by John Vannie
After working overtime last weekend to keep its unblemished record intact, Notre Dame will travel to the East Coast on Saturday night to play Boston College. The 2-7 Eagles have struggled this season under Coach Frank Spaziani, whose job security is very much in question. Two consecutive losing campaigns have followed a dozen years of bowl eligibility, and more was expected of a team that had 19 returning starters from its 4-8 2011 squad. The Irish have too much at stake to show any mercy against a pesky rival that has ended its hopes for an undefeated season in each of the past two decades. The game will be nationally televised by ABC starting at 8:00 PM Eastern time.
The Eagles are traditionally strong defensively, but have surrendered 31 points per game this season and do not have any players the caliber of recent NFL draftees Luke Kuechly, Mark Herzlich, or B.J. Raji. Opponents have rushed for a staggering 235 yards per game and averaged over 480 yards in total offense. Injuries and suspensions among the front four have not helped matters for Spaziani.
Notre Dame’s defense did not play especially well for three quarters last week against Pittsburgh, but recovered to dominate the game in the fourth quarter and in overtime when it became absolutely necessary. While the Panthers’ Ray Graham had success on the ground, Boston College has an anemic running game that may be even more limited this week. Starting tailback Andre Williams is doubtful due to an abdominal injury, and last year’s leading rusher Deuce Finch had been banished to the scout team before reappearing behind freshman David Dudeck on this week’s depth chart. Overall, the Eagles average only 2.8 yards per rush.
Everett Golson continues his education at quarterback for the Fighting Irish. His learning curve has been steep at times and he has regressed on other occasions, but to date his athletic ability has trumped any deficiencies in reading defenses and running Coach Brian Kelly’s complex offense. The rest of the team has all but fully recovered from a flu bug that impacted several players during the past two weeks, and there are no significant injuries to report although virtually everyone has a few bumps and bruises at this stage of the season.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BOSTON COLLEGE’S DEFENSE
Boston College does not have the type of defense that can stand up to Notre Dame at the point of attack, but they learned from last week’s film that Golson can be confused into making incorrect reads on run blitzes and pre-snap changes in pass coverages. Their front four is not as talented as Pittsburgh’s, however, and Golson continues to learn from previous mistakes. The Eagle defensive line is a bit undersized, although end Kasim Edebali, tackle Connor Wujciak and other young players show promise.
When healthy, the linebacking corps is the strength of this defense. Middle man Nick Clancy leads the team in tackles with over 100 and has capably filled the shoes of Kuechly. Steele Divitto has been very productive on the strong side, but weak side starter Kevin Louis-Pierre is injured and will miss the game. Freshman Steven Daniels is his likely replacement. Although Spaziani is a respected defensive mind and could pose a few schematic surprises for Notre Dame, the Irish should be able to get the ground game running downhill by the second half if not before.
Boston College has also done a bit of shuffling in the secondary. Projected starter Al Louis-Jean went down in the preseason, and the cornerback position is now manned by two sophomores, Manny Asprilla and Sean Sylvia. Both have been inconsistent. Jim Noel has been moved to strong safety where he shares time with Spenser Rositano, and free safety is held down by the highly regarded Justin Simmons. This group has recorded ten interceptions, so they do have some ability. Unfortunately, the Eagles have trouble getting off the field on third down and do not put much pressure on the quarterback. They have recorded only six sacks all season.
The game will be a test for Golson and Notre Dame to apply the lessons learned from previous weeks by making teams pay for taking chances. A result similar to the contest against Miami last month is quite possible as long as turnovers and sloppy play are left behind in South Bend. The lack of pressure in the pocket should allow Golson to take a few more shots downfield in the passing game, which is a risk Kelly has essentially avoided to date but may have enough of a cushion to try on Saturday.
BOSTON COLLEGE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Quarterback Chase Rettig, who made his debut against Notre Dame two years ago, is now a junior. His completion rate has crept up only marginally from last season’s 53% to 56% this year, and he has been forced to throw the ball quite a bit. His main target is Alex Amidon, who has 67 receptions for over 1,000 yards. Jonathan Coleman is next at 29 catches, while Bobby Swigert and Spiffy Evans are also in the mix. Another talented receiver, Colin Larmond, lost a starting position due to a suspension and has not yet resurfaced on the depth chart. Senior tight end Chris Pantale is back in action after missing a few games due to injury.
The Eagle offensive line has not been very strong this season, as evidenced by the paltry 77 rushing yards per game and 22 sacks allowed of the relatively immobile Rettig. Senior tackles Emmett Cleary and Josh Wetzel lead the group, which will start three sophomores at center and guard. Seth Betancourt will fill in for the injured Ian White at right guard. The Irish were humbled a bit by Pitt’s ground game last week, particularly when Louis Nix was out of the lineup. The massive nose tackle is banged up but is still expected to see action.
The loss of Williams weakens Boston College’s ability to field a balanced attack. Dudeck is not a big back and has averaged only one yard per carry to date. He may also have problems in pass blocking if called upon. Notre Dame can play aggressively since the Eagles do not have exceptional speed at the skill positions and Rettig does not look to run the ball. The game may develop into an opportunity for Kelly to rest key defensive performers and allow more playing time for quality second teamers such as Ishaq Williams, Romeo Okwara, Jarret Grace, Elijah Shumate, Josh Atkinson, Sheldon Day, Tony Springman and Kona Schwenke.
The Irish will attempt to take away Amidon in the passing game and force Rettig into third and long situations by stuffing the ground game. The Eagles have converted only 30% of those opportunities this season, which is well below average. Rettig is talented and has a strong arm, but he may not have much time to set his feet in the pocket. If Notre Dame is successful in limiting his connections to Amidon, Pantale may emerge as a frequent target.
Kicker Nate Freese has been perfect this year on field goals inside 40 yards, but that is about the limit of his range. The Eagles have covered kicks and punts reasonably well, and return man Evans represents a breakaway threat with one touchdown to his credit. Punter Gerald Levano, a senior, is above average.
The Irish special teams were outplayed badly again last week, and need to improve despite Kelly’s public statements that he is not concerned. George Atkinson has not been a factor on kickoff returns due to non-existent blocking, and punt returner Davonte Neal has allowed too many balls to hit the ground. Punter Ben Turk’s efforts often lack sufficient hang time or distance, while kicker Kyle Brindza has started to create angst among the Irish faithful due to a recent spate of missed field goals at inopportune times.
Boston College does not have the size or athleticism to challenge Notre Dame unless the Irish are careless with the football. This game will give the visitors a chance to clean up the missed tackles and blown assignments that plagued them for three quarters last week, and Golson will be able to demonstrate that he can get his team into the correct play while relying less on his ability to scramble.
The Irish should rush for 200 yards without a lot of contribution from Golson in that area. Ideally, Golson’s completion percentage will be at 70% or better and multiple receivers will share the wealth. Meanwhile, the Eagles will throw the ball a lot and Notre Dame will be rotating in fresh troops along the defensive line throughout the evening. Interceptions are likely if pressure can be applied in the pocket, which could lead to a lopsided score.
Let’s consider a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can the Eagles hold the Irish under 200 yards rushing while gaining more than 100 themselves?
Will Golson throw the ball downfield with success?
Can Rettig find time to complete more than 50% of his passes?
Will the Irish continue to commit unforced errors against weaker opponents?
Will Notre Dame’s special teams show any improvement?
How many Eagle fans will still be in the stands during the fourth quarter?
If the game is a blowout, will Brent Musburger consume too much liquid refreshment?
You probably get the idea by now that Notre Dame should win comfortably. There is history between these schools when the Irish have been undefeated at kickoff, but this particular Eagle team is in disarray. Although Spaziani will try to extract an inspired effort from his troops, it is unlikely that they will be able to sustain pressure on Notre Dame beyond the first 20 minutes unless major meltdowns occur. At this point in the season, it’s time for the Irish and Golson to move forward rather than backward on the improvement curve.
NOTRE DAME 37 BOSTON COLLEGE 10