As Alabama was running back, Najee Harris took a delivery, bounced outside, and went upstairs. He was confronted by Notre Dame corner kick Avery Davis, who lunged at him with his shoulder lowered.
No matter. Harris, a 6-foot-2,29-pound senior, treated Davis like an oversized fire hydrant, leaping over him with the clean, syncopated stride of an Olympic hurdler, and galloping down the sidelines.
The play was the defining moment in Alabama’s 31:14 win over Notre Dame in a college football playoff semifinal on Friday night in Arlington, Texas – Harris’ elegant athleticism embodied the ease with which the Crimson Tide dispatched the Fighting Irish.
The win confirmed the legitimacy of Alabama’s return to the top of the college football rankings after missing the four-team playoffs for the first time last season. The top-ranked Crimson Tide went through a Southeastern Conference-only schedule, beat a die-hard Florida team in the conference title game, and has now advanced to the January 11th championship against the winner of the other semi-final on Friday between Clemson and Ohio.
Alabama’s dynamic offense involving quarterback Mac Jones, receiver DeVonta Smith and Harris, all of whom finished in the top five in the Heisman Trophy poll, sped into the field for touchdowns on the first three rides and Notre Dame never threatened the crimson really tide.
Even though Harris, who ended up rushing a total of 125 yards, had the highlight reel game, Smith revealed why he’s the alleged favorite to win the Heisman. On his first touch, he took a short pass at the border and used a John Metchie III textbook pad to scoot 26 yards for a touchdown. He ended with three touchdowns under his seven catches for 130 yards.
Meanwhile, Jones was usually near flawless, completing 25 of 30 passes for 297 yards.
The only person on Alabama’s sideline who was uncomfortable was Alabama’s trainer Nick Saban, who received a late unsportsmanlike sentence after complaining about officials.
“We didn’t finish the game the way we wanted it,” said Saban in a television interview and added with a knowing smile: “I always have something to complain about.”
Still, he was satisfied enough after a year before the playoffs.
“These guys really deserved the opportunity to play the national championship game so we’ll see what we can do with it,” he said.
With Alabama (12-0) disposing of Notre Dame (10-2) with familiar efficiency, it wasn’t hard to remember the circumstances in which that game – and the entire season – took place in the middle of a pandemic of cranked sports.
The logo in the center of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium was a familiar one on New Years Day – the red stylized Rose Bowl Game logo that usually adorns the stadium of the same name in Pasadena, California.
But that year, after Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly threatened to boycott the Rose Bowl because California health rules didn’t allow families to take part in the game, the Rose Bowl was relocated to Texas – for the first time since 1942, that it was no longer played in Pasadena when it was relocated to Durham, NC, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
It was a familiar ending under the bright lights for Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish have lost seven major bowl or playoff games in a row since 2000, none of which were closer than 14 points.
The last convincing defeat adds weight to the screams that the Irish shouldn’t have made it to the playoffs. Notre Dame had the best win of the regular season, beating Clemson in double overtime in early November. But that game came without Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was recovering from a fight with the coronavirus. When the teams met again in the title game of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Clemson won 34-10.
Instead, Texas A&M, whose only loss was a major loss to Alabama, was left out.
Notre Dame had stepped up its offensive and defensive lines since it was routed by Alabama in the 2012 national championship game, but the deficit between the teams’ skill players was fully visible – particularly the mismatch between the Alabama receivers and Irish secondary school.
Stepping in as an underdog with nearly three touchdowns (and somehow masking the spread), Notre Dame placed his hopes on keeping the Alabama offense on the sidelines. Leaning on quarterback Ian Book’s short pass and running and receiving halfback Kyren Williams, the Irish managed to make a 15-game drive that culminated in fourth place with a 1-yard run, the Alabama’s lead reduced to 14-7 in the second quarter.
And after their defense received their first stop, the Irish had an opportunity to narrow a 21-7 deficit but Jonathan Doerer missed a field goal by 51 meters just before half-time. The Irish never threatened again. They scored their final points when Book had a touchdown run in the last minute. After that, they recovered an onside kick, but by then Alabama had jumped over the Fighting Irish and run away from victory.