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Heavyweight showdown tonight

No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama battle for crown

– After waiting more than a month, there are not too many mysteries left between No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) and No. 2 Alabama (12-1) when the two teams meet in tonight’s BCS championship game.

“I think we understand what Alabama does, and people understand what we can do,” Irish linebacker Manti Te’o said.

“It’s all about executing, and I think that’s football at its finest. You know, teams that just line up and play their hearts out and just play tough, physical football.”

The similarities between the two teams are obvious.

Notre Dame and Alabama run balanced offenses.

The Irish average 202.5 rushing yards and 218.8 passing yards, and the Crimson Tide average 224.6 rushing yards and 214.5 passing yards.

And both teams use multiple running backs behind imposing offensive lines.

Notre Dame relies on Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III. Riddick, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior, leads the Irish with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

Wood, a 6-foot, 215-pound senior, has 740 yards and four touchdowns, and Atkinson, a 6-1, 210-pound sophomore, has 361 yards and five touchdowns.

“All three of their backs are capable of going for big plays at all times,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said. “Usually you have a team with a big back and then a smaller back that runs different plays. These guys run every play in the playbook, all three of them.

“They don’t have tendencies to do different things with different guys. They can put anyone of them in the game, and you really don’t know what is coming your way.”

Alabama has two running backs who have run for 1,000 yards.

Eddie Lacy, a 6-foot, 220-pound junior, ran for 1,182 yards with 16 touchdowns, and T.J. Yeldon, a 6-2, 216-pound freshman, ran for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“It’s always been our philosophy to have a two-running back system,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “In some cases we’ve had three guys that have been very, very productive. I think the reasoning for that is we like for guys to not get worn down during the season, so that they can have a shared responsibility and not have a guy run the ball 40 times for five games and then he’s out for the year, but have guys that are going to touch it 15 to 20 times and have two guys do it and share that responsibility and keep both those guys sort of healthy and going and improving throughout the season.

“That’s always been a formula that’s worked very well for us.”

What Alabama has that Notre Dame doesn’t is an experienced quarterback.

AJ McCarron, a 6-4, 210-pound junior, led Alabama to last year’s title, and he has thrown for 2,669 yards with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 191 of 286 passes (66.8 percent.)

Notre Dame’s Everett Golson, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, is in his first season of playing, and he has thrown for 3,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 166 of 282 passes (58.9 percent).

But Golson does add a playmaking dimension that McCarron does not with his ability to scramble and keep plays alive.

“I think you have to make some big plays,” said Golson, who ran for 305 yards and five touchdowns. “It’s going to be tough because Alabama has a great defense, and they also have a great running attack on offense. As they make their big plays, we’re going to have to make big plays to win this game, too. I think we know that and the coaches know that. It’s all up to us to just really execute the plan.”

On defense, Notre Dame and Alabama are ranked in the top 10 in multiple categories.

The Irish have the No. 1 scoring defense (10.3 points per game), and they have the No. 6 overall defense (286.8 yards), No. 4 rushing defense (92.4).

Notre Dame’s defense is led by Te’o. The 6-2, 225-pound senior had a team-high 103 tackles and seven interceptions.

The Irish’s defensive line of ends Kapron Lewis-Moore, a 6-4, 306-pound senior, and Stephon Tuitt, a 6-6, 303-pound sophomore, along with Louis Nix III, a 6-3, 326-pound junior, have combined for 126 tackles and 27 tackles for loss.

And while the front seven of the Irish get most of the attention, safeties Zeke Motta, a 6-2, 215-pound senior, and Matthias Farley, a 6-1, 200-pound sophomore, along with cornerbacks Bennett Jackson, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior, and KeiVarae Russell, a 5-11, 182-pound freshman, have held teams to 194.4 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns.

“I know their guys up front get talked about a lot, but trust me, they make plays back there,” McCarron said. “It’s not just the guys up front that have them labeled the No. 1 defense in the nation.”

The Tide has the No. 1 overall defense (246 yards per game), No. 1 rushing defense (79.8), No. 2 scoring defense (10.7 points) and No. 6 pass defense (166.2).

Alabama’s defense is led by linebackers C.J. Mosley, a 6-2, 232-pound junior, and Nico Johnson, a 6-3, 245-pound senior. Mosley had a team-high 99 tackles with seven for loss, and Johnson had 54 tackles.

The Tide’s defensive line is as imposing as the Irish’s with ends Ed Stinston, a 6-4, 282-pound junior, and Square, a 6-3, 286-pound senior, along with nose guard Jesse Williams, a 6-4, 320-pound senior, combining for 98 tackles with 15 tackles for loss.

In the backfield, Alabama’s defense is led by safeties Robert Lester, a 6-2, 210-pound senior, and cornerback Dee Milliner, a 6-1, 199-pound junior. The two have combined for 93 tackles and six interceptions.

“Hard to find a weakness there,” Eifert said. “They’re big, they’re fast, they’re physical. Everything you’d want in a defense.”

The biggest difference between the programs is recent success.

Alabama is trying to win its third title in four years, while Notre Dame is trying to win its first championship since 1988.

“I would say Alabama has got the belt, and they deserve the belt,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to take it from them.”

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