Alabama center Jones gets much-anticipated green light

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Alabama center Jones gets much-anticipated green light

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Barrett Jones returned to Alabama's offensive line in practice this week, quelling fears the All-American center would miss the BCS Championship against Notre Dame on Monday.

Jones previously had not practiced with the Tide following the SEC Championship as he dealt with a sprained left foot. He's the best player on Alabama's vaunted offensive line, and without him the Tide certainly would've had a more difficult time going up against Notre Dame similarly-vaunted front seven.

"Im just happy for him being back," left guard Chance Warmack told reporters Wednesday upon Alabama arriving in Miami. "Hes practicing with us and hes doing a really good job right now."

Jones has been a stalwart on Alabama's offensive line since its 2009 championship season. Monday will mark his third championship game appearance in the last four years, but he doesn't see experience being a key point in Alabama's favor on Jan. 7.

I think that might be a little overplayed," Jones said. "Once you get on the field its going to be about not necessarily whos the best team, its going to be about who plays the better game that day. Certainly our coaches have been in these situations and have learned how to effectively prepare us for the National Championship game. I think if there is an advantage that might be it.

Brian Kelly, though, feels he's gone through all the necessary channels to prepare Notre Dame despite his inexperience in the championship field. The third-year Irish coach quickly reached out to coaches at LSU and Oregon to get their input on a preparation schedule, and feels he and his staff successfully navigated uncharted waters to get their players prepared for Jan. 7.

"We've used all the models out there at our disposal to make sure that happens," Kelly said.

Three keys and prediction: Notre Dame - Syracuse

Three keys and prediction: Notre Dame - Syracuse

Here are three keys and a prediction for Saturday's Notre Dame-Syracuse game in New Jersey.

1. Make a play on Amba Etta-Tawo: Orange quarterback Eric Dungey targets Etta-Tawo, college football’s leading receiver through four weeks, an average of 13 times a game. Covering Etta-Tawo well is one thing, but that won’t necessarily mean Dungey will look elsewhere to throw the ball. Senior Cole Luke will probably get the first crack at guarding Etta-Tawo, and he’ll have to make a few plays on the ball (a tipped pass, an interception, etc.) to force Dungey out of his comfort zone. If Luke can’t do it, look for an underclassmen — Donte Vaughn, who picked off a pass against Duke, would have to lead that next group — to step in. Stopping Etta-Tawo would go a long way toward keeping the points down against Syracuse’s going-to-plaid offense. 

2. Meet “the standard” on offense. DeShone Kizer has been somewhere between very good and great this season, but it hasn’t been enough for Notre Dame to avoid any of their three losses. Syracuse’s defense is prone to allowing explosive plays and has struggled against the run, so triggering Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and/or Tarean Folston on the ground could allow Kizer to pick apart the Orange secondary as the game goes on. Most importantly, Kizer and his teammates need to avoid carelessly turning the ball over, as they did a few times against Michigan State and Syracuse. 

3. Effective play from the young guys. Kelly said one of the defensive changes we’ll see going forward is a lot more younger, talented players getting on the field in situations in which they weren’t equipped to in Brian VanGorder’s complex defense. Maybe that means defensive end Daelin Hayes using his elite pass rushing trait to pressure Dungey, or linebacker Asmar Bilal using his excellent speed trait to run with a crossing route and break up a pass. No matter how it happens, it has to happen — with that “it” being making defensive plays. Without sacks, TFLs, fumbles and/or interceptions, all that talk of Notre Dame having more “fun” this week will ring hollow on Saturday.

 

Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42. Adams and Williams both have big games on the ground and Kizer leads an offensive oscillating between explosive and efficient to, for the first time this year, enough points to overcome a shaky defensive performance. 

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has three losses, fired its defensive coordinator and, just four weeks into the season, there's a real possibility it'll fall short of bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years. That’s the current story of the Irish, and it won’t change unless plenty else does in South Bend.

Jettisoning Brian VanGorder was one of those changes, and getting a number of new players onto the field on Saturdays could be another. But the most important change Notre Dame can make over its final eight games is simply winning them.  

“We've put ourselves in a pretty bad situation and it's time to wake up and fight back and rewrite the story of this season,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “And that's what we fully intend to do.”

Notre Dame, though, can’t walk into MetLife Stadium on Saturday, make a bunch of mistakes and still beat Syracuse, as they did two years ago. In Year 1 of the Dino Babers era, Syracuse’s up-tempo, Baylor-style offense has turned heads and will create a challenge for Notre Dame’s underperforming secondary. 

Quarterback Eric Dungey — who may or may not have been nursing an undisclosed injury this week — threw for 407 yards against Bob Diaco’s UConn defense last week and ranks third in FBS with 179 passing attempts (he’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has nine touchdowns against three interceptions). This offense has one speed: Get the ball, throw the ball, get it again, throw it again. Syracuse is averaging 86 plays per game, a number that sticks out given Texas ripped off 50 points against the Irish on Sept. 4 on… 86 plays. 

Notre Dame’s secondary, meanwhile, is allowing an abysmal 9.1 yards per attempt (121st in FBS) and will have to find a way to stop Orange receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who leads FBS with 706 yards and is fifth with 40 receptions. Dungey, on average, targets Etta-Tawo 13 times a game. Merely playing good coverage isn’t enough to deter Dungey from throwing him the ball, so Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. or whoever is on him on Saturday will also have to make plays with the ball in the air, since it's going to be coming their way. 

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The narrative Notre Dame coaches and players pitched publicly this week involved having more energy, more fun, more passion, more fire — whatever you want to throw into Thesaurus.com — and that translating into this defense playing better starting Saturday. 

“I think a lot of guys were out there tense, tightened up and weren’t playing loose,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of guys let loose this week and it’s been a real positive atmosphere.”

But nobody will be having any fun on Saturday if the same issues that got VanGorder fired re-emerge. Sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles (Notre Dame hasn’t had one of those this year), interceptions — those are what “fun” is a tangible outcome of, not the other way around. 

Notre Dame’s offense has been good enough to win in a vacuum (47 points against Texas, 28 points against Michigan State and 35 points against Duke, in theory, should’ve been enough to go at least 2-1) but hasn’t been good enough to pick up for the lagging defense. Kelly has been hard on quarterback DeShone Kizer, saying his play against Michigan State and Duke was below standard, an assessment Kizer agreed with this week. 

The standard, at least in broad terms, is getting the offense to overcome the defense’s deficiencies. Syracuse’s defense is allowing a Lamar Jackson-skewed 7.31 yards per play against FBS opponents and ranks in the lower third of college football in most defensive categories. Duke’s defense at least did a few things well heading into last Saturday; it’s harder to find the positives for Syracuse. 

So this game, on paper, looks like it’ll devolve into another high-scoring shootout. 

“My standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win,” Kizer said. “We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”

A loss to Syracuse very well could be the start of a death knell for Notre Dame’s bowl eligibility chances. A win could help reinforce the positive attitude coaches have worked to instill in their players, proving to this team that the changes were for the better. 

There’s a lot at stake on Saturday in New Jersey for Notre Dame, which certainly wasn’t the expectation for this game a month ago. It’s not only bowl eligibility, but if things go haywire again, it could mean more jobs will be on the line than just the defensive coordinator. 

“If this team is not playing well, it's my fault,” Kelly said. “It's my fault that they're not playing well. So I have to find the solutions to it. After a game, when you're frustrated with the play, everybody is on notice. I'm on notice, and I made that pretty clear that I'm responsible. I said our coaches were on notice, and I said our players were on notice.

“Because we're all in this together. We all spend the same amount of time. If I didn't make that clear, I will make that clear one last time and then we're going to move on: Everybody is on notice, and is it starts with the head coach.”