By Adam Hoge-
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (CBS) Talk about a reality check.
Caught in an unexpected high brought on by an unlikely 12-0 regular season, Notre Dame fans flooded down to South Florida with hopes of seeing the Irish win their first National Championship since 1988.
It only took about 10 minutes to realize that wasn’t going to happen.
The Crimson Tide opened the game with a 20-yard touchdown run by Eddie Lacy to complete a scoring drive of 82 yards. Notre Dame hadn’t allowed a scoring drive of more than 75 yards all season. In fact, they had only allowed two rushing touchdowns all season. Alabama had two less than 16 minutes into the game.
Yes, it didn’t take long to understand that Alabama was on a different level compared to Notre Dame’s previous 12 opponents.
The linemen were bigger. The safeties were more athletic. And damn, the linebackers were fast. Irish quarterback Everett Golson kept trying to get outside, but he kept being forced back inside. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was nowhere to be seen, but only because he was being blocked at the second level by a future NFL guard as soon as the ball was snapped. Safety Zeke Motta kept making the right reads, but he still couldn’t get Lacy on the ground when they met face-to-face.
When it was all said and done, the Tide indeed rolled, 42-14.
But these were all things we knew before the ball was kicked off at Sun Life Stadium. Nick Saban knew it. Brian Kelly knew it. You knew it.
Still, there was a rational case to be made for Notre Dame winning the game and to simply dismiss Monday night’s result as a talent gap would be wrong. Sure, Alabama was the better team and overall has better players, but the Irish didn’t show up.
Sure, they probably had to play a near perfect game to win, but Notre Dame didn’t come anywhere close to doing that. The defense was punched in the mouth at the word “go” and never punched back. From there, without their safety net and driving force this season, the offense didn’t have much of a chance.
It didn’t help that a couple big calls in the opening minutes went against the Irish, but once again, the defense didn’t give them a chance to overcome that adversity.
And the players weren’t the only ones who didn’t live up to expectations under the bright lights. The coaching staff got a little too cute, with a game plan that didn’t establish the run early. Golson threw the ball on eight of the Irish’s first 10 offensive plays. Then, down 14-0 with almost three quarters left to play, Brian Kelly elected to go for it on 4th-and-5 from the Alabama 39-yard line. The decision was understandable considering the Irish were moving the ball and clearly needed to respond to the Tide’s hot start, but the play called for a deep shot to wide receiver T.J. Jones when they just needed five yards.
“We were beat today by a better football team,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know if they were (28 points better), but they beat us today and we’ve got another step that we have to take in the development of our program.”
Kelly couldn’t have said it better. What the Irish did this season was remarkable. Getting to the BCS National Championship Game was a tremendous step forward for a program stuck in mediocrity for two decades. But Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide handed the Fighting Irish a reminder Monday night that Notre Dame is not at Alabama’s level yet.
“I couldn’t be more proud of especially my seniors,” Kelly said. “What they have done in a very short period of time to help elevate our program back into the spotlight, competing for a National Championship, can never be repaid. Now it’s up to those that return to take it one more step, and we saw that that step needs to happen.”
So how can Notre Dame close the gap with Alabama?
“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there,” Kelly said. “And just overall you need to see what it looks like. Our guys clearly know what it looks like. When I say, ‘know what it looks like,’ a championship football team. They’re back-to-back national champs. 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.”
Most importantly, Notre Dame has to get more talent. But the program is in good shape there. Some recruiting sites consider Notre Dame’s incoming recruiting class to be tops in the country, with Alabama at No. 2.
Beyond that, Kelly is right. They have to keep working. Get stronger, gain experience and continue to build on what was a significant 2012 season.
With Kelly around, Notre Dame isn’t going anywhere, people. They were just handed a reality check Monday night : The program hasn’t returned to glory just yet.
Time to take the next step.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.