Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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6 JANUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI F rom the time he started out as a linebacker coach at alma mater Kent State in 1975, cur- rent Alabama head coach Nick Saban has exclusively coached on that side of the ball. The former defensive back for the Golden Flashes even regularly instructs the Crimson Tide secondary. His defensive acumen was noted during the early days of the juggernaut he built at Alabama. When he won his first national title with the Crimson Tide in 2009, that group was built on su- preme defense — with coordina- tor Kirby Smart selected as the Broyles Award Assistant Coach of the Year — complemented by mainly a power ground attack. At one point that season, Ala- bama had a four-game stretch (three versus ranked teams) where it won by scores of 22-3, 20-6, 12-10 and 24-15. W h e n S a b a n won his third na- tional champion- ship in 2012 ver- sus Notre Dame, defense still ruled as Alabama finished No. 1 nationally in points allowed per game (10.3), while the Irish were No. 2 (12.8). Although the Crimson Tide still recruits premier talent on defense, Saban's approach to the game has changed with the times. This year, he won games by scores of 63-48 (versus Ole Miss) and 52-46 (SEC Champion- ship Dec. 19 versus Florida). Two of the last three winners of the Broyles Award were his offensive coordina- tors: Mike Locksley (2018) and Steve Sarkisian (2020). Since the College Football Playoff (CFP) first began in 2014, the bro- mide about "defense winning cham- pionships" has fallen somewhat by the wayside. In the first CFP, Alabama lost a semifinal shootout 42-35 to Ohio State. The next year it had to defeat Clemson 45-40 in the championship tilt. In recent seasons, Saban has ad- justed and embraced the fast-paced spread attacks that have taken over the game. Georgia advanced to the 2017 title game with a 54-48 win in the semifinal (with no overtime) versus Oklahoma. Clemson tallied 35 and 44 points versus Saban's crew to win it all in 2016 and 2018, and LSU last year averaged 48.4 points per game en route to the title, including a 46-41 victory over Alabama. Notre Dame's offense has been above average in recent years, but the 30- to 35-point averages have been behind the pace of the 44 to nearly 50 points averaged by the upper tier. "It seems in college football the teams that can score points usually fare well in games like this," Saban said prior to facing Notre Dame in this CFP. "And you've got to be able to play good defense. So you sort of try to keep from getting beat before you can win." Notice he didn't say "great" defense or "championship" defense. Just "good" might be enough, because offenses set the pace. Prior to becoming the head coach at Vanderbilt last month, Clark Lea enjoyed a stellar three- year run as Notre Dame's defen- sive coordinator from 2018-20, but also recognized how rule changes over the years have al- lowed offenses to put up more points on the board, plus dy- namic playmakers at quarter- back and receiver have extended defenses to their maximum. "As long as teams have the ability to spread the field out, and particularly run the quar- terback, you're always going to be forced to defend with all 11 players," Lea said. "You're go- ing to be zeroed out, every person is going to have a responsibility. Until you have a guy that can cover two responsibilities, then you're one-for-one across the board — and you better win your one-on-ones. That's where offenses become so complicated. "They've found ways to isolate you. If your DB is one step behind or if your linebacker is leveraged an inch off the body … you can run into a lot of space. What I feel like I'm seeing is just the willingness [of of- fenses] to continue to push the enve- lope for what's possible. What these teams are asking of their quarter- back, how they're using tempo, hard counts … it is relentless." The zone read and running threat with quarterbacks — including a probable No. 1 pick such as Clem- son's Trevor Lawrence, who rushed for 90 yards against Notre Dame in the Tigers' 34-10 win Dec. 19 — par- UNDER THE DOME TAKING THE OFFENSIVE Defenses today are constantly playing catch-up Clark Lea's Notre Dame defense entered the College Football Playoff allowing 18.6 points and 335.1 yards per game, which ranked 14th and 20th, respectively, in the country. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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