Notre Dame football: First down likely to establish game tone

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. --  First down will dictate how well Notre Dame's defense can deal with Alabama.

No duh, right?

College football has some basic principles: Value every possession; never jump into the other team's band; and, second-and-eight is a whole lot better for a defense than second-and-two.

If the Irish expect their visit to paradise to end on a positive note Monday night, the Crimson Tide offense can't bust a move for big yards on first down.

"Each and every week (making a stop of first down) is always a focal point," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "Our defense, and coach (Bob) Diaco, (do) a great job of formulating a first-down plan. It's crucial. It allows us to do a lot of different things.

"It's not enhanced, nor is it any less important in this game. We have to do a great job on first down. We have all year. The times that we haven't, we haven't gotten off the field quick enough. There's no question there's a lot of attention to first down."

Take two of Notre Dame's bigger wins of the season, for example. The Irish defense had much better luck against Oklahoma on first down than Southern Cal.

The Sooners couldn't run against Notre Dame. Even without the first quarter snap that sailed high over quarterback Landry Jones' head, Oklahoma struggled on the ground. Not including the 19-yard loss, the Sooners ran 11 times for 22 net yards -- the longest rush being seven yards.

Oklahoma threw 23 times on first down, completing 18 for 155 yards. There was also an interception. Lots of short passes that were very productive.

Southern Cal was more effective than Oklahoma on the ground on first down. The Trojans ran 13 times for 74 yards -- with bursts of 24, 13 and 12 yards. Two pass interference penalties, a 53-yarder and three other double-digit completions were the yields from 14 throws. There also was an interception.

What makes first down so important in Notre Dame's plan to slow down the Alabama offensive juggernaut is flexibility. The Crimson Tide's prime time offensive line might be a bully when it comes to running downhill, but there is a hint of vulnerability when it comes to protecting quarterback AJ McCarron.

While Alabama's offense has put up outrageous numbers with two 1,000-yard rushers (Eddie Lacy 184 carries, 1,182 yards, 16 TDs; T.J. Yeldon 154, 1,000, 11), it is quite mortal when it comes to giving up sacks. The Crimson Tide ranks 53rd in the country while yielding 23 sacks.

Force Alabama into second-and-long and the Irish pass rush can do its thing. Clear the way for end Stephon Tuitt (12 sacks) and outside linebacker Prince Shembo (71/2).

"We just have to do our job; use our fundamentals," Shembo said. "It's all about starting off strong. That dictates that whole series. Then, the challenge is to continue to play that way the whole game."

"On our defense, we look at every down as being the most important," said outside linebacker Danny Spond. "First down, there's always a sense of pride ... You take the field, you always want to get a good start to the drive. You want to execute, get the feel for the speed, get the feel for the drive. It's absolutely important, but no more important than any other down."

"First down's huge," said outside linebacker Dan Fox. "It sets the tone for every drive. We really attack that. We don't want it to be second-and-short.

"There hasn't been an over-emphasis toward it. We just want to take care of business."

Is there a way to go about that business?

"No. 1, do your job," said Shembo. "No. 2, be yourself. No. 3, be rested, be ready. I should have said, No. 1, pray."

That could help on any down.
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