FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – If you want a viewing tip for the BCS championship game Monday night, here it is: Don't watch the ball.
Watch the linemen.
Especially when Alabama has the football.
If you keep your eyes on the surprisingly agile pachyderms mashing facemasks up front, you will see the best matchup of the game. Maybe the best matchup of the entire season in college football. You will see a Crimson Tide offensive line laden with experience and NFL talent battling a Notre Dame front seven laden with experience and NFL talent.
You will see huge on huge. Mean on mean. Smart on smart. Athletic on athletic. Proud on proud.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, on Alabama's line: "Tackle to tackle, it's the best collection of offensive linemen we've played against. They're uniquely big and fast. They have quick twitch. They're not on the ground. They have excellent contact balance and ballast. They play hard, that's another unique trait. It's not another happy-go-lucky group of offensive linemen. This is an angry, aggressive, intense group of players that play hard and finish blocks."
Alabama center Barrett Jones, on Notre Dame's front seven: "They don't make mistakes. That's the thing you see on film, they don't make mistakes. They don't slant the wrong gap and leave huge holes where they're going to give you easy touchdowns. They make you earn it. We're going to have to execute, use our hands well, and do it that way."
Watch the line and you will see a 'Bama front five that averages 6-4 2/3, 314 pounds going up against a three-man Notre Dame front that averages 6-4 1/3, 312. And those Irish linemen are buttressed by a four-man linebacker crew that goes 6-2 1/3, 248. Those are all prototype professional measurements.
You will see 40 percent of the AP All-America offensive line in Jones and guard Chance Warmack, with second-team All-American D.J. Fluker at tackle. They will go up against the absurdly decorated Manti Te'o (a Notre Dame-record seven national awards, plus a runner-up finish for the Heisman Trophy) and second-team All-America defensive end Stephon Tuitt – and a lot of people think powerhouse nose guard Louis Nix III is the most important member of the entire front seven.
Despite the accolades, they all play like their scholarships are riding on every snap.
"We each play heartfelt football," Warmack said.
Alabama ranks 19th nationally in rushing at 224.6 yards per game – but that's just part of the story. The Crimson Tide's 5.56 yards per carry is sixth in the nation, showing that they get quality gains out of almost every run. Alabama also is sixth nationally in fewest penalties per game, and a big part of that is an offensive line that gets called for holding about as often as Nick Saban smiles during a game.
"They have great hands, great technique," Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said of the Tide line. "They finish plays."
But Notre Dame's defensive numbers are even more impressive than Alabama's offensive totals. The Irish are fourth nationally in rushing defense and first in scoring defense, giving up just 10.3 points per game. Craziest stat of all: They have allowed exactly two rushing touchdowns all season, one against Oklahoma on Oct. 27, and one the following week against Pittsburgh. Otherwise, ball carriers have hit a barrier at the goal line, with memorable goal-line stands to show for it against Stanford and USC.
"They're just as physical as anybody we've ever played," Warmack said of the Irish. "They're defensively sound. You don't see a lot of teams like that."
Alabama has been plenty explosive, producing 20 touchdowns of 20 or more yards. Notre Dame allows almost nothing of the sort, surrendering just one TD from more than 20 yards away – and that was in the season opener against Navy. Diaco's mantra since his days with head coach Brian Kelly at Cincinnati, and perhaps even before that, at Central Michigan, has been No Big Plays. Keep everything in front of you, tackle securely and make the offense earn every blade of grass.
Alabama's offensive line was never more dominating than its last game, in the Southeastern Conference championship. Against a Georgia defense with its own fair share of NFL prospects, the Tide rampaged for 350 rushing yards in a whopping 51 attempts. Eddie Lacy broke tackles and spun past defenders for 181 yards and two touchdowns, while freshman backup T.J. Yeldon slashed and sprinted for 153 yards and a score.
Notre Dame has allowed two 100-yard rushers this season, Stepfan Taylor of Stanford (102) and Ray Graham of Pitt (172). The last three teams the Irish have faced – Boston College, Wake Forest and USC – did not produce 100 rushing yards.
In previous BCS title games, one of the key differentiating factors has been defensive line play. In the process of winning six straight crystal footballs, SEC schools have displayed a dominance up front defensively that the likes of Ohio State (2006 and '07), Oklahoma ('08) and Texas ('09) could not handle. And those teams did not have the hosses of their own to wreak havoc on SEC offenses.
Well, Notre Dame has an SEC defensive front seven, stocked with players from SEC territory or very nearby. Nix is from Jacksonville, Fla. Tuitt is from Monroe, Ga. Lewis-Moore is from Weatherford, Texas. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo is from Charlotte, N.C.
"They have SEC size and speed," Jones said of the Irish.
And they have SEC confidence.
"They're good," Lewis-Moore said. "We're not intimidated by any means."
So forget the glamour boys in the backfield and out toward the boundaries of the field. Watch the brawl in the middle. It may be the best football you've seen all season.
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