With title on the line, hapless Irish throttled by Alabama

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With title on the line, hapless Irish throttled by Alabama

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It took five plays for Alabama to assert its dominance over Notre Dame and wipe out any chance the Irish had of winning their first championship since 1988.

Notre Dame was blasted 42-14 by a thoroughly dominant Alabama team Monday night at Sun Life Stadium. Notre Dame was sloppy, too, playing by far the team's worst football in long, long time.

Defensive tackle Louis Nix, though, bristled at the notion that Alabama was dominant.

"We just didn't play our ballgame, man," Nix said. "We didn't make tackles. Everything we did or had lined up should have worked. But guess what, we didn't make tackles. That's the ballgame."

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The Irish defense, which allowed an average of 10.3 points and 92 rushing yards in its previous 12 games, was bowled over for 14 points and 202 rushing yards in the first quarter. Eddie Lacy -- who safety Matthias Farley said was "by far" the best back Notre Dame faced all year -- led that charge, looking unstoppable against a shell-shocked defense.

"We thought, alright, this was a wakeup call," cornerback Bennett Jackson said. "And we were all waiting for everybody to step forward."

That step forward didn't happen. Notre Dame's physical and emotional leader, a guy who finished second in Heisman Trophy voting, missed tackles. Manti Te'o wasn't the only culprit, though. It was a collective struggle by a defense that hadn't been punched in the mouth like the haymakers Alabama threw early in the game.

"We were too complacent," Jackson said. "We didn't push forward how we needed to, and they just out-physicaled us, and they wanted it more."

"We didn't match their level of play, and they just took over," Farley added.

The success Alabama's offensive line had against Notre Dame's front seven wasn't exactly surprising. What was surprising, though, were all the whiffs on tackles, the product of a defense taken completely off its game by an Alabama team with a lethal combination of physicality and speed.

"They have one of the best O-lines in the country, probably the best, but they did not dominate us," Nix repeated. "We missed tackles."

There was no comeback in the cards in the BCS Championship. Notre Dame had started slow a few times this year and lived, but those games came against far, far lesser competition.

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"Against weaker teams, sometimes we started off flat, but we'd rally back," Jackson said. "When you play a great team, you can't start off flat. That's what happened with us."

Already down two touchdowns so quickly into the game, Notre Dame abandoned its rushing game despite hoping to establish it early. Everett Golson struggled early but wound up holding his own, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards with a touchdown and an interception. But any strides he made were too late to matter against an Alabama team which wound up cruising to its third title in four years.

Nick Saban doesn't like the word, but Alabama moved into the realm of being a dynasty Monday night. Saban's teams are impeccable when given five weeks to prepare. Look no further than last season, when Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in the BCS Championship after losing 9-6 to the Tigers in the regular season.

"They're better than us right now," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. "We gotta continue to close the gap -- we've closed the gap a lot this year, we've got to close it a lot more."

When the dust settled, Lacy and Yeldon both ran for over 100 yards and accounted for three touchdowns. McCarron threw with deadly precision, completing 20 of 28 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Notre Dame barely cracked the 300-yard barrier for total offense.

Ultimately, what happened in the first quarter was the knockout blow Notre Dame should've feared. There was no getting back off the mat after being hit by a constant stream of haymakers, ones thrown by the most powerful program in college football.

After 15 minutes, there was no question. The Crimson Tide would raise the crystal ball for the third time in four years, while Notre Dame would return to Northern Indiana trying to figure out how to get on Alabama's level.

"They're back-to-back national champs," coach Brian Kelly said. "So that's what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and I think it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do."

Brian Kelly explains going from defending to firing Brian VanGorder

Brian Kelly explains going from defending to firing Brian VanGorder

After Notre Dame gave up 50 points in its season-opening loss at Texas, coach Brian Kelly said criticisms of Brian VanGorder’s defense were “jumping the gun,” adding that “I think y’all should relax a little bit. I think our defense is going to be fine.”

Following that 36-28 loss to Michigan State two weeks later, Kelly said “without question” VanGorder was the right man for the job and that firing him was “not even part of the conversation.” 

And after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Duke, Kelly said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching. Then, on Sunday, he fired VanGorder. 

“That's not the appropriate time to get into talking about your coaches and where you feel they fit on that continuum of how well they are doing,” Kelly said of his media sessions. “I’m going to defend them, I'm going to defend my coaches in those kind of public settings. As I got a chance to further evaluate our football team and our current situation, I felt that it was in our best interests to make the move that I did.”

While Kelly said he never considered firing VanGorder after the 2015 season, he did mention that he felt a pattern emerged after that loss in Austin. Going back to last year, Notre Dame had lost three consecutive games to Stanford, Ohio State and Texas, with defensive issues marring each game. 

Notre Dame’s defense allowed Stanford to connect on a walk-off field goal that effectively eliminated any chance of the Irish reaching the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s offense kept Notre Dame at arm’s length in the Fiesta Bowl, a game which ended 44-28 in favor of the Buckeyes. And the 50 points Texas racked up — 37 of which came in regulation — were too much for DeShone Kizer (who scored six touchdowns) and the offense to overcome. 

“To me, that was three in a row,” Kelly said. “So that's got my attention. You're evaluating everything at that point. So yes, I mean, I'm evaluating those from even what it happened the previous season.”

Kelly spent more time with Notre Dame’s defense last week, which allowed him to take the pulse of the group. And after watching his team self-destruct in an embarrassing loss to Duke, Kelly said he needs to see more energy, fire, passion — whatever you want to pick from the buffet of synonyms — from his team. 

The move to fire VanGorder, in part, is an effort to generate that kind of enthusiasm from this defense going forward. Because if this defense doesn’t get fixed, or at least improves to being somewhat reliable, Notre Dame could very well struggle to reach six wins. 

“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” Kelly said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen and that means we have to tweak some things.

“They had some fourth down stops. They played hard. But playing hard is not enough. There has to be other intangibles as it relates to your defense, and we were missing some important ingredients, and that's why I made the change. And so what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”

Notre Dame fires defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame fires defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sunday, ending a rocky three-year tenure in South Bend. 

Greg Hudson, who was on staff as a defensive analyst, was named interim defensive coordinator. VanGorder is the first assistant coach fired by coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. 

"This is a difficult decision," Kelly said in a statement. "I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn't it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.

"It's never easy to make a change on your staff, but I'm confident in Greg's ability to lead our defense. As a former player at Notre Dame and an experienced defensive coordinator, he not only understands the expectations necessary to compete at the highest level, but he'll bring a fresh perspective to our sideline, practice field and meeting rooms."

The struggles of VanGorder's defense have been at the heart of Notre Dame's 1-3 start to the 2016 season. The Irish allowed 50, 36 and 38 points in losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke, with the latter one of the program's more embarrassing defeats at Notre Dame Stadium in the Kelly era. 

After Week 4, Notre Dame ranks 101st in scoring defense (33.5 points per game), 104th in yards per play allowed (6.18), 93rd in red zone touchdown rate (68.75 percent), 89th in forced turnovers (four), 126th in sacks (one) and 108th in tackles for a loss (17), among other damning statistics. 

Even with a host of NFL talent on its roster last season, Notre Dame's defense only ranked 35th in S&P+, which was good enough for the Irish to reach the Fiesta Bowl but not good enough for them to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

Hudson was hired as a defensive analyst this year after spending 2013-2015 as Purdue's defensive coordinator. The 1990 Notre Dame graduate also served as a defensive coordinator at East Carolina and Minnesota, and held coaching positions at Florida State (linebackers/assistant head coach, 2010-2012) and Cincinnati (assistant coach, 1997-2000). 

"Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I'm excited and honored about the opportunity that coach Kelly has afforded me," Hudson said. "We've got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I'm confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can't wait to get started with our group."