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. 

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”