Heisman Trophy finalists Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith combined for three touchdowns to lead top-ranked Alabama to a 31-14 Rose Bowl victory over Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide displayed their superior athleticism to jump out to a quick 14-0 lead before the Fighting Irish settled down and made a game of it. Ultimately, Notre Dame lacked the offensive firepower to keep pace, and Alabama was never seriously threatened.
After stopping the Irish in the opening possession, Jones swiftly moved the Tide into scoring position. He got the ball to Smith in the flat, and the fleet receiver blew past the secondary from 26 yards out to open the scoring.
Notre Dame could not answer, and Jay Bramblett punted the ball to the Alabama three yard line. That was not a problem for the Tide, who rode a spectacular 53-yard run by Najee Harris into scoring position. Jones hit Jahleel Billingley for a score moments later for a 14-0 lead.
The game could have easily deteriorated into a blowout, but credit goes to Notre Dame for fighting back. A screen pass to Chris Tyree and strong running by Kyren Williams highlighted an eight minute, 75-yard drive to pull the Irish within 14-7.
Alabama was not fazed. Jones continued to make excellent decisions in the run-pass option to keep the Tide rolling. The Irish safeties were moving forward to stop the run, so Jones would pull the ball back and deliver it to his playmakers on the perimeter. He hit Smith for 24 yards before finding him again for a 34-yard touchdown midway through the second period.
The Irish had a chance to add points at the end of the half, but a long field goal attempt by Jonathan Doerer had a low trajectory and was tipped at the line.
Notre Dame’s defense amped up the pressure on Jones in the third quarter and stopped Alabama’s opening drive. Ian Book began to move Notre Dame, but threw an ill-advised pass on the run that was picked off by linebacker Christian Harris. This clearly deflated the Irish, who quickly gave up a back-breaking scoring drive that ended with another pass to Smith.
The Tide added a field goal for a 31-7 advantage as the game moved into the fourth quarter. Book was able to engineer a last-ditch scoring march in the final minutes, but the issue had long been decided.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Can the Irish generate meaningful yardage on the ground? Yes, at least in the first half. The line was physical and the backs ran with determination. It was the best part of the day’s effort for the Irish.
- Will Notre Dame’s faster but little-used receivers give the offense a boost? None of the players I named in the pregame article caught a pass in the first 55 minutes. Lawrence Keys and Avery Davis each grabbed one in the waning moments.
- Can the Irish pass rush force Jones out of his comfort zone? Not very often, but more than Jones has been used to all season.
- Will Book find room to extend plays if his receivers are initially covered? Book had some positive scrambles but also had to throw it away a few times. He took a bad 14-yard sack and was briefly knocked out of the game.
- Can the Irish avoid turnovers and special teams breakdowns that lead to cheap points? Book’s third quarter interception was a back breaker. Alabama scored to take a 28-7 lead and the game was over.
- Which defense will be able to get off the field on third down? Both sides were respectable here. Alabama was six for ten and Notre Dame was eight of 16.
- Can Notre Dame convert scoring chances into touchdowns rather than field goals? The problem was not enough scoring chances. The first half touchdown was positive, but losing a second half score to a motion penalty was ugly.
- Is there a vaccine for losing big games? Yes, it’s called recruiting.
As expected, the difference in the game centered around the skill positions Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines acquitted themselves well, but the Irish secondary could not match up well with the Tide receivers. Conversely, Alabama’s secondary controlled Notre Dame’s receivers most of the night.
The Irish held the Tide to 31 points against their average of 50, and 437 yards versus an average of 544. Smith, Harris and Jones were the difference makers for Alabama. The trio showed why they are Heisman finalists and were clearly the best offensive players on the field.
The path for Notre Dame could not be more clear. While they have an excellent pair of backs in Williams and Tyree, the quarterback and wide receiver positions need to get better. Defensively, the back seven lacks elite speed and physicality. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will depart for the NFL and safety Kyle Hamilton will probably make 2021 his final college season. The team could also use an upgrade to the pass rush.
This team gave us many fine moments and accomplished about as much as the talent and coaching allowed. Long time Irish fans, however, can’t be blamed for wanting more.