January 7, 2013 in Sports

Air attack the wild card for Tide, Irish

Michael Casagrande South Florida Sun Sentinel
 
Associated Press photo

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide used a pass-heavy attack in last year’s title game.
(Full-size photo)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Enough of the talk.

Sometime around 9 tonight, a champion will be crowned at Sun Life Stadium. It’ll end the weeks of hype, debate and discussion entering one of the more anticipated college football games in memory.

It’s Notre Dame and Alabama – No. 1 vs. No. 2 – with dynasty-level implications involved. It frankly doesn’t get bigger than this.

So who wins?

Conventional wisdom says the ground game will determine who hoists the crystal football in the witching hour. Control the line and the glory is yours. But, for two of the nation’s best running teams, the wild card could be in the passing game.

Both Alabama and Notre Dame have weaknesses in matchups or personnel away from the two dominating lines. Though Alabama’s pass defense ranks second nationally and Notre Dame’s ninth, there’s room for exploitation.

“If I’m Alabama, I’m definitely trying to throw the football,” said Kirk Herbstreit, the former Ohio State quarterback who’ll be in the ESPN broadcast booth tonight. “We all thought (Oklahoma’s) Landry Jones and Oklahoma might challenge them through the air, but they didn’t. They weren’t able to do it. We thought (USC’s) Matt Barkley at the end of the year might do it, but he went down with an injury. Nobody’s been able to successfully challenge them vertically in the passing game. I think Alabama will try to do that.”

Notre Dame has a young secondary that has the potential to be beaten with the deep ball. Back on Oct. 6, Miami receiver Phillip Dorsett twice dropped sure touchdowns after beating the corners on the first two plays of a 41-3 Hurricane loss. Pittsburgh, which came a missed overtime field goal away from unseating Notre Dame on Nov. 3, averaged 24.5 yards per completion during a 29-26 loss.

And Alabama has a history of adapting in championship moments.

The Tide defied its convention in last year’s BCS title game with a pass-heavy attack while effectively using star running back Trent Richardson as a decoy.

In what was considered quarterback A.J. McCarron’s breakout game, he gashed LSU’s highly touted secondary. He was 23 for 34 passing for 234 yards during a 21-0 win. It was the most passes he threw all season, exceeding his average attempts by 10.

Alabama’s passing attack ranks a modest No. 78 nationally, according to the numbers. Notre Dame is just four spots better, but the Irish do things a little differently.

While McCarron’s top three targets were all wide receivers, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson looks to his other options with great regularity. Tight end Tyler Eifert leads the way (44 catches, 624 yards) with running back Theo Riddick catching the third-most passes.

That creates mismatches with the linebackers assigned to the more versatile pass catchers who play multiple secondary roles.

“They can create a lot of situations where those guys are put out in space where big people, linebacker types, may have a little more difficult time playing them,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

LSU had success against the Tide’s larger-than-average linebackers. The Tigers completed 8 of 25 passes for 38 percent of their yardage to running backs and tight ends back on Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge. Alabama still escaped with the 21-17 win, but the Tide looked beatable.

Could Notre Dame do the same?

“If I’m attacking Alabama, I’m putting the ball in the hands of Everett Golson and I’m asking him to use his feet to keep plays alive and playing with the same composure that he played with in the last five games,” Herbstreit said. “And he has to find Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. Those two are the keys in their passing game. Those two have to win one-on-one matchups.”

Moving those two around in various formations also contributes to the Tide’s potential matchup difficulties. But a month of preparation and film study could neutralize that advantage.

Either way, a resolution is just hours away. The talk will end when a champ is crowned.


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