A Giant Step Away

The paratrooper flying a Notre Dame flag into Sun Life Stadium Monday night stuck his landing in the middle of the giant BCS National Championship logo at midfield during the pre-game festivities. The good news for the Irish pretty much ended there.

Alabama fans celebrate their teams third championship in the last four years on Monday night in Miami.

Alabama had its way with Notre Dame from start to finish, steamrolling the country’s No. 1 scoring defense, 42-14, on its way to a dynasty-forming win. The Crimson Tide claimed their third championship under Nick Saban in four years and became the first team to win back-to-back titles in the BCS era. Alabama’s running game shrugged off the vaunted Irish defensive front and junior quarterback AJ McCarron may have shed the "game manager" tag for good with four passing touchdowns.

The formula that brought Notre Dame back into the national picture for all the right reasons during a 12-0 regular season got lost on the way to Miami. Call it relevance, call it legitimacy, call it a return to the upper echelon of college football. Whatever you call it, it was real in South Bend this fall. The Irish coaches and players insist that a demoralizing loss in January does nothing to erase the four months before it. But the gap that separates Notre Dame from where it is and where it wants to be — beating the very best — is just as real.

“We're close,” said senior captain Manti Te’o. “Obviously we're not there. If we were there, we would be holding the crystal ball.”

Head coach Brian Kelly tried to put his finger on the difference between Saban’s program and his own following Monday night’s waxing. Part of the 28-point chasm between the two teams was experience. From paratroopers to platinum record national anthem singers, the 39 ESPN cameras surrounding them and 45 days between games, the grandest stage was foreign to the Irish. By the time they felt at home, the game was well out of hand. Alabama has been here before. Notre Dame has not. Both acted accordingly.

“You need to see what it looks like,” Kelly said. “Our guys clearly know what it looks like [now]."

Part of it is depth and good old-fashioned physical strength — “They were just stronger than a lot of us,” freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell admitted. A defense that rarely offered second chances this season missed a myriad of tackles against the Crimson Tide.

Alabama’s 220-pound wrecking ball, Eddie Lacy, regularly brushed Irish linebackers off his shoulder pads on his way to 140 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Lacy got started when he left a trail of tacklers in his wake on his way to a 20-yard touchdown run five plays after the opening kickoff.

He continued to hammer away, reaching 96 yards on the ground in the first two quarters. The junior punctuated a dominant half with an 11-yard touchdown reception with 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter. He slipped out of the backfield and spun away from two Notre Dame defenders who smashed into one another as Lacy crossed the goal line to make the score 28-0.

Eddie Lacy outmuscled the Irish defense for 140 yards Monday night.

“I think for one of the first times this season we were able to come out and play a complete game,” said Lacy, who was named the game's most valuable player.

In between Lacy's scores, McCarron hit tight end Michael Williams for a three-yard play action pass in the end zone and freshman T.J. Yeldon (21 carries, 108 yards) capped another drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

Notre Dame’s game plan — to grind the ball on offense, keep the game close and wait for its big play opportunities in the fourth quarter — stalled on the runway. By the time Irish running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood got their third combined carry Alabama had scored three touchdowns. Notre Dame averaged 202.5 rushing yards per game in the regular season. They managed 32 in Miami.

The Irish went three-and-out on their first possession after two fade attempts to Tyler Eifert were ruled incomplete. Eifert came close to pulling in the second attempt on the sideline, but referees chose not to review the play. Nor did they review a muffed punt on the following play that Notre Dame thought it recovered. Both points were quickly rendered moot by a Tide offense that was averaging eight yards per snap midway through the third quarter.

“We came out flat,” Wood said. “Against a good team like that you can’t come out that way because it’s impossible for you to come back and that showed in the game.”

Sophomore Everett Golson found some success in the passing game in the second half despite throwing an interception on his first drive out of the locker room. The rookie finished his night completing 21 of his 36 attempts for 270 yards and a touchdown. He connected with Riddick for a six-yard score midway through the fourth quarter.

He ran in Notre Dame’s first touchdown from two yards out on an option keeper early in the third quarter. Alabama’s disciplined defense largely contained the mobile sophomore, only letting him roam outside the pocket a handful of times. Golson’s lone interception, a deflection somehow hauled in by Alabama sophomore Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix at the three-yard line, led to an insult-to-injury Tide touchdown that zapped any hope of a comeback from even the most diehard of Irish supporters.

McCarron marched his team 97 yards in the other direction in 10 plays. He capped the drive with a 34-yard touchdown pass to freshman All-American Amari Cooper, who cut through the middle of the Irish defense and emerged wide open on the opposite side of the field.

McCarron was his typically efficient self. He threw for four scores and 264 yards on 20-of-28 passing. He patiently picked apart a Notre Dame secondary that played uncharacteristically over-aggressive. Cooper caught six passes for 105 yards. He added a 19-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to make the score 42-14.

Alabama’s lopsided win gave the BCS its traditional SEC stamp of dominance. That makes seven crystal balls in a row for the proud Southeastern Conference. Alabama fans started the “S-E-C” chants before halftime, and they returned to fill an emptying Sun Life Stadium in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame got an up-close look at the championship-caliber outfit they aspire to be. The gap between the two teams was obvious and one that will take time to fill. This wasn’t a game lost to a few sloppy mistakes or a better game plan. The Irish were beat by a better football team, plain and simple.

“We've got another step that we have to take in the development of our program, and it'll be left up to those that have been led by these seniors, and that'll be the challenge moving forward,” Kelly said.

Notre Dame finished fourth in the final Associated Press poll of the year, falling behind Fiesta Bowl champion Oregon and unbeaten Ohio State as well as the Crimson Tide. The Irish belong in that group, which is something no one would have believed when they broke training camp in August.

The program took major steps forward in 2012. The coach and the captain that led that charge refused to let the grass stains handed out Monday night, the painfully revealed final leap ahead of them, mar the distance they traveled during a 12-0 regular season.

“We’re close,” they said.

And yet, in Miami, so far away.

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