Fresh from a memorable victory over top-ranked Clemson, Notre Dame (7-0) travels to Chestnut Hill on Saturday to face Boston College (5-3). The Eagles are led by first year coach Jeff Hafley and former Fighting Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who transferred there earlier this year. Notre Dame has ascended to the number two position in the polls, and is determined to validate that ranking. They lead the overall series 16-9 on the strength of seven straight wins, including a 40-7 thumping last season. Boston College, as you might expect, has other ideas. The game will be nationally televised on the ABC network beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern time.
Hafley’s experience is on the defensive side of the ball. He was successful as a coordinator last year at Ohio State. Prior to that, he was a defensive assistant in the NFL from 2012-18. Under his leadership, the Eagles have allowed 105 fewer yards per game than in 2019. They have risen from 125th nationally to 42nd in that category. Jurkovec has revived BC’s moribund offense. He has connected on 62% of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The Irish do not lack for incentives to perform well, but the elephant in the locker room is a painful history lesson. Most fans are aware that Notre Dame last beat a number one team in 1993 and were upset by a motivated Eagles team one week later. The 2020 roster may be different, but the similarities are striking.
In 1993, quarterback Glen Foley’s favorite target was tight end Pete Mitchell. Jurkovec’s leading receiver is tight end Hunter Long, who leads the nation at his position with 43 receptions. Kicker David Gordon booted a season best 41-yard field goal to beat Notre Dame in 1993. Current kicker Aaron Boumerhi‘s longest field goal this season is – you guessed it – 41 yards. Finally, the Irish had beaten the Eagles in the 1992 season by a lopsided score and were heavy favorites.
Boston College is remarkably injury free at this point in the season. They are on track to start the same 22 players that took the field in their season opener. Notre Dame has lost defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola to a knee injury. He hopes to return before the end of the season. Word is that wide receiver Braden Lenzy (hamstring) may be available for duty on Saturday. Most likely, however, he will be held out this week and return to action on November 27 at North Carolina. The Irish have a bye on November 21.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BOSTON COLLEGE’S DEFENSE
In its 4-3 defensive alignment, Boston College boasts three fifth-year linemen in the front four. They join junior end Marcus Valdez, who is actually the most productive player in the group. Two of the three linebackers are also graduate students. Max Richardson lines up in the middle and leads the team in tackles with 79. Isaiah McDuffie mans the weak side and is right behind Richardson at 71. Each blitzes the quarterback with regularity and causes plenty of havoc.
The Irish should be able to run on this group despite their considerable experience. Notre Dame is bigger and faster, and not only up front. The tight ends and wide receivers are also much bigger than the BC linebackers and secondary. The question is whether they can match the Eagles’ intensity to capitalize on that advantage.
Ian Book and the passing game should also find opportunities. Notre Dame’s tall receivers and tight ends have an edge over the Eagle small but scrappy secondary. It is interesting to note that the Boston College depth chart lists two or more players for each secondary position rather than a single starter. Hafley has tried numerous combinations with few firm answers after eight games.
Safety Jahmin Muse is the only player to have started each week. He has a pair of interceptions to lead the team. Cornerbacks Josh DeBerry Brandon Sebastian, Elijah Jones and Jason Maitre have rotated freely. The statistics indicate better performance than one might suspect. The Eagles have surrendered only 229 yards per game through the air and just 373 overall, so Hafley is indeed doing something right.
BOSTON COLLEGE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Jurkovec has exceeded expectations to date. At Notre Dame, his physical talents were offset in the eyes of the coaches by his propensity to deviate from the offensive script. The BC system appears to be a better match for his skill set. He has rewarded his new coaches with throws that last year’s starter, Dennis Grosel, could not make. Jurkovec has not become the turnover machine that some South Bend denizens feared, either.
Besides Long at tight end, wideout Zay Flowers has become a favorite target and deep threat in the passing game. Jaelen Gill and C.J. Lewis are the other starting receivers. Each including Jurkovec is a sophomore or redshirt junior, so they will continue to get better and more productive in future seasons together.
Right guard Ben Petrula leads an offensive line that retained four starters from last season. The exception is left guard Christian Mahogany, a redshirt freshman. The running game has been problematic to date despite their collective experience. The 2020 Eagles have rushed for just 107 yards per game and 3.1 yards per attempt. This is a far cry from last year’s 253 yards per game with A.J. Dillon leading the way.
This season, tailbacks David Bailey and Travis Levy represent power and speed, respectively. Levy has been getting more playing time lately and is the better pass receiver. Notre Dame’s stout run defense will undoubtedly pose problems for Boston College. Jurkovec will be forced to pass or scramble more than Hafley would like, and the Irish will want to blanket Long on third down.
Regarding field goals, Notre Dame’s Jonathan Doerer holds an advantage over Boumerhi in both consistency and range. Punter Jay Bramblett had his most memorable moment last week for the Irish, but it was his open field tackle of Travis Etienne that drew raves rather than a long punt inside an opponent’s five-yard line. Eagle punter Grant Carlson is above average and is particularly good at pinning opponents deep in their own territory.
Gill and Levy are the kickoff and punt return men for Boston College. Their production has been meager, although the coverage teams have held their own. The Irish continue to employ a conservative approach in the return game, so the numbers fail to match the level of talent on the field. Both cover teams are excellent though.
It is imperative that Notre Dame starts well and plays with a lead. A lethargic first quarter will embolden the hosts and may result in a one possession contest in the fourth quarter. The Eagles are no stranger to close games and have demonstrated a knack for hanging around against the likes of Clemson and North Carolina. The Irish can use their power to wear down a feisty defense, and Book should continue last week’s revelation of throwing the ball to the intermediate and deep zones several times per game.
Defensively, Notre Dame must focus on pressuring Jurkovec and forcing him to run for his life or throw the ball under duress. It will be easier to accomplish this if the Irish stop the run as expected and get on the scoreboard early. Red zone performance is another area of emphasis. Boston College has scored touchdowns on just 50% of its trips, but Notre Dame is only slightly better at 56%.
Turnovers will also factor into the outcome. The Eagles seem like a .500 team from a purely statistical standpoint, but have enjoyed a 14-8 advantage to date. Notre Dame is 10-5 in this category.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
- Will Notre Dame keep the Eagles under the 100-yard rushing threshold?
- Can Kyren Williams continue to stymie blitzing linebackers?
- Which defense will best get off the field on third down?
- Can Notre Dame force Jurkovec to put the ball up for grabs?
- Which special teams will have a positive impact on the outcome?
- Can the Irish play with the discipline and determination they brought to the field last week?
- Will Book get the ball downfield to his tall receivers and tight ends?
- How many times will the Irish secondary ask “Where’s Hunter?”
- If Notre Dame wins, can we finally stop talking about 1993?
This is the classic definition of a “trap” game. Fortunately, Coach Brian Kelly has placed considerable emphasis on playing to a standard of excellence each week rather than attempting to stir an emotional cauldron to conjure weekly victories. Notre Dame also has the benefit of having studied the painful history lesson we’ve discussed ad nauseum. Even so, the Eagles are a pesky team that is difficult to put away. Jurkovec has the ability to frustrate a defense with improvisation and grit. Although the visitors will prevail, the game will not look anything like a blowout. Fortunately, after Clemson’s close call against BC and the watershed Irish victory last week, it doesn’t have to.
NOTRE DAME 31 BOSTON COLLEGE 16
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