as they try to figure out what’s coming. A confused quarterback is a mistake-prone quarterback and the Fighting Irish cannot afford Golson to regress in the biggest game of the season.
Alabama (12-1) vs. Notre Dame (12-0), 3:30 p.m. HTS (ESPN)
Site: Sun Life Stadium, Miami
Line: Alabama by 9 1/2
Series Record: Notre Dame leads 5-1
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Alabama is going for its third national championship in four years and trying to become the first school to win back-to-back BCS titles. Notre Dame is seeking its first national championship since 1988. Both schools are trying to take over the lead for the most times finishing atop rankings, coming into the game tied at eight.
Notre Dame’s stifling defense, which has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season, against Alabama’s bruising ground game. The Crimson Tide has a pair of 1,000 yards rushers in Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon, who combined for 334 yards in a 32-28 victory over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Notre Dame has surrendered only 92.4 yards per game on the ground, and just two players rushed for more than 100 yards against the Irish. LB Manti Te’o leads the team in tackles (103) and interceptions (seven).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Alabama: WR Amari Cooper may become the Crimson Tide’s best weapon if the running game bogs downs. The dynamic freshman had 53 receptions and nine touchdowns, averaging nearly 17 yards per catch. Look for Alabama to work off play-action and take some shots down the field.
Notre Dame: QB Everett Golson, essentially a redshirt freshman, has developed from a timid play-caller at the start of the season to a seasoned leader who has earned the respect of his teammates. While coach Brian Kelly has scaled back some parts of his spread offense to cut down on potential mistakes, Golson has the ability to move the ball with his arm (59 percent completions, 2,135 yards passing, 11 touchdowns) and his legs (305 yards rushing, five TDs).
FACTS & FIGURES
The teams first met in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, a classic matchup in which Notre Dame claimed its second national title under coach Ara Parseghian with a 24-23 victory over Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. … Their last meeting was in 1987, when Notre Dame romped to a 37-6 victory in South Bend. … The Fighting Irish won five times this season by a touchdown or less, including overtime triumphs over Stanford and Pittsburgh. … Alabama had four shutouts (Western Kentucky, Arkansas, Western Carolina, Auburn). … Notre Dame has a streak of nine straight bowl losses from 1995-2007, but the Irish have won two of their last three postseason games. … Alabama athletic director Mal Moore coached at Notre Dame in the 1980s under Gerry Faust. … The Crimson Tide has three All-Americans on its offensive line: first-teamers Barrett Jones at center and Chance Warmack at left guard, and second-teamer D.J. Fluker at right tackle. … Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will be going for his 200th career victory.