MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Notre Dame learned what it takes to go undefeated during the regular season and earn a spot in the BCS championship game this year.
On Monday night, the Irish saw firsthand what it takes to win a national championship as Alabama dominated them in a 42-14 victory in front of a record Sun Life Stadium crowd of 80,120.
The Crimson Tide (13-1) left Florida with their third championship in four years and the No. 1 spot in the final Associated Press Top 25. The Irish (12-1) left with the No. 4 spot in the final poll and plenty of areas in which they need to improve to become champions for the first time since 1988.
“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there, and just overall you need to see what it looks like,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Our guys clearly know what it looks like, when I say ‘know what it looks like,’ a championship football team. (Alabama is) back-to-back national champs. So that’s what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and I think it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do.
“I don’t want to minimize the fact that we have made incredible strides to get to this point. Now it’s pretty clear what we need to do to get over the top.”
It will not be easy for Notre Dame to get over the top as numerous key players will not return.
Linebacker Manti Te’o, who embodied so much of what the Irish were, has graduated, taking with him his team-high 103 tackles and seven interceptions. Former Bishop Dwenger standout Tyler Eifert, who leaves Notre Dame as its most productive pass catching tight end – 140 receptions and 1,840 receiving yards – will also enter the NFL draft.
Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore – a team captain along with Te’o, Eifert and left tackle Zack Martin – ended his career with a right knee injury that kept him from playing in the second half Monday. Running back Theo Riddick has exhausted his eligibility and his backfield mate, Cierre Wood, is considering entering the NFL draft instead of returning for a fifth season.
Plus, Notre Dame will have to say goodbye to other senior leaders in center Braxston Cave, receiver and Dwenger graduate John Goodman and safety Zeke Motta. But those players feel they are leaving the program in a better place than what they came into.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the senior class and the way that we handled our four years here,” Eifert said. “Obviously, it didn’t end the way we would have liked to, but there is no doubt that we put a lot of hard work in and made a lot of progress for this school.”
It will be up to quarterback Everett Golson, who threw for 270 yards with two touchdowns and an interception Monday, and receivers TJ Jones, who had seven catches for 90 yards against the Tide, and DaVaris Daniels, who had six catches for 115 yards Monday, to continue to build an offense that can compete for championships. The Irish’s offense will be helped by the expected returns of Martin and left guard Chris Watt.
The defense will have to find new leaders with Te’o, Lewis-Moore and Motta leaving, but the Irish have the talent up front with defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix III, linebackers Prince Shembo and Danny Spond as well as in the backfield as first-year starters Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, both cornerbacks, and safety Matthias Farley form a strong nucleus.
Each player has a desire to finish what the Irish started this year.
“I know for a fact they started this, the seniors did, and just like every program needs something to get started back up and once it gets started it keeps going,” Tuitt said. “I feel like that is what we did, and we are going to keep this train moving.”