Opponent preview: Boston College Eagles

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The beat goes on as we preview Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out previews for Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.

The Overview:

Boston College made headlines for all the wrong reasons last offseason. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired in January after interviewing for the head coaching position of the New York Jets. Quarterback Dominique Davis was ruled academically ineligible, and more devastating, All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Still, former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani took the reins of the program and steadied the ship, guiding a team that was predicted to finish last in the ACC Atlantic to within a game of the conference championship game. While the offense struggled behind 25-year-old freshman Dave Shinskie, the defense was stingy, giving up only 19.8 points a game.

Last time against the Irish:

A week after crawling back into the game with a furious rally against USC, the Irish found themselves in gut-check time once again, the defense leaking oil after turning Shinskie into an All-American as they clung to a four-point lead with the Boston College offense driving down the field. After giving up an inexplicable 4th and 17 the Irish defense finally put the game away, thanks to a Brian Smith interception with 1:43 seconds left on the clock.

Down 16-13 entering the 4th quarter, the Irish were stuffed on a 4th and goal from the one when they decided to run Robert Hughes in the Wildcat. Once again, the offense was bailed out by another heroic effort from Golden Tate, who turned an out pattern into a 36-yard touchdown for the Irish’s final score. On a sloppy field, the Irish looked intent to run the ball, with Armando Allen running for 98 yards on 21 carries. Thanks to five turnovers, the Irish held Boston College to 16 points, stuffing running back Montel Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, a season low. Yet Notre Dame’s emphasis on stopping the run left them susceptible against the pass, where Shinskie and wide receiver Rich Grunnell had career days in a losing effort. Warts and all, Notre Dame’s victory took their record to 5-2, and it was the first Irish victory over Boston College since 2000.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Boston College as the third-toughest game on the schedule for the Irish. Here are the rankings so far.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Purdue Boilermakers
      7. Stanford Cardinals

While the ACC was weak last year, Boston College’s 8-5 record was pretty impressive, especially considering the turmoil the team was under last season, breaking in a new quarterback, head coach, and losing Mark Herzlich to cancer. When the Irish head to Chestnut Hill, they’ll face a team mostly intact, with a defense that’ll likely be one of the toughest the Irish face.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish seemed almost content to play a horizontal passing game, taking minimal shots downfield and relegating Jimmy Clausen to the distributor role. While he didn’t throw any interceptions, it was one of Clausen’s worst on the year, nearly picked twice as the BC coverage flattened and the zone tightened the middle of the field. On a sloppy track, the game seemed to be played in slow motion, something BC took advantage of an the Irish could not. While the Irish offensive system is different, they’ll still need to account for sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly and the returning Herzlich, who’s return from cancer has been slowed with a stress fracture in his foot. Both the defensive line and the secondary need to replace starters, but the depth is there for the Eagles.

Offensively, Shinskie returns at quarterback but is being pushed by Mike Marscovetra, a dual-threat option. Whoever wins the quarterback battle, the offense will run through Montel Harris, who set BC freshman and sophomore rushing records and returns for his third season. Harris will be supported by the Eagles’ offensive line, one of the best in the ACC and anchored by Anthony Castonzo.. Through the air, BC won’t be able to depend on wide receiver Rich Grunnell who graduated, but will look to get production from Colin Larmond* and tight end Chris Pantale.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat BC if they attack the defense, not tip-toe around it. The Irish were their own worst enemies last year, playing a possession game without taking any shots down the field, allowing the Eagles to shrink the field vertically. This year, the Irish will attempt to blow the top off the zone, hitting on a few deep passes that also open up the middle of the field. Defensively, while the Irish forced five turnovers, the coverage in the secondary was horrendous. (Don’t believe me, check it out here.) While Shinskie will still be turnover prone, the Irish will do a better job of blanketing coverage on a mediocre passing attack, forcing the Eagles to play a game they know they can’t win.

How the Irish will lose:

Chestnut Hill is not friendly to the Fighting Irish, and behind a robust defensive attack, and some strong running by Montel Harris, the Irish will feel the heat of the rivalry get to them. After five straight games against top-level BCS teams, the Irish defensive front will be worn down, and the Eagles strong offensive line will take advantage. Dayne Crist’s could see healthy doses of both Herzlich and Kuechly in the backfield, and that could spell trouble.

Gut Feeling:

Boston College is a lot like Michigan to me. My gut tells me to expect the Irish to win handily, but my head tells me that it’s always a different story with these two programs. BC is coming off a huge game against Virginia Tech the week before and one year of scouting tape on offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill will be enough for the Irish to fix the problems that plagued the defense. On offense, don’t expect Kelly to try and play slug-it-out football the way Weis did last season. Pedal to the metal will let Notre Dame’s athletes run away from Boston College.

* UPDATED — Thanks to former Irish pitching great Drew Duff who checks in from Chicago to point out that Boston College wide receiver Colin Larmond is out for the season with a knee injury.

“Obviously this is a very unfortunate situation, both for Colin and for our team,” BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “Our first priority is to get him on the road to recovery. Now we will need some players to step up and fill his role.”

This is a pretty crushing blow to the Eagle wide receiving corp. Their returning receivers have caught a total of 24 passes in college football collectively. 


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.