ARLINGTON, Tex. — A Rose Bowl national semifinal widely forecast to lack suspense wound up lacking suspense, unless you want to count the art exhibit. The art exhibit wowed.
© Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith scores the first touchdown of the game. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
In reaching its fifth College Football Playoff national championship game in the past six seasons and its eighth title game in the past 12, Alabama brandished some of the loveliest offense ever seen in college football, at least since LSU last year. So while its 31-14 win Friday over decided underdog Notre Dame played out predictably, the Heisman Trophy candidates on its celestial offense played out dazzlingly.
DeVonta Smith, the out-of-this-world wide receiver who was named Associated Press national player of the year, roamed the field to complete tasks of exquisite difficulty — or sometimes just roamed the field with a football. He caught seven passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns, two featuring breezy runs. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” he said of his mates.
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Najee Harris, the running back with 3,700-odd career yards, took the welcome recent-years fashion of leaping tacklers and elevated it further during an early 53-yard run, elevating himself above a defender who grabbed only air, with Harris’s legs splaying and the audience gasping before Harris rearranged himself to travel further. “I don’t know why I’m surprised every time he does it,” tight end Miller Forristall said, “because he’s been doing it for three years. But still, you’re like, ‘Jeez.’ ” Harris rushed 15 times for 125 yards.
Mac Jones got them the football, a good idea at which he was great, completing 14 of his first 15 passes and 25 of his full 30. “I’ve always said this: They make me look a lot better than I am,” Jones said.
The way it all moved looked all futuristic as the lead sprang to 21-7 across the first 21 minutes, at least until Notre Dame plied its general excellence and particular adjustments to tame the show from there.
Of course, relatively few observed any of this in person, with the crowd a pandemic-sparse 18,373 at AT&T Stadium. While those 18,373 did prove a reason for relocating the game from Pasadena, Calif., its home since near the beginning of time, they did sit indoors amid a Texas field without any peek at purple mountains. They were few enough that at times it seemed a coveted appearance on the Brobdingnagian video screen might come to each and every one of them. They sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the fourth quarter as throatily as they could.
The schools’ marching bands played only on that screen and only in past appearances, meaning some clarinetist or other might have graduated without ever playing at a Rose Bowl, only to emerge from bygone to play at a Rose Bowl.
Yet if a band on a board is a bummer, a Tide on offense is a thriller, more than capable of rocketing 79 yards in seven plays with a first possession, 97 yards in five watery plays with a second and 84 yards in six plays with a third. By that point, Alabama (12-0) had the 21-7 lead, 260 yards and 14.4 per spacious play. It had faced only one third down, a third and one that seemed some egregious inconvenience in need of scrupulous examination. Jones sneaked hurriedly for the first.
By contrast, watching Notre Dame felt like watching some admirable stagecoach, which for a long while kept the Alabama offense sidelined as a witness, always a wise approach. To pare the score from 14-0 to 14-7, the Fighting Irish (10-2) and their all-time winningest quarterback, Ian Book, took 15 plays to go 75 yards and gobble 8:03 of clock, a feat of patience and plotting and plodding. The trail further thickened with two Notre Dame timeouts and one officiating review, making the whole thing seem measurable by sundial. Ten of the last 11 plays went by ground and air to one workhorse, running back Kyren Williams, so it felt just when they went ahead on fourth and goal and let him score a one-yard Rose Bowl touchdown.
Of course, Smith soon roamed again, taking a short pass through the middle and over to the right sideline for a 34-yard touchdown, with the only drawback his hard fall into the end zone upon his backside. He made a brief visit to the injury tent, then returned to wreak more torment. “We just needed more firepower, quite frankly,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said, repeatedly dismissing the timeworn narrative of Notre Dame’s huge-game shortcomings by adding, “There is no other, wider story.”
A novelty did emerge with 50 seconds left in the half, when Alabama saw reason to bring in a punter, proving it had brought one. He’s Charlie Scott.
He’s the younger brother of JK Scott, the Green Bay Packers punter whom fanatics will remember for his 10-year stay as Alabama punter. Charlie Scott doesn’t turn up on national punting statistics lists because his mere 2.4 punts per game don’t qualify, which does seem draconian toward the idle punters out there. He punted 45 yards to a fair catch at the Notre Dame 11-yard line.
Nice seeing you, Charlie.
He would end up punting thrice for a 42.3-yard average.
Nice job, Charlie.
By his first appearance, though, Notre Dame clearly had figured out some things. Alabama began to find gaps more clogged and passing gains less scandalous. Its yards per play dwindled to around a sighing eight. “We were a little tentative [early],” Kelly said. “We shut our feet down. You can’t do that against highly skilled players. … If you shut your feet down for a second, they are gone. We got a little better at that.”
Yet still, there was this: At the end of a 62-yard scoring drive in the third quarter that featured a 40-yard catch and run by yet another phenomenal Alabama wide receiver, John Metchie III, Jones threw from the 7-yard line to the last available inch of air next to the right pylon. Smith, who has “done as much for our team as any player could do for any team,” in Coach Nick Saban’s words, made the hard catch like somebody from the NFL, leaving only the question of whether he got a foot down.
He got two, and it looked like the highest football art.
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7:34 PM: Notre Dame scores late TD, Alabama still leads by 31-14
In a drive only of major interest to Notre Dame fans — and to anyone who bet the spread, which closed at around 19.5 points in Alabama’s favor — the Fighting Irish got a touchdown with under a minute left to make the score 31-14.
Quarterback Ian Book kept the ball and took it around the left end for the score from one yard out. Earlier in the 14-play, 80-yard drive, Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly appeared to call for a punt on a 4th-and-8 play, but after a timeout, Book stayed on the field and completed a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Avery Davis.
Notre Dame then recovered an onside kick, giving it a chance for another late, but fairly meaningless score.
By: Des Bieler
7:09 PM: Notre Dame turns ball over on downs after TD is waved off
Notre Dame thought it had a touchdown to trim its deficit to 31-14, but the 13-yard play was waved off by officials, who instead flagged the Fighting Irish for a five-yard illegal shift penalty. Pushed back to Alabama’s 18-yard line, Notre Dame could only get back those five yards on three plays, and a fourth-down incompletion gave the ball back to the Crimson Tide.
That may well have represented the Irish’s final chance at making something of a game of this College Football Playoff semifinal. Taking over with under nine minutes left and a 24-point lead, Alabama figures to be able to run the ball on its remaining offensive plays and ultimately ice the contest.
By: Des Bieler
6:59 PM: Alabama tacks on FG, increases lead to 31-7
Alabama made its first field goal attempt of the game, with Will Reichard hitting from 41 yards out to give his team a 31-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. That capped a 10-play, 47-yard drive that began after Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was briefly knocked out of the game.
Book took a heavy hit on a sack by Alabama’s Christian Barmore and was replaced for a third-down play by backup Drew Pyne, after which the Fighting Irish punted. Following Reichard’s field goal, Book was back on the field.
By: Des Bieler
6:37 PM: Alabama turns interception into TD, 28-7 lead
Alabama turned the first turnover of the game into the third touchdown for DeVonta Smith. The senior wide receiver caught a seven-yard pass in the end zone from Mac Jones that pushed the Crimson Tide’s lead to 28-7 over Notre Dame.
The drive started at Alabama’s 38-yard line after linebacker Christian Harris intercepted a pass from Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, who had rolled out to his right and tried to hit Michael Mayer downfield but underthrew his pass to the well-covered tight end.
The ensuing drive for the Tide took five plays to go 62 yards. Wide receiver John Metchie III took a pass over the middle 40 yards, and Jones converted a third-down play by running for nine yards and setting up the touchdown.
By: Des Bieler
6:20 PM: Notre Dame forces punt to start second half
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Notre Dame is now two-for-two in forcing Alabama punts over the past two Crimson Tide possessions, not counting a single kneel-down just before halftime. The Fighting Irish got the second-half start for which it was hoping by getting Alabama to kick away the ball after an eight-play drive that went backward after reaching Notre Dame’s 37-yard line.
Now the Irish, who came up short on a field-goal attempt in their final first-half drive, can attempt to cut their deficit down from 21 points to seven or at least 11. The question is if Notre Dame continues its methodical style or if quarterback Ian Book is encouraged to push the ball downfield more.
By: Des Bieler
6:03 PM: Notre Dame misses FG, goes to halftime down 21-7 to Alabama
A 51-yard field goal attempt by Notre Dame place-kicker Jonathan Doerer came up short just before halftime, and Alabama took a knee to go to the locker room with a 21-7 lead.
If losing teams look for things they can build upon, the Fighting Irish could take some satisfaction in finally being able to force a punt before its final drive of the first half. Before that punt, Alabama’s first three possessions had resulted in three touchdowns on drives using a total of just 18 plays.
At that point, the Crimson Tide was averaging a ludicrous 14.4 yards per play, but it was slowed a bit on its fourth drive. Nevertheless, Alabama posted some video game-like numbers over the first two quarters, including: quarterback Mac Jones completing 14 of 16 passes for 182 yards and three scores; wide receiver DeVonta Smith catching five passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns; and running back Najee Harris gaining 93 yards on seven carries, with 15 more on two catches.
For Notre Dame, quarterback Ian Book also completed a high number of passes, 10 of 13, but as is his wont, few went very far downfield. He accumulated just 84 yards and no touchdowns on those 13 attempts, and just one reception was posted by a wide receiver.
The Fighting Irish had the advantage in terms of first-half time of possession, leading 17:45-12:15, but everything else went in the Crimson Tide’s direction, including a 279-189 edge in total yards. Favored by almost 20 points, Alabama appears well on its way to covering that number, never mind winning this College Football Playoff semifinal. However, a two-touchdown deficit is far from insurmountable over 30 minutes of game time, and the Irish can hope to come up with a turnover or two to turn things around.
By: Des Bieler
5:26 PM: Alabama again flies downfield, now up 21-7
Alabama’s first touchdown drive went 79 yards in seven plays, and its second covered 97 yards in just five plays. For its third touchdown, the Crimson Tide split the difference, using a mere six plays to go 84 yards.
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith caught his second touchdown pass from Mac Jones, this one on a 34-yard catch-and-run, to give the Tide a 21-7 lead over Notre Dame. That provided a speedy answer after the Fighting Irish got their first touchdown on the preceding drive.
That drive required the Irish to use 15 plays, including conversions on three third downs and, for the scoring play, a fourth down. Alabama is showing no such difficulty at all moving downfield, and until Notre Dame can slow down its opponent on defense, it stands very little chance in this CFP semifinal.
By: Des Bieler
5:19 PM: Notre Dame scores TD on 4th-down play, cuts deficit to 14-7
Notre Dame got a touchdown it desperately needed, and it did it the way it wants to. The Fighting Irish methodically drove 75 yards in 15 plays, and they punched into the end zone on a fourth-down play to cut Alabama’s lead to 14-7.
The touchdown was scored from less than a yard out by Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams, after quarterback Ian Book was ruled to have gone down by contact just short of the goal line on the previous play. The drive consumed almost eight minutes of game time, which fits well the Irish’s winning template of controlling the clock.
The problem is that, on its first two drives, Alabama all but sprinted down the field, needing just 12 plays total and less than five minutes of game time to score its two touchdowns.
By: Des Bieler
4:52 PM: Alabama scores quickly again, now up 14-0
With almost 11 minutes gone in the first quarter, Notre Dame is winning the time of possession. And … that’s just about the only good thing you can say for the Fighting Irish.
Alabama, the top-seeded team in the College Football Playoff, is threatening to turn Friday’s semifinal into a rout. The Crimson Tide has scored touchdowns on both of its opening possessions, in each case moving quickly downfield en route to a 14-0 lead.
The second touchdown came on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Mac Jones to a wide-open Jahleel Billingsley in the end zone, capping a drive that covered 97 yards in just five plays. Alabama’s first touchdown drive went 79 yards in seven plays, and Notre Dame is already in big, big trouble.
By: Des Bieler
4:47 PM: Notre Dame not off to the start it wants
Two possessions for Notre Dame, two first downs — and two punts.
This is not how the Fighting Irish wanted to start a game in which they are nearly a 20-point underdog to the greatest college football program of the past decade. At least Notre Dame’s second punt rolled all the way inside Alabama’s 5-yard line, although the Irish missed a bigger break when officials reviewed the play and ruled that the ball did not touch a Crimson Tide player for a fumble.
There was talk on the ESPN telecast that Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly should have considered going for it instead of punting on a 4th-and-5 play from its 44, given his team’s perceived need to be aggressive. With the Irish down 7-0 already, the danger for the team is that they are not generally well-equipped to stage major comebacks, preferring to play a ball-control style with quarterback Ian Book throwing safe, shorter passes.
By: Des Bieler
4:35 PM: Alabama scores first on DeVonta Smith TD
Notre Dame got the ball first in Friday’s College Football Playoff game against top-seeded Alabama, which gave the Fighting Irish a chance to score first and take a step toward what would be a massive upset. Unfortunately, the drive did not go as planned, and the Crimson Tide quickly put the first points on the board.
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones hit star wide receiver DeVonta Smith on a 26-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, and the extra point gave the Tide a 7-0 lead. Jones completed five of six passes for 68 yards on the drive, which covered 79 yards in just seven plays.
Notre Dame’s Chris Tyree fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff return, and while his team recovered, it had to start the game’s first possession on its own 8-yard line. The good news was that the Irish were able to move away from dangerous territory near their own end zone by picking up a first down on a 15-yard rush by running back Kyren Williams.
The bad news was that Notre Dame was forced to punt four plays later, having failed to gain another first down. Alabama didn’t waste much time making the Irish pay.
By: Des Bieler
3:55 PM: 16,000 allowed to attend after Rose Bowl relocated to Texas
It’s not just a College Football Playoff semifinal game, it’s also the Rose Bowl. Well, it’s being called the Rose Bowl, anyway.
The “Granddaddy of 'em all,” played for over a century in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, Calif., was moved this year to the Dallas exurb of Arlington, Tex., where it will be staged at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Cowboys. As with so many temporary but jarring arrangements since March, the reason for the relocation is the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that California officials refused to allow any spectators into the Rose Bowl.
Thus the game also called the Rose Bowl is being held in a venue where up to 16,000 attendees will be allowed. There was no parade beforehand, but at least they will have some roses to wave, and not the yellow kind associated by song with Texas.
By: Des Bieler
3:40 PM: Nick Saban, the ultimate control freak, learned how to handle disruption this season
DALLAS — When the freaky, creepy college football trail of 2020 reached mid-October and Tuscaloosa, Ala., it proved too damned easy to get to Bryant-Denny Stadium, the traffic pared by four-fifths. They waved you into the sullen parking garage on — sigh — your word alone. A pregame yard crammed with beautiful people and beautiful beverages looked eerie rather than energizing. Tailgaters tailgated in wee family clumps only, like the lonely couple at garage’s edge. Then-No. 2 Alabama beat then-No. 3 Georgia, 41-24, and then nearing midnight, on the Zoom, from the catacombs to the press box, Nick Saban spoke of fear.
Coaches don’t usually, especially the batch who tested positive for coronavirus this season, but on went Saban at age almost 69, three days after testing positive, maybe 16 hours after three negative tests had wiped out that positive: “I gained a lot of respect thinking that I had this, even though we’ve done everything we can to set a good example relative to social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands … I think everybody should have the proper respect [for the virus], ’cause I’m gonna tell you, when they tell you you’ve tested positive, that’s not a good feeling.”
He tacked on a hand to the heart for emphasis.
And through that and his eventual positive test for real in November, which left him homebound for the Iron Bowl, a new phase of his long tenure in public did seem to turn up. From his masks to his words to his words about masks, he steered the statesmanlike path to another College Football Playoff berth while the disruptions made some peers go full banshee.
Read the full story
By: Chuck Culpepper
3:30 PM: A referendum on college football
If those who love Notre Dame football need a breather from the groaning theme of Notre Dame flunking big games against the top tier in the 21st century — a theme given CPR lately with that mauling by Clemson — well, here comes a Notre Dame game that could serve as a referendum on something fresher.
It might exemplify the trouble hovering over college football itself.
If the Fighting Irish are not competitive in their Texan Rose Bowl playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama on Friday, that could serve as another microcosm of the hardened tiers of a sport even top-heavier than normal. Brian Kelly’s very good Notre Dame would sit on a second tier, above most but decisively below the few, their great 20th century still howling at them in a sport of deathless pasts.
Read the full story
By: Chuck Culpepper
3:21 PM: Alabama vs. Notre Dame: What to watch for in the CFP semifinal game
© Robert Willett/AP
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, above, and quarterback Ian Book have their work cut out for them. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
In theory, Notre Dame is playing with house money, given that no one expects it to win. In fact, with top-seeded Alabama favored by nearly 20 points in their College Football Playoff semifinal game, the fourth-seeded Fighting Irish are one of the biggest on-paper underdogs in any bowl game in recent memory.
However, there is pressure on Notre Dame and Coach Brian Kelly to prove that they can at least remain competitive in a big game against an elite opponent. The Irish have generally been very successful since Kelly arrived in 2010, but it has tended to end their better seasons with lopsided, high-profile losses, including: by 28 to Alabama in the 2012 BCS title game; by 16 to Ohio State in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl; and by 27 to Clemson in a 2018 CFP semifinal.
Notre Dame hoped to have gotten the monkey off its back with an upset of then-No. 1 Clemson in November, but the Tigers were playing without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence at the time. With the presumed No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft back in its lineup, Clemson used its rematch in the ACC title game last month to trounce Notre Dame by 24 points.
Now the Irish get an Alabama squad that can drop a blowout on any team not at the top of its game. The Crimson Tide ranks first among Power Five teams with an average of 49.7 points per game, and while Coach Nick Saban’s defense is not as imposing as usual, its 19.5 points allowed are 16th-best at the FBS level.
Notre Dame is 13th in scoring defense (18.6), and 21st in scoring offense (35.2), and it will need to be highly efficient Friday on both sides of the ball. The good news is that’s the team’s style to begin with. The Irish tend to use short, high-percentage passes and a strong running attack behind a very good offensive line to avoid turnovers, mount long drives and chew up the clock.
The more the Irish can keep Alabama’s offense on the sideline the better, but even in limited doses the Crimson Tide is frighteningly capable of hitting on big plays, particularly with the connection between quarterback Mac Jones and top-tier wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Alabama can also do damage on the ground, with its typically deep crop of talented running backs, this time led by 6-2, 230-pound senior Najee Harris.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has his work cut out for him to get his offense in the end zone early and often, if he wants the Irish to alter its bowl-season narrative in stunning fashion.
By: Des Bieler