No. 1 Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff National Championship for the fifth time in six seasons after thoroughly dominating No. 4 Notre Dame 31-14 in the 2021 Rose Bowl semifinal on Friday. The Crimson Tide led by as many as 24 points in the fourth quarter before the Fighting Irish scored inside the game’s final minute.
All season, the Tide have fielded one of the top offenses in the country with quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith finishing the year as Heisman Trophy finalists and three more players (running back Najee Harris, tackle Alex Leatherwood and injured center Landon Dickerson) earning first-team AP All-America honors. That unit lived up to the hype even against one of the best defenses in the country, totaling 437 yards at 7.9 yards per play.
Jones was efficient in guiding the group completing 25 of 30 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns, while Smith showed why the betting markets have him as the favorite to win the Heisman with his 130 yards and three touchdowns on seven receptions. Smith, named the Offensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, is a craftsman as a route runner and consistently won one-on-one battles against Notre Dame defenders. Even when the play did not require anything special down the field, Smith makes an impact with yards after the catch, like on this 26-yard touchdown off a screen pass.
Smith’s entire touchdown reel could entertain us for hours, but the play we’ll be talking about for years is Najee Harris’ hurdle on a 53-yard run in the first quarter. Harris finished the game with 125 yards on 15 carries.
The play is incredible from the elevation reached by the 230-pound back to the way he maintains stride when his feet return to the turf. But what’s even better is how the hurdle delivers on a request from soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Harris discussed his admiration of Rapinoe during a game week press conference and she responded with appreciation and a request for a hurdle. Less than 15 minutes in to the game, Harris delivered on the hurdle.
Notre Dame appeared to have a great answer to an early 14-0 hole with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took up 8:03 of game clock and ended with a score on fourth-and-goal. The Irish were methodical and efficient, but it all seemed for naught when Alabama took the ball 84 yards the other way for a touchdown on a drive that lasted less than three minutes. In fact, the first three Alabama drives all ended in touchdowns and combined took less time off the clock than Notre Dame’s sole touchdown drive until the end of the fourth quarter.
The Irish also threatened to score once more on the game’s final play after recovering an onside kick, but the Tide held off a pass from QB Ian Book in the end zone. Book completed 27 of 39 passes for 229 yards with an interception but also compiled 55 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground.
Though the post-game statistics did not monstrously favor Alabama, which only led Notre Dame 437-375 in total yardage, the Tide were in firm control throughout the game and never in danger of defeat.
They will play for the CFP National Championship for the fifth time in the seven-year history of the event, while the Irish fall to 0-7 in BCS or New Year’s Six bowl games since 1998 and have been outscored by an average of 23 points in those games.
Alabama will be looking to win its third national title in six seasons and sixth since 2009 under coach Nick Saban. The Tide will be playing in their eighth title game in 14 seasons under Saban.
2021 Rose Bowl semifinal takeaways
1. This says more about Alabama than Notre Dame: Much will be made about how the Irish are winless in big-time bowl games since the start of the BCS era (“big-time” being defined as one of the BCS rotation bowls or the New Year’s Six in the College Football Playoff era) with each of those losses coming by at least two scores. While that trend has gone on long enough to be a valid talking point in the debate around where the Irish stack up against the best teams in the sport, this specific result might be way more about how Alabama has separated itself from the rest of college football in 2020.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has addressed the perceived gap between his team and others at the top of the sport before by pointing out that Clemson dominating the Irish in the 2018 Cotton Bowl should be viewed through the lens of acknowledging that the Tigers did the same thing to Alabama in the national title game. We might have a similar situation here where Alabama is not only a noticeable tier above Notre Dame but whoever they end up playing on Jan. 11 in Miami.
2. Alabama’s defense is overshadowed as a championship-level unit: The Tide were diced up by Ole Miss, and Florida QB Kyle Trask was able to rack up the yards after a couple of early turnovers in the SEC Championship Game, but this is a top-10 defense that has answered the call more often than not and was excellent when challenged by Notre Dame’s physical rushing attack. Alabama has gotten a little bit more versatile over the years on defense to adapt to the up-tempo, no-huddle offenses in the modern game, and the Irish presented a bit of a throwback for that group. Kyren Williams, the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, was held to just 64 rushing yards on 16 attempts, and as a team, Notre Dame was limited to just 3.7 yards per attempt on the ground.
Most importantly, the Tide came up with stops on two of the four times Notre Dame got into the red zone, and Kelly believes that was one of the places where Alabama was able to create some separation. That red zone touchdown percentage defense (which ranks No. 1 in the SEC and No. 12 nationally) is a big deal to an Alabama defense that is comfortable with “bend but don’t break” as long as it comes up with stops in scoring position. .
3. There’s still plenty to improve as Alabama moves forward: This was the perfect result for Saban and an Alabama coaching staff that will have plenty of film to break down in preparation for the CFP National Championship. The Tide didn’t run the ball particularly well in the second half, and the defense lost some third downs that allowed Notre Dame to hold the ball for long stretches after halftime. The hope, according to Saban, was to run the ball effectively in the second half to “take the air out of the ball.” He did not feel as though the offense was able to execute as expected. As a team, Alabama totaled 140 yards on 25 attempts (5.6 yards per attempt), but if you take out Harris’ electric hurdle and 53-yard gain the Crimson Tide had just 87 yards on 24 attempts, and that 3.6 yards per attempt clip is probably why Saban was frustrated with how they ran the ball late in the game.