During a 12-0 regular season that elevated Notre Dame to No. 1 in the nation, the Fighting Irish defense rated among the program’s four or five best in the last 40 years. The 10.3 points per game ranked No. 1 nationally and was the best figure at Notre Dame since 1980.
The 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship provided a valuable learning experience for the Notre Dame coaching staff.
Unfortunately, the four months of adulation did a sudden 180-degree on Jan. 7 when Alabama administered a 42-14 drubbing on the Fighting Irish. Crimson Tide All-America center Barrett Jones was polite in his assessment of Notre Dame’s defense, but also blunt.
"Notre Dame is simple on defense," Jones told Sports Illustrated. "They're good because they [keep it] simple. But they're simple."
“We knew from film study that if we shifted a certain way, Notre Dame was probably going to shift a certain way that would give us some blocking angles,” elaborated Alabama guard Anthony Steen. “And they did. Every time.”
“It was kind of easy because they were so predictable,” said Crimson Tide offensive tackle D. J. Fluker. “They ran the same things they did on film.”
Alabama dictated the pace the entire way and did whatever it pleased while rushing for 265 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and passing for 264 (9.4 yards per attempt).
For Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the entire staff, there was a bit of a dilemma entering this championship encounter. On one hand, playing the superb defense they did all season is what earned them the right to play for the national title. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to veer from what has made you so successful.
However, on the other hand, during a regular season there isn’t always time for opponents to implement dramatic changes or have enough time for film analysis.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his staff had more than a month to counter the vaunted Irish unit, and they took advantage of exploiting what had become “predictable” in Notre Dame’s scheme — or knowing where exactly every Irish defender would be at the snap.
Kelly said that after reviewing the Notre Dame-Alabama game tape in depth, two conclusions were drawn about the Fighting Irish defense. The first was that the defensive line did hold its own in many respects.
“We weren’t pushed around, as many people had talked about,” Kelly said. “That was a concern of mine.”
Second, while he stopped short of concurring that the defense was predictable, Kelly admitted there was an epiphany, or a cold slap in the face. After performing so well throughout the 2012 regular season on defense, Notre Dame isn’t going to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water, but some tweaking will be needed in the future.
“We've got great coaches,” Kelly began. “Coach Diaco and his staff are really, really sharp. First of all, we're going to clearly do what we've done up to that point. However, we learned some things as well. We're always looking to learn.
“When you have a long layoff like that, you have that much time, we're going to look at some things that I think will make our defense even better. Coach Diaco is one of those guys that doesn't feel like he's learned everything. He's always analytical, he's always critical, he's always looking to improve. I think after that game, we've learned a lot about where we want to go moving forward.
“The benefit of playing in that game is that even though we lost the football game, you can learn a lot from it … We learned a lot about what we need to do, things that we can do to be better — not just our players but our entire coaching staff.”
In some respects, it was a learning experience similar to the 2010 Navy game (Kelly and Diaco’s first year at Notre Dame) in which the Irish were caught unprepared to combat the triple option and were drubbed, 35-17. Since then, Notre Dame has dominated the last four contests against triple option teams Army, Navy and Air Force while shutting down the attack.
Oftentimes, only through major setbacks does one really learn and continue to grow. Education is a life-long process.