Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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A win is a win is a win. It wasn’t particularly good looking, but Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish got back on the right side of the ledger this evening in Boston, coasting to a 31-13 win over Boston College, a team searching even harder for an identity than Notre Dame.

While the rivalry between Notre Dame and Boston College always seems to end up in down-to-the-wire finishes, the Irish exploded for three early touchdowns before coasting in for the victory, showing Irish fans what the offense is capable of when executed properly, but also frustrating those same fans with self-inflicted mistakes that almost let the Eagles climb off the mat and back into the game.

But behind quarterbacks Chase Rettig and Mike Marscovetra the Eagles couldn’t find a rhythm on offense, gaining only five total yards on the ground and relying completely on a passing game that was far too inconsistent to be dangerous.

In a Holy War rivalry that’s been hotly contested the past decade, this game had many similarities to the 2008 match-up, only this time it was Boston College’s offense that was held in check by the opposition’s defense and Notre Dame that did enough to coast to a victory.

In the end, Notre Dame gets an easy victory at night in Chestnut Hill, something that should never be discounted. While they won’t get any style points, the Irish improve to 2-3, and now head home with a chance to get back to .500 against Pitt.

Here’s what we learned during Notre Dame’s 31-13 win.

1. The Irish offense was ready for the opening bell.

With most of the fan base worried, the Irish offense opened quickly in the first quarter, putting together three touchdown drives in their opening four possessions and putting the game essentially out of reach in the first eleven minutes of the evening.

The decision to move Bennett Jackson into the kick return game was immediately rewarded when the lanky freshman scampered for 43 yards on the opening kickoff and gave Notre Dame great field position. Behind solid running from Armando Allen, and a zone-read keeper for Dayne Crist, the Irish got out of the blocks perfectly, starting quickly and getting a much-needed red zone touchdown.

Of the Irish’s three touchdown drives, the longest was 3:38, and they were the product of the Irish offense taking care of business and the Irish defense overwhelming a absolutely mediocre Eagles offense.

2. The Irish offensive line rallied after last week’s disappointing performance.

While the number don’t necessarily reflect it, the offensive line did a nice job establishing a running game. From the opening kickoff, the linemen cleared the way, with Armando Allen’s 90 yards on 19 carries a pretty good day at the office. And while Dayne Crist never really truly got on track in the pocket, the offensive line protected him well, giving up only one sack the entire evening. The line handled the crowd noise in Alumni Stadium flawlessly and also only committed one penalty, a declined holding call on Chris Stewart.

If defenses are going to continue to try and drop players into coverage to take away the Irish passing game, it’ll be up to the offensive line to create running lanes for the backs and protect Crist long enough to find open receivers.

3. Carlo Calabrese is becoming a very good football player.

Brian Kelly discussed it earlier in the week, but Carlo Calabrese probably played his best game in a Notre Dame uniform this evening. Calabrese led the Irish in tackles and also in tackles for loss with 3.5, and chipped in a sack for good measure. At a position that looked completely unstable during preseason camp, Calabrese has become a rock on the inside — a run-stuffing battering ram that plays incredibly tough on the interior of the defense while also playing more than good enough defense against the pass. It’s the work of Calabrese, Manti Te’o, and defensive tackle Ian Williams that held Montel Harris and the Boston College rushing attack to single-digit yardage, quite an achievement for a team that came into the evening ranked 98th in the country against the run.

4. The Irish won the game by being good at the little things.

The easy answer to the Irish win might be Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani’s refusal to put Dave Shinskie into the game after both Chase Rettig and Mike Marscovetra struggled, but if you’re looking for two key statistics on why the Irish won easily, look at penalties and third downs.

The Irish only committed two penalties for 22 yards while Boston College was hit with 12 penalties for 120 yards. In a game where Notre Dame only had 315 total yards and BC was held to 270, spotting a team an extra 25 percent of their total yardage is a very good way to give away a football game, something Boston College did by committing multiple personal foul infractions. While the three Notre Dame turnovers makes you forget that the Irish avoided the mistakes that have plagued them over the first month of the season, committing only two penalties — one that came on the final drive of the game — is a very nice sign for Kelly’s Irish.

The other key stat that has to have people feeling better about the Irish, is their margin of victory on third down conversions. The Irish converted 8 of 19 third down attempts, not an entirely great night on 3rd down, but excellent when you compare it to what Boston College did. The Irish held BC to just four of 19 on their third downs, forcing the Eagles to punt 11 times, and the Irish D consistently got off the field on third down, something that was a complete problem area for the Irish last week.

5. The Irish are poised to build on this victory.

It’s easy to downplay this victory because of the ebbs and flows of the evening, but there were plenty of good things for the Irish to build on Saturday night. With the Irish’s back against the wall, Notre Dame came out swinging and effectively knocked Boston College out of the game in the opening minutes of the evening. Those three quick strikes remind Irish fans that Notre Dame is picking up the elements of the offense, and with explosive downfield passes to Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd, the offense is slowly but surely coming around.

Defensively, holding any team to 0.2 yards per carry is a victory that has to have the Irish feeling better about their run defense as they prepare to face a Pitt team that features one of the more dangerous running backs in the country. And other than Gary Gray’s blown-coverage on Bobby Swigert’s double-move, the Irish intercepted two passes and held BC quarterbacks to an incredibly inefficient night passing. (On his Twitter page this evening, Gray apologized for the touchdown pass: “My bad on the double move. Fool me once shame on them, fool me twice shame on me.”) Robert Blanton played another excellent game, coming up with a great deflection and interception, and the Irish coaches should feel like they have three rock-solid cornerbacks. Safety Dan McCarthy showed up around the ball plenty in the second half in his first extended tour of duty in the secondary, a welcome site for those that are worried that Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta could be running out of gas. (Even Harrison Smith had an interception…) Irish fans also might have gotten a look at their pass rusher of the future, when Prince Shembo came off the edge twice to sack Boston College quarterbacks, providing two of the five Irish sacks that the defense put together.

More important that any individual effort, the Irish came away with a much needed win in a rivalry game, and did so in an incredibly comfortable fashion. There was no heart-burn tonight, only a quick flurry to open the evening and the Irish controlling the tempo of the game until the very end. With 2-2 Pitt coming to town, the Irish should be favored as they try to get back to level par on the year before a much needed week off. While
3-3 wasn’t what many of us
projected, removing the possibility of 1-4 was all that anybody could’ve asked for tonight.   

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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