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Breakdown No. 1: Notre Dame Offensive Line Vs Alabama Front Seven

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Center Braxston Cave and the Notre Dame offensive line. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Center Braxston Cave and the Notre Dame offensive line. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) This is the first in a six-part series breaking down Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. To get started, let’s take a look at the matchup between Notre Dame’s offensive line and Alabama’s front seven:

Brian Kelly has made it clear: quarterback Everett Golson is going to have to make big plays and limit his mistakes if the Irish are going to beat the Crimson Tide.

In other words, Golson has to play like a sophomore and not a freshman Monday night. With 10 games under his belt and 45 days to prepare for Alabama, being a redshirt freshman is no longer an excuse for Golson.

But he’s still going to need some help. Notre Dame is also going to have to find a way to run the ball against Alabama’s No. 1 ranked rushing defense.

Thus, the Irish offensive line has do to everything it can to protect Golson and establish the run.

It won’t be easy. Alabama’s front seven is as good as anyone’s. It’s an extremely well coached unit that causes a ton of confusion. This is evident by how many different players make flash plays. Fourteen different Alabama players have at least one sack this season, compared to just eight for Notre Dame. Upping the bar a little bit, let’s consider how many players have at least three TFLs: again, 14 for Alabama and eight for Notre Dame. This includes the secondary, but everything starts up front.

Like the Irish, the Crimson Tide use a 3-4 defense. Despite a lack of seniors and a lot of turnover this season, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart utilities a lot of players, which is a credit to the Nick Saban’s recruiting. No team in the country has more depth than Alabama. Remember, the Tide had four players taken in the Top 35 of the NFL Draft last spring and still rank No. 1 in total defense this season.

On the defensive line, four ends rotate in, led by junior Ed Stinson who has 8.5 TFLs and three sacks this season. Senior Damion Square is the other starting end, while sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan and senior Quinton Dial also play and are very effective. Nose tackle Jesse Williams doesn’t put up big numbers but he’s no pushover and can cause havoc, opening opportunities for other guys to make plays.

At linebacker, you’ll see at least seven guys rotate in to seven spots and six of them are elite athletes who can get into the backfield and make plays at anytime. A big reason why Alabama’s defense is so effective is because of the amount of guys who are so versatile. Team tackles leader C.J. Mosley plays the middle, yet he still has seven TFLs and four sacks on the season. Senior Nico Johnson plays both middle spots alongside Mosley, while sophomore Trey DePriest starts at the Mike. All three of those guys are dangerous and we haven’t even gotten to the edge rushers.

Senior Adrian Hubbard leads the team with 10 TFLs and six sacks as the Sam linebacker. He’ll often lineup as a down lineman, making the defense look like a 4-3. But Hubbard can also drop back. His versatility causes a lot of confusion and it will put a lot of pressure on Notre Dame right tackle Christian Lombard. Sophomore Xzavier Dickson starts at the Jack linebacker spot and can also rush the quarterback from the other outside spot.

The Irish offensive line is going to have to play well from tackle to tackle. This may come as a surprise to some, but Notre Dame has actually allowed seven less sacks than Alabama’s elite offensive line this season. To be fair, the Tide faced tougher defensive fronts this season and Golson is more elusive than A.J. McCarron, but this is still a good unit for the Irish.

A key matchup to watch is nose tackle Jesse Williams vs Notre Dame center Braxston Cave. Williams opens up so much for everyone else on Alabama’s defense. If Cave can handle him one-on-one then that will give the guards, tackles and tight ends a much better opportunity to handle Bama’s speed on the outside.

If I’m Notre Dame, I’d specifically be worried about Hubbard against the right side of the line. Senior right guard Mike Golic Jr. can be a liability at times and he’ll have to be sound on his assignments.

Who Has The Edge? Alabama. This will be a chess match all night. Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have been working all month to get the Notre Dame line ready for Alabama’s stunts and blitzes. All 11 guys are capable of getting into the backfield at any time. Don’t underestimate Notre Dame’s size and athleticism though. They can compete with Bama in that regard. This matchup will come down to how prepared Notre Dame is and how well the Irish’s offensive game plan is called by the coaching staff. As good as Alabama’s run defense is, Notre Dame can gain yards on the ground if the runs are called at the right time. This will be extremely fun to watch.

Follow Adam’s coverage from South Florida all week long at @AdamHogeCBS and read more in our BCS National Championship Game hub.

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