Two of the most historic programs in college football, Alabama and Notre Dame played for the national championship in a game that few would have predicted when the season began. That is, many would have predicted that the SEC West powerhouse would seek its third national title in the last four years, but most would have penciled in a Pac-12 or Big 12 opponent rather than the resurgent Irish. Denied the crystal ball since 1988, the Irish sought to complete an astonishing perfect season in a defensive slugfest where they hoped that star linebacker Manti Te’o could contain the dual Alabama running threats of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Much improved from last season, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron sought his second straight national championship under famed coach Nick Saban, whose only loss this season came to the Texas A&M squad of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Saban had led Alabama to the national title following a one-loss season last year, and his team entered as heavy favorites to repeat the feat with a seventh straight national title for the SEC.
Never in the regular season had Notre Dame allowed a touchdown drive of 75 yards or more, but the Tide rolled 82 yards on five plays (and two Irish penalties) to start the game, an ominous sign that foreshadowed what lay ahead. Punctuating the scoring surge was a 20-yard touchdown run by Eddie Lacy, the hero of the first half with his series of punishing charges past a Notre Dame front seven that could not contain him. The Fighting Irish had earned much more applause for their defense than their offense all season, so it came as little surprise that quarterback Everett Golson could not break through the stingy Alabama defense on his first attempt. Offered the opportunity to add insurance, McCarron and Lacy took over the spotlight again with a second 20-yard run by the latter and a fine spinning short touchdown throw by the former to tie the total number of touchdowns allowed in a game by Notre Dame this year. Remarkably, equally dangerous running back T.J. Yeldon had exerted no impact at all, and yet Alabama surged easily to a lead without one of their top three playmakers.
After the Irish stalled with just 15 yards gained, Alabama continued to pound away at Te’o and his compatriots, exposed as physically unequal to the Tide’s offensive line. On a key third down at the Notre Dame 33, McCarron looked deep down the field for a bold completion on target that crushed the dwindling spirits of Notre Dame fans. With the quarter at an end, Alabama had compiled over 200 offensive yards to 23 by their opponents, and they stood six yards from another touchdown.
Alabama 14, Notre Dame 0
Two plays into the period, T.J. Yeldon asserted himself for the first time with the second of two straight rushes, which brought the Tide into the end zone for the third straight drive. Desperately needing an answer, Notre Dame produced their best play of the half with a 31-yard completion from Golson, but their momentum quickly stalled with three incompletions on the next four plays. Although Alabama could not turn the turnover on downs into points, they justifiably relied on their defense to stifle the flustered underdogs again. Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick reeled off a long run to start the drive, recalling the impressive start to the previous possession. Also recalling the previous possession was the stagnation into which their offense fell afterwards, continuing an unproductive span for both offenses that resulted in four straight punts. Gaining a first down or two before flipping field position, neither Alabama nor Notre Dame could move the ball significantly until the Tide broke through shortly before halftime. This time, Yeldon took over the reins of the running game from Lacy with four runs on the first five plays.
Focused on the running game, Notre Dame failed to cover a long completion by McCarron on a throw that perfectly led his receiver beyond the defender’s reach and towards the sideline where he could run out of bounds to stop the clock. With less than a minute remaining, the Alabama quarterback then settled for a short toss to Lacy and let his mammoth running back do all of the work thereafter as he muscled a route through a stunned-looking group of Irish defenders into the end zone. That 11-yard run showcased the physical mismatches between the teams, reflected in the lopsided halftime scoreboard.
Alabama 28, Notre Dame 0
Opening the second half in an excellent throwing rhythm, Golson completed consecutive throws to lead his team inside Alabama territory, while the Tide’s defense lost much of its sting. An interception on a deep ball snuffed out that early momentum, and Lacy dug Alabama out of field position inside its own 5 while continuing to bully the Irish defensive line. Completing the 97-yard drive was a 34-yard touchdown completion from McCarron to his best receiver, Amari Cooper, whom a Notre Dame secondary left wide open in an apparent display of fatigue. With the game essentially out of reach, Golson led his team on their first scoring drive as he dodged pressure repeatedly from the pass rush and even drew a timely personal foul penalty. Not reluctant to pass with a four-touchdown lead, Saban called for a McCarron throw towards the sidelines that moved the ball across midfield as Alabama plowed forward inexorably.
Alabama 35, Notre Dame 7
With their third touchdown drive of 75 yards or more, Alabama continued to humiliate the vaunted Irish defense as they passed the 40-point and 500-yard threshold early in the fourth quarter. The only meaningful record remaining lay in the margin of victory for a national championship game, which stood at 36 points in USC’s vacated victory over Oklahoma. Notre Dame at least avoided that indignity by scoring a second touchdown midway through the quarter following accurate completions from Golson into the space provided by a slackening Alabama defense. The last several minutes ticked off uneventfully thereafter as both teams in a quiet finish to another thrilling college football season.
Final score: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14
Dominant from start to finish, Alabama recorded its second straight rout in a national title game, which this year lacked suspense from midway through the second quarter. Its victory more than salvaged an otherwise disappointing bowl season for the SEC, accustomed to excellence in all of its non-conference games. While Notre Dame surely regrets its lackluster effort early in the game, especially on defense, it substantially enhanced its reputation this year simply by appearing in the national championship game. Coach Brian Kelly built a team whose value exceeded the sum of its parts, a fact that NFL employers should note over the offseason. But the explosion of talent on both sides of the ball left no mistake that Nick Saban’s juggernaut at Alabama continues to accelerate from one year to the next.