No. 12, 18, 20 and 26: those are where the top defenses Alabama faced this season rank in points allowed. The No. 3, 9, 11, 20 and 23 scoring defenses comprised five of Notre Dame’s 12 regular season games.
Though none are at quite the same level as Notre Dame and Alabama when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone — the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide rank first and second — each offense comes into Monday’s BCS championship with experience against the nation’s toughest defense.
Alabama faced its stiffest defensive challenges from LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, each in the final month. Not coincidentally, these were the Tide’s three most competitive games. Late game deficits and selling out on the rush made quarterback A.J. McCarron throw more than the Tide rushed against Texas A&M and LSU; Georgia struggled to contain Alabama on the ground, but it was McCarron’s connection with wide receiver Amari Cooper that made the difference that day.
“The goal of any offense is to put your playmakers in position to make plays,” said Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. “Scoring points, having balance, those are things you focus on. Sometimes as the flow of the game dictates, you do certain things and you start to do them and you do them well and you stay with them.”
Notre Dame took on BYU, Michigan State, Stanford and Pitt, defenses that gave up a combined 909 points in 53 games. The Irish scored of an average of just 21.5 points in those four contests, the high coming in its 29-point output against Pitt — and that game went to three overtimes. Same for the 20 it mustered against Stanford.
Their common opponent was Michigan. Both saw the Wolverines early in the season. Their results were significant different. Alabama began the defense of its national championship with a 41-14 shellacking of Michigan in Week 1.
The Tide rolled off 431 yards, including 232 on the ground. Running back T.J. Yeldon was particularly effective, averaging more than a first down each time he touched the ball. Notre Dame’s path to a victory over its rival Michigan was much different. The Irish won a sloppy, 13-6 decision. Notable from this Week 4 meeting was Michigan recording five consecutive giveaways.
The 13 points UND scored that night were its fewest from any contest in the 2012 season.
In its four games against defenses ranked in the nation’s top 26, Alabama averaged 27 points per game, all in regulatino. Notre Dame’s four against opponents with similar criteria? Sixteen-point-six. Seven points scored Stanford and nine against Pitt in four extra periods bump the overall average to a shade below 20.
Also worth taking into consideration is the average margin of victory. Alabama mashed Michigan, but edged Georgia and LSU on its final possessions and lost to Texas A&M. The Tide’s margin through those four contests is plus-30, or 7.5 per game. Notre Dame’s is plus-34, 7.4 points per: almost identical.
Put succinctly, each offense has some idea what it’s in for, and what it’s capable of doing against the defense lined up opposite it on Monday. “Battle-tested,” is how Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin described it at Saturday’s media day press conference.
But the day-to-day experiences of practices will also prove useful.
“[Alabama is] pretty diverse on defense,” Martin said during Saturday’s media day press conference. “They use their three‑down and four‑down packages, much like our defense uses our three‑down and four‑down packages.
“That was one of the nice things over the last month was that similar fronts that Alabama uses are the same fronts that Coach Diaco uses on our
defense,” Martin added.
Indeed, the two best defenses either of these offenses faced may be their own. The preparation practice gives the Tide and Irish will have a profound impact for two teams that, in so many ways, seem locked in stalemate.