MIAMI — When Fighting Irish senior safety Zeke Motta boarded the charter flight for South Florida, it was less than 20 degrees in South Bend, Ind., and snow continued to blanket the Notre Dame campus.
When his flight landed it was sunny and nearly 80 degrees as the No. 1 Irish arrived at the Fort Lauderdale airport in preparation for Monday night’s BCS National Championship game against No. 2 Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
“It’s good to be back,” said Motta, who hails from Vero Beach, Fla. “You dream about this moment and this opportunity. It’s amazing and a blessing.”
Be careful what you wish for. The heralded Irish defense, ranked No. 1 in points allowed (10.33 per game), must warm to the challenge of matching up with an Alabama offense that is one of the most balanced in the country.
In 2012, Alabama, led by quarterback AJ. McCarron, has rushed for 2,920 yards and passed for 2,788, a difference of just 132 yards.
Alabama, shooting for its second consecutive national championship and third in four years, is also incredibly efficient in “red zone” situations, putting points on the board 51 out of 57 trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard line.
Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco, recently awarded the Broyles award for the top assistant coach in the country, said the secret to Bama’s offensive balance is McCarron who is a two-year starter and already has a national title notched in his belt.
“He’s the driver,” Diaco said Thursday morning. “He’s the coach on the field and puts them in the right spots. … (McCarron) conducts the game just like if (head coach) Nick Saban was taking the snap himself. I mean, he doesn’t put the team in bad spots. He doesn’t make poor decisions with the ball.”
That analysis has teeth in McCarron’s 24-2 record during his two seasons running the show in Tuscaloosa. He has thrown 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year, making him the most efficient quarterback in the country.
Balance that with the explosive rushing tandem of Eddie Lacy (1,182 yards) and T.J. Yeldon (1,000 yards) and the challenge intensifies further for the Irish.
“Both backs are just tremendous runners,” Motta said. “Lacy in particular is a strong, big back and is the run-you-over type, so we’ve had to prepare for that these past six weeks. We’ll be ready.”
A glance at the national statistical rankings seems to point to a classic match-up between a smart and effective offense and a staunch and dominant defense.
The Crimson Tide rank second overall in passing efficiency, 16th overall in rushing yards per game (224) and 13th in scoring offense (38.5 points per game). Notre Dame ranks fourth in rushing yards allowed (94 per game) and 21st in pass efficiency defense. But it’s how the Irish keep opponents out of the end zone that has Alabama Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier concerned.
“The biggest thing is they lead the nation in scoring defense,” Nussmeier said Thursday. “They’re giving up 10.3 points per game and they do a great job of keeping you out of the end zone. The goal of the game is to score points.”
Earlier this season the Notre Dame defense – anchored by all-world linebacker Manti Te’o – held six consecutive opponents to under 300 yards of total offense. The Irish didn’t allow a rushing touchdown this season until Oct. 27 against No. 7 Oklahoma.
The Irish have also come up with big plays via sacks and takeaways. Te’o is second in the nation in interceptions with seven and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt is seventh in the country with 12 sacks. That ranks him just 1.5 behind ND single-season leader Justin Tuck (2003). Tuck is now an all-pro defensive end for the New York Giants and owner of two Super Bowl rings.
Notre Dame’s explosiveness on defense is not lost on McCarron.
“(Notre Dame) does a really good job of making big plays on the defensive side,” McCarron said. “Most of the time you’re thinking going into the game you have to win with big offensive plays. But, their defense makes a lot of big plays too.”
And then there’s Te’o.
“Manti always seems to find the ball, as do all great players on defense,” Nussmeier said. “You look at the interceptions, the tackles, he always seems to be around the ball. He has great natural instincts and is a phenomenal athlete. It’s going to be very important that we know where he is at all times.”
That has been a difficult trick off the field this post-season as Te'o jetted across the county, attending awards program after awards program on his way to becoming the most decorated college football player in history, winning the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award along with every major defense award for 2012. Te’o finished second to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manzeil in the Heisman balloting. He received the most votes ever by an exclusively defensive player.
On the field, Te’o has developed into the premier pass coverage linebacker in college, collecting seven interceptions his senior year. He didn’t have any his first three years.
Te’o and the Irish secondary will have their hands full with an Alabama passing game that averages just 214 yards passing per game, but is second in the country in passing efficiency.
Nussmeier believes the Notre Dame defense is very comparable to the top defenses in the SEC.
“This is as good a front seven as we’ve seen,” Nussmeier said. “They do a great job of jumping in and out of their odd defense and going from an odd to a four-down front. … They’re just a really, really good defense.”
While Te’o has made such a significant jump in pass coverage, he hasn’t relented on stopping the run, collecting a team high 103 tackles, five for a loss and recovering two fumbles. The senior captain also spearheaded goal-line stands against Stanford and USC that helped propel the Irish to this point.
As usual, he says he looks forward to going up against the nation’s best in Yancy and Yeldon.
“It’s football at its finest,” Te’o said, “This is an opportunity we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
— Mike Wanbaugh is a reporter for The Goshen (Ind.) News.