Not There Yet

Notre Dame proved throughout 2012 it was back as a national competitor. It proved Monday night in Miami that no program is on par with the all-powerful Alabama Crimson Tide.

As expected, Notre Dame and Alabama engaged in a defensive struggle during Monday night's BCS Championship game. Unfortunately for Irish fans, it was a case of Notre Dame struggling against Alabama's defense.

The 2013 title tilt was a merciless, one-sided exhibition of championship football. For the team on the other end of a thorough pounding, there's little on field honor that can be salvaged. Notre Dame's best unit, it's defense -- purportedly the nation's best entering the contest -- was bludgeoned.

And though season's conclusion tainted Notre Dame's sterling 2012 season for many, especially national pundits and casual observers, fans close to the program would do well to remember what a great source of pride Brian Kelly's resurgent, resilient group of Irish remains.

It has the correct coach and staff in place to one day win a championship. Its players can match, at present, the developed talent level of 95-98 percent of college football teams, and its future appears as bright as any outside of Tuscaloosa.

But head coach Brian Kelly said it best during a speaking engagement last summer: Notre Dame won't be taken seriously until it beats an SEC team in a BCS bowl game.

Right bowl game, wrong SEC team.

Wow.

Separation Anxiety

The first rumblings of early January's annual, self-aggrandizing chants of "S-E-C!" occurred with 0:31 seconds remaining in the first half, and Notre Dame staring at the barrel end of a 28-0 spot on the Sun Life Stadium scoreboard.

Those proud, insidious chants grew louder late in the final quarter, long after reality sunk in. At some point, celebratory Tide fans must have remembered there was another familiar manner in which it could rub salt in Irish wounds.

Notre Dame did nothing to deter such treatment, offering little evidence to suggest it belonged on the same field as the nation's best. The underlying moral victory -- that they played well enough to get there -- can be examined after these freshest wounds heal.

Notre Dame didn't have it Monday night. Whatever "it" is, and however it compliments brute force, uncanny athleticism, and the drive of a champion, Alabama possesses "it" in spades.

When Kelly's Irish finally dented the scoreboard midway through the third quarter it marked a first -- a first in more than 108 consecutive game minutes in which Alabama allowed a BCS Title game point. Between its 21-0 humbling of rival LSU last January, and the 35-0 haymaker landed on punchless Notre Dame last night, Alabama proved and reiterated its supremacy over the rest of the amateur football world.

Minimally related to the final outcome, the breaks of the game didn't go Notre Dame's way either. Of course, this game wasn't decided anywhere but between the lines, between the tackles, and by the fact that only one team remembered how to engage in the art or practice of the tackle.

"I have to evaluate whether I did a good enough job as the head coach in getting tackling (work in practice) done for our players," said Kelly after first praising the efforts of Bama 'back Eddie Lacy. "I think everything is on the table when you see so many missed tackles."

Indeed, there were few positions in which it seemed the Irish could match the champions after each snap's whistle. Cat linebacker Prince Shembo secured the edge all season -- last night his boundary side suffered a series of home invasions.

Cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson excelled as tacklers after the catch all season. Alabama freshman Amari Cooper would have secured most of his yards vs. the pair had he been wearing flags instead of pads.

The team's best tacklers in recent memory -- Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta, circa 2012 -- missed more open shots than Shaquille O'Neal from 15-feet out.

It was humbling throughout, the Tide impressive in its totality of dominance.

"We knew one team would break and it wasn't going to be us," said Crimson Tide defensive end Damion Square. "We know that we are the most physical team in the country."

Physical, fast, quick, relentless, focused, and prepared.

"We watched a lot of film," said the aforementioned freshman phenom Cooper (6 receptions, 105 yards, 2 TD). "The outside was always open. I could visualize the plays that I was going to make. They had a lot of holes in their zone."

Holes that weren't previously exposed by team's not on the Tide's level. Holes not punched or often prodded by offense's nowhere near the caliber of Monday night's balanced best.

And holes that will be examined by Notre Dame's staff diligent annual off-season evaluation. But Irish fans can take heart that the holes that existed on film, on the field, and both schematically and athletically aren't present where it counts most.

"We didn't want to be the team that people said quit or didn't finish it out," said Irish co-captain Zack Martin. "We worked too much this season and accomplished too much to go down like that. We fought to the end. It was out of our reach, but we went down fighting."

It was a bitter end, but the journey and rise prior was worth the fall.


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