- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Late in the second quarter of the season opener, Navy took the first snap inside the Notre Dame red zone. From the Irish 16, Trey Miller lost seven yards and fumbled. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. Navy did not get another rushing attempt inside the Notre Dame red zone.
That is what is known as a spoiler alert. Over 12 games, the narrative rarely wavered. Tuitt's touchdown for No. 1 Notre Dame from its defensive red zone is half as many as the Irish allowed. That's right: 12 games, two rushing touchdowns.
"With us," fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore said, "as long as you put the ball down, and the ball's not in the end zone, we're going to fight."
Enter No. 2 Alabama, which comes into the Discover BCS National Championship Game with two unanimous All-Americans on an offensive line that has produced two 1,000-yard rushers.
"They make a lot of negative plays down there," All-American center Barrett Jones said. "I think right when you get in the red zone, they really try to make some negative plays, to knock you out and blitz you and do some different things."
Drill down into the numbers, and what Jones saw on video is confirmed. Opponents ran the ball 58 times in the Irish red zone and gained a net total of 56 yards. That includes seven sacks, eight rushes for no gain and nine rushes for minus yardage. In other words, 34 rushes gained yardage, 24 rushes did not.
By the way, neither Michigan State nor Wake Forest ever set foot in the red zone.
"They've created a lot of loss-yardage plays in the red zone," Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, "and when you get behind the sticks and you get out of rhythm down there, it's very difficult, because obviously the field shrinks."
The strength of Notre Dame's rushing defense this season has been its ability to control the line of scrimmage with seven players, shrunken field or no. The 3-4 front has been so dominant that the safeties have been known to drop back into pass coverage. Inside linebacker Manti Te'o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, has a nose for the ball and, thanks to nose guard Louis Nix III, a clear path to it.
"You have to account for Nix before you can even account for Manti Te'o," Stanford head coach David Shaw said. "They're both big-time college football players and gonna be big-time NFL players. And that's right in the middle of your offense. Run or pass, you need to account for those two guys."
The Cardinal led all opponents with 33 yards on 12 red-zone carries. However, Stanford lost at Notre Dame, 20-13 in overtime. The Cardinal had first-and-goal at the Irish 4 and ran senior tailback Stepfan Taylor into the line four times. He gained three yards.
Lewis-Moore said the Stanford offensive line most reminded him of Alabama's.
"Alabama is by theirself [sic], in their own territory," he said. "Watching them on film, first of all, those guys are big, athletic, fast. They move up to the next level pretty well. Guys pulling, opening up big holes for [Eddie] Lacy and [T.J.] Yeldon. Those guys are really smart and work well together. We're going to have a tough time."
In the fourth quarter of the eighth game of the season, on the opponents' 36th red-zone rush, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell burrowed his 254 yards into the end zone from one yard out.
"Guys were just looking around, like, 'Hold on. What's going on?'" Lewis-Moore said.
The following week, Pittsburgh tailback Ray Graham scored on a 16-yard run. After the Pittsburgh game, Notre Dame allowed nine yards on 12 rushes. Alabama All-American guard Chance Warmack spoke with respect.
"They don't make any mistakes," Warmack said of the Notre Dame front. "Week in and week out, it's hard because you have to be like that all the time. For a team to be disciplined the whole season, you can tell that they're coached very well. They have extremely high intelligence."
Alabama scored 30 rushing touchdowns in the red zone. Put another way, they ran for more per game than Notre Dame allowed all season. If you must pick a part of the game Monday night that will determine which team wins, watch what happens when the Crimson Tide gets the ball inside the Irish 20.
"You hear it all the time: fight or flight," Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta said. "You have one chance to make the stop and you gotta make it count. That's really what we believe. You dream of situations like that your whole life. To have that come true is truly special."
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