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Initial Impressions: Alabama Warms Up for the National Championship by Dispatching of Notre Dame

After scoring at will for three drives, Alabama went full joyless-Saban-murderball to kill the clock.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Alabama’s dispatching of Notre Dame was a game almost totally devoid of storylines, drama, or even massive highlights. Which, if we’re being honest, was what absolutely everyone in the nation expected to happen. But a playoff is EXACTLY what we need to determine the best team in the nation, right guys?

Notre Dame’s biggest chance in this game was to shorten the clock as much as possible, get a few stops in the run game, and hope for a few turnovers or busted plays to go their way. And in the first three drives, Alabama made absolutely sure that the high-variance game plan was something that the Irish would NOT be able to rely on.

The Tide strung together a series of 10+ yard plays, starting with a screen pass to the notoriously slippery and speedy TE Miller Forrsitall and ending with a 26-yard catch and run screen touchdown to Heisman-to-be DeVonta Smith. The Domers have a powerful defensive front, but have definitely been shown to be slow to the sidelines, and Steve Sarkisian was quick to target that.

A quick stop by the Tide defense put it back in Alabama’s hands, and Najee Harris displayed his alien-vs-predator skills, leaping three stories over a defensive back near the sidelines and racing 53-yards before being pushed out of bounds.

One play later, Jahleel Billingsley, the next coming of an athletic TE uber-weapon in the playoffs for Alabama, slipped wide open into the endzone on a playaction pass, jumping the Tide out to a 14-point lead.

To their credit, Notre Dame, despite looking obviously out-talented, converted a series of 3rd downs by an inch at a time, wasting 8 minutes of game clock on 15 plays before finally getting the ball into the endzone on 4th and 1.

Alabama, not to be outdone, came back and flexed their nation-leading passing attack. A quick screen to Smith picked up 13 of the field, and then Billingsley followed that up with a crazy one-handed shoe-string catch across the middle with a defender draped all over him. It’s great to see someone else taking some pressure off of DeVonta Smith on making tough, contested catches.

Alabama finished it off with a quick slant to Smith, who outraced the entire defense for a 34-yard score. He landed hard on his tailbone on the play and got up slowly, making every Alabama fan in the world clench their own tailbones. He came right back the next drive, though, so no issues there.

Alabama forced another punt, and, though they were only up 2 scores, the game was pretty much in hand at this point. Sarkisian changed his strategy from attacking the outside of the Notre Dame defense to trying to ram Najee Harris up the middle and run out the clock to get into halftime without the Irish getting another possession.

It didn’t quite work out, though, as the Irish’s stout front-seven held strong and forced a punt. They tried to put together a frantic 50-second scoring drive, with Ian Book picking up a couple of huge chunks of yards to get down the field. The Alabama defense held stout once they crossed midfield, though, and forced the field goal. Freshman phenom Will Anderson absolutely blasted the poor sap trying to block him and got his hand on the kick, preserving Alabama’s 14-point lead.

In typical Saban fashion, Alabama’s first drive out of halftime was quite lackluster, other than an impressive 22-yard catch where Smith seemed to levitate for 5 seconds in the air. They punted back after continuing to try and ram the ball right into the strength of the Notre Dame defense. Ian Book came out firing, hoping to get the Irish back into striking distance, but was ultimately picked off by Christian Harris, who used his outstanding closing speed to undercut the deep out route by the tight end and come up with the first turnover of the game.

Alabama’s defense has really struggled at covering TE’s all year long, so that was particularly gratifying to see.

A huge catch and run by John Metchie got Alabama right into scoring range again, and Smith tightroped on the right sideline of the endzone for his third touchdown of the game. The footwork in such tight spaces was very clearly him showing out to try and become a top-5 NFL draft pick.

A big sack from a bigger guy in Christian Barmore ended the next drive, and Alabama came back with the same clock-killing game plan and eventually ended up with a 41-yard field goal to extend Will Reichard’s perfect streak.

That ended the game for all intents and purposes. Notre Dame wound up stopped on 4th down after a long drive, Alabama tried to kill a little more clock, and then the Domers put together a scoring drive with under a minute left to get the backdoor spread cover.

They did manage to convert the onside kick after that, but Alabama’s defense made sure they didn’t another pointless score and ended the game.

Honestly, after the first three drives, Alabama seemed to go into an A-Day-style game plan. I obviously can’t prove this but I think the coaches quickly figured out that the talent gap was way too large for the Irish to overcome, and were happy to kill clock, minimize chances at injury, and keep as much film as possible away from either Clemson or Ohio State.

Basically, the exact same thing Clemson got to use Notre Dame for in 2018.

Despite that, DeVonta Smith was his usual, dominant self. He made tough catches, he broke tackles, and he outran people for the least-heralded 100-yard first half of all time. John Metchie had a big catch, Jahleel Billingsley made a couple of high-leverage catches, Slade Bolden got a nice first down, and against all odds, Miller Forristall took a couple of screen passes for nice yardage.

That’s the kind of contributions we need from those guys in the finale next week when the Tigers or Buckeyes do their best to try and limit Smith.

The offensive line clearly missed Landon Dickerson when trying to run up the middle, but Chris Owens overall played mistake-free, which is as good as we could hope.

Defensively, Alabama played fairly well, thought they gave up a few long drives. Of course, that was Notre Dame’s strength, but they definitely struggled a bit with the off-tackle runs. They have all season, and that its what it is at this point.

Nickel corner Malachi Moore apparently got nicked up in practice, so fellow freshman Brian Branch played in his stead. As usual, Branch played quite well, and was inches away from a couple of interceptions of his own. The dude’s still developing, but he’s going to be a star in the coming years.

DeMarcco Hellams seemed to have finally displaced Daniel Wright as the starter at safety and had a great game. Him chasing down Ian Book from the opposite side of the field looked like he was playing the game at a totally different speed from everyone else, and he had a couple of bone-shattering tackles. I don’t know if that change will stick in the final game, but I think it needs to.

Christian Harris came out of the game after his interception, and Jaylen Moody played really well in his place. He chased down a couple of running backs into the flats for minimal gain, which, to be honest, is something the Alabama linebackers have been rather bad at most of this season. Saban said that it was more of a preventative measure to keep Harris from reinjuring the shoulder that he hurt against Arkansas.

All in all, this was exactly the game we expected Alabama to play, and we know what we have in this team going into the championship. It’s a multiple, dynamic offense centered on a wide receiver that’s impossible to cover and a running back who always breaks the first tackle. There’s a group of other solid receivers and QB who stays on schedule and can take checkdowns or bomb it deep, depending on the defensive gameplan.

The defense has a couple of good pass rushers in Will Anderson and Christian Barmore and a lockdown trio of cornerbacks. The linebackers can make some big athletic plays but are susceptible to play fakes and covering running backs. Moving Hellams into the starting safety spot adds a dimension to the defense that I don’t think they had before, and could be an impactful move for the season finale.

One more game guys. For all the glory.

Roll Tide!