Supposedly, the weakness of Notre Dame’s imposing defense was its secondary. That’s the narrative perpetuated throughout the Fighting Irish’s undefeated 2012 season, anyway.
For every suggestion that the defensive backs were Notre Dame’s Achilles’ heel, they certainly held up just fine. The Irish pass defense comes into the BCS championship game ranked No. 21 in the Bowl Subdivision at 194.4 yards yielded per game. More impressive is that opponents averaged 9.7 yards per completion, fewest in the nation. Not bad for a unit that returned just one starter from the 2011 season.
“Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks have done an incredible job back there in developing those players,” Brian Kelly told reporters.
Safety Zeke Motta, the lone member of the secondary with starting experience coming into this season, is Notre Dame’s second leading tackler. Cornerback Bennett Jackson rose from the ranks of special teams to record 60 tackles and intercept four passes. Among Irish, only Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o picked off more attempts than Jackson.
Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell exemplify the on-the-job training the secondary has had to undergo while backing up the Irish’s celebrated front seven. Russell, a true freshman, has 50 tackles, a pair of interceptions and four passes defended. Converted wide receiver Farley has flourished in his move to safety.
The unit’s certainly patchwork, hence the weak link refrain. And one more time, it must defy expectations.
Alabama’s offense is built on power. The offensive line is star-studded with Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and Cyrus Kouandijo paving the way for the two-headed rushing attack of T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. Doug Nussmeier and Nick Saban won’t shy from sending those hard-rushing backs at the Irish front, but Te’o, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III should be game for the challenge.
The Irish front seven is the best against the rush Alabama sees this season. LSU and Texas A&M were the next stingiest. Against the Tigers and Aggies, quarterback A.J. McCarron passed more than the Tide ball carriers rushed.
And in the BCS championship a season ago, Alabama went to a decidedly pass-heavy attack to keep LSU back on its heels. The Tigers never quite adjusted, which softened them for the knockout blow via a long Trent Richardson rush.
The Tide passing game can work in that fashion, but McCarron also demonstrated his ability to toss haymakers off the rushers’ production. His arm won games over LSU and Georgia on the final drive when, after the ball carriers averaged substantial gains per attempt, he picked apart defenses drawn forward.
McCarron isn’t without weapons, either. His SEC championship-winning pass was completed to Amari Cooper, who made a terrific grab. In total, Cooper caught eight passes against Georgia for 128 yards. The freshman is perhaps the most talented wideout Notre Dame sees on the season, save the USC All-American Marqise Lee.
Lee caught five passes against the UND secondary for 75 yards — misleading statistics, given freshman quarterback Max Wittek was making his debut start in the regular season finale. A veteran quarterback with an established chemistry poses a far great challenge to Notre Dame’s pass defense.