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December 4, 2012

Notre Dame has come along way under Kelly

Kapron Lewis-Moore remembers arriving at Notre Dame when football was at a low point.

He was a redshirt freshman, and the Fighting Irish were slogging through a 7-6 season under former coach Charlie Weis when the snowballs started flying.

"We played Syracuse and we lost that game," Lewis-Moore said. "The student section was throwing snowballs and marshmallows at the football players. After that, I was like, man, it doesn't get any worse than that right there."

Notre Dame dismissed Weis after he went 6-6 the following year, and Brian Kelly took over as head coach. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Kelly's first two years, the Fighting Irish are now undefeated, ranked No. 1 and preparing to take on defending national champion Alabama in the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game.

"To think of my freshman year, getting snowballs thrown at me, and now about to play for a national championship is something special," Lewis-Moore said. "It's crazy. It's hard to believe, but this team, we're fighters."

With Notre Dame at 12-0 going into the national title game, no one is throwing snowballs at football players in South Bend these days.

"There's still a buzz in the air," running back Theo Riddick said. "It's pretty crazy right now. Everyone's still excited."

To put together the dream season, Notre Dame had to do two things better than it had in the previous two years: win close games and win at home. The Fighting Irish went 8-5 at home over Kelly's first two seasons and lost six games by four points or less.

Winning at home was a priority going into the 2012 season.

"It started in the offseason preparation," senior safety Zeke Motta said. "That was one of our main focuses and goals throughout the entire offseason is to be undefeated at home. We certainly did accomplish that, and we're proud of it."

Winning close games was important to the upperclassmen.

"I just think it's the attitude and we've got some great senior leadership on our squad," Lewis-Moore said. "Just everybody is kind of buying in, from freshmen to fifth-year seniors."

Notre Dame players expect a tough battle with Alabama. They are aware of the Crimson Tide's tradition, and of UA's success in recent seasons. Alabama is trying to win back-to-back national championships and secure the school's third Bowl Championship Series crystal trophy in a span of four years.

"Alabama football, they've got some tradition, and I think of 'Bear' Bryant, just a physical team, a team that likes just to pound," Lewis-Moore said. "They'll pound the ball down your throat and they play superb defense as well. It's just some good, old-fashioned football. "

Motta watched Alabama's Southeastern Conference Championship Game victory over Georgia and was impressed.

"It will be a great challenge for us because you're facing a great SEC team that's been on the top for the past few years," Motta said. "They have a great run offense, and we'll be able to focus in on that and really prepare for that.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how we match up against these guys because they are a great team. Looking ahead, it will be exciting to really go out there and compete at a high level like that. A team and a program like Alabama, they have great football players and they're putting guys out all the time (to the NFL). It will be awesome just to go down there and play some football, some real football."

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