by John Vannie
Notre Dame plays its final home game of the season on Saturday afternoon against Boston College. The Irish are trying to repeat last year’s performance in November by closing the season with four consecutive wins and a victory in a bowl matchup that is still to be determined. The team edged into the Top 25 after last week’s defeat of Maryland, and is looking to move up the rankings as other teams falter down the stretch. Although two early defeats have lowered their ceiling in 2011, the Irish can quash any discussion that they have underachieved or disappointed this season by winning their remaining games.
This will be the third consecutive matchup with a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Irish are heavily favored to complete the trifecta. The Eagles have struggled on offense throughout the season and have also been bitten with the injury bug. Coach Frank Spaziani has taken some heat for the team’s 3-7 record, but he has a very young roster. The Eagles list only two seniors among their 22 starters and just three more as backups.
Several Notre Dame seniors will make their last appearance in the Stadium. Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Robert Blanton, Gary Gray and Harrison Smith lead the defense while David Ruffer, Trevor Robinson, Taylor Dever, Jonas Gray and Michael Floyd will complete their college careers this season. Several reserves are also in this category including linebacker Steve Filer and guard Andrew Nuss, and other seniors such as quarterback Dayne Crist have eligibility remaining but may nonetheless elect not to return in 2012.
The Irish offense is in relatively good health. Theo Riddick is the only starter that may not play, but Robby Toma has proven to be a capable reserve. The defense has already lost end Kapron Lewis-Moore, therefore Johnson’s return to the lineup is very timely. Manti Te’o is obviously not at his best since being hobbled by an ankle injury but Aaron Lynch has played very well through a less serious sprain. The Eagles have lost three valuable senior starters for the rest of the campaign. Tailback Montel Harris, wide receiver Ifeani Momah and defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey are gone and two additional starters on defense are questionable after missing last week’s game against NC State.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BOSTON COLLEGE’S DEFENSE
Junior middle linebacker Luke Kuechly leads Boston College with an incredible 168 tackles, ten tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. He is clearly an impact player and will create headaches for Irish center Mike Golic, Jr. and the rest of the Irish offense. Ramsey was the only returning starter on the Eagle defensive line, and his injury leaves end Max Holloway as the most experienced player up front. Freshman tackle Dominic Appiah has also shown promise.
Weak side linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis has been very productive alongside Kuechly, however he has been injured of late and his status for Saturday is uncertain. Fortunately for the Eagles, freshman Sean Duggan has been outstanding in relief and sophomore Steele Divitto is a rapidly improving linebacker on the strong side. Cornerback Donnie Fletcher is the only senior in the secondary, and Boston College may be without his running mate Jim Noel who is also injured. Freshman Manny Asprilla will get the start if Noel isn’t ready to go. He will join classmate Spenser Rositano, who holds down the strong safety position. Both have played reasonably well to date despite a lack of experience.
Despite their obvious weaknesses and youth, the Eagles have a competitive defense and do not surrender easily in the red zone. The linebackers hit everything that moves and Spaziani’s scheme effectively funnels plays to Kuechly and his wingmen to shed blocks and make tackles. The Irish have too many weapons and an advantage along the front line to be stopped from scoring points, but they will have to work hard for them. An area of good news for Notre Dame is that Boston College has been largely unable to pressure the quarterback or force turnovers this season despite its talented corps of linebackers.
Coach Brian Kelly increased the tempo of his offense last week with positive results, and fans can expect more of the same in this game. Rapid fire plays will make it difficult for the Eagles to substitute out of its standard 4-3 alignment and create an advantage for Tommy Rees and his receivers. Lack of depth and fatigue may also impact Boston College. The statistics indicate that they surrender most of their points in the second and fourth quarters.
BOSTON COLLEGE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Chase Rettig made his starting debut as a freshman last year against Notre Dame, and he has continued in that role in 2011 through the first ten games. Rettig is a 53% passer with ten interceptions and nine touchdown passes, and the loss of Momah in the season opener has certainly been a factor. Colin Larmond has become the team’s best receiving threat while Bobby Swigert leads the team in receptions with 35. Alex Amidon (18 receptions) is the third man in the Eagles’ three receiver set and 6’6” tight end Chris Pantale (12 receptions) is used mainly as a blocker.
The team struggled in the running game after Harris went down and is still in search of a permanent solution. Sophomore Deuce Finch had 243 yards against Maryland but coughed up two costly fumbles in his next outing against Florida State. Sophomore Andre Williams was given the start last week, although it is likely that both he and Finch will share the workload at Notre Dame.
Center Mark Spinney is the only senior among the starting eleven on an offensive unit that has not been very productive. Aside from a 45 point outburst against Division 1-AA Massachusetts, Boston College has managed to exceed 19 points only once this season. Rettig is primarily a pocket passer and the lack of playmakers around him should make it possible for the normally conservative Irish to take a few chances on defense rather than sit back and give up the short passes. If Rettig is ineffective, Spaziani may insert Josh Bordner into the game to provide a better running threat.
The Eagles run the ball 57% of the time and will try to establish a credible ground attack. The offensive line has good size but has only managed to carve out a paltry 3.7 yards per rush. Their conversion rate on third down is below average, and the Irish can make it a long day for Rettig if they are able to stop the run.
Kicker Nate Freese and punter Ryan Quigley are returning starters for the Eagles, and both do an adequate job. Freese has a strong leg and has hit a three-pointer from 52 yards this season, but he is only nine of 15 with several misses in the 30-40 yard range. Quigley does a good job of pinning the opponent inside the 20 and preventing more than a token return. In that regard, he should have nothing to worry about on Saturday.
Spiffy Evans is the primary kickoff return man, and with a name like Spiffy one can be certain that he runs fast. He is joined on the back line by Amidon and Tahj Kimble. Evans and Swigert handle the punt returns. The Eagle return teams have generated only modest success with no long gains, and they have given up a 100-yard kickoff return this season.
The Irish will continue to try to spring George Atkinson on kickoffs, while any efforts to generate a punt return appear to have been abandoned. In a more positive vein, punter Ben Turk and kicker David Ruffer have excelled of late and give Notre Dame an advantage in both departments.
Boston College will try to run the ball to shorten the game and keep its defense fresh, and hope the Irish make a few mistakes that they can turn into points. The key for Notre Dame is to remain patient in its play selection while putting pressure on the Eagles with an up tempo rhythm. The Irish may not be able to win this game in the first quarter, but they can pull away in the second half if they don’t hand easy scoring opportunities to a very anemic opponent.
It will be interesting to see if Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood can break off runs of greater than 10 yards against Kuechly and his mates. If Kelly elects to rely more heavily on the passing game, the burden will once again fall upon Rees to be on target. The sophomore is coming off his best performance of the season last week against Maryland, but the Boston College defense is not quite so porous.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will the Eagles be able to run the ball effectively?
Can Rees turn in another flawless passing performance?
Will Kuechly single-handedly stuff Notre Dame’s rushing attack?
Will the Irish help the Eagles by making costly mistakes?
Can the BC defense hang on into the fourth quarter?
Will Robby Toma continue his exceptional play?
Can Rettig improve his 53% completion rate against the Irish defense?
If Notre Dame wins, will they immediately petition to join the ACC?
The emotions of Senior Day are often a distraction for the home team, and Boston College always plays hard against Notre Dame. Consequently, the contest may be closer than expected throughout the first half. The more talented and deeper Irish should assume control later in the day, but a blowout win is not very likely. Hopefully for Irish fans, the issue will be decided in plenty of time to clear the bench and give all departing players a proper sendoff.
NOTRE DAME 30 BOSTON COLLEGE 13