Nov 19, 2011, 10:09 PM EDT
Senior Day will always be bittersweet. But Saturday’s home finale was also cruel, with the Irish’s 16-14 victory over Boston College overshadowed by the loss of senior running back Jonas Gray. Gray — one of the great surprises of the 2011 season, coming from nowhere to becoming the Irish’s most dangerous rusher — was tackled low along the Irish sideline in the second half and suffered what’s believed to be a season-ending knee injury.
“It’s so disappointing that we lost such a great kid,” head coach Brian Kelly said from the field after the game. “The game of football sometimes is cruel.”
On a Saturday where the Irish hoped to win with style, they struggled to win at all, reminded throughout the game that while Boston College may have been 24-point underdogs, they’ll never come to Notre Dame Stadium and simply roll over.
But with fresh memories of Senior Day collapses against UConn and Syracuse, the Irish battled for a victory, their eight in nine games, as Notre Dame continues its undefeated stretch of November football under Kelly after going winless in Charlie Weis’ final two seasons.
“I just like the way our guys understand how to win games in November,” Kelly said.
That confidence certainly wasn’t shared by an anxious stadium that broke out in boos, and an ND faithful that all but sounded the alarm bells as the game drew closer. Those hoping to watch the Irish coast into Palo Alto next weekend on a roll will be afforded no such comfort.
Still, the Irish took home their final game in Notre Dame Stadium, by a margin that was all too close for everyone but the guys on the field and their proud head coach. Let’s find out what else we learned in Saturday’s 16-14 Irish victory.
When they’ll need it most, the Irish likely just lost the power in their power running game.
While he seemed resigned to the fact walking off the field, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to concede the loss of Jonas Gray for the season. When pressed on Alex Flanagan‘s report that Gray suffered a torn ACL, Kelly said there’s no certainty until the doctors take a closer look.
“I was just in the training room with our doctors. They want to get an MRI and get a good look at that,” Kelly said.
After watching the replay of the tackle, there’s every reason to think that Gray, the heart of the Irish power running game, is lost for the year. The senior, who was joined in an emotional embrace on the field before the game with his coach and then his mother, addressed the team in the locker room after the game.
“He talked to the team after. He’s a great young man,” Kelly said. “It’s emotional when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to play your last game or not. It’s still uncertain until we get more medical information, but there’s a lot of emotions in that locker room.”
Last year, it was Robert Hughes who picked up the slack and provided the punch to the running game in November after Armando Allen went down. Without Gray, the Irish don’t have a physical option at tailback, with freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDanniel the only scholarship ball cariers behind Cierre Wood.
If this is it for Gray, he’s certainly done the miraculous in his senior season, and regardless of the extent of his knee injury, earned his way into an NFL training camp next year. His 26-yard touchdown run continued an impressive season and the senior became a touchdown machine, averaging a touchdown run every 9.5 carries this season, the third best ratio in the country this season.
Want to keep the Irish offense under wraps? Dominate the field position battle.
It wasn’t as if the Irish offense played terribly, putting up 417 yards of total offense on a windblown day that wreaked havoc all across the college football world on Saturday. But the Irish were constantly buried by the excellence of Boston College senior punter Ryan Quigley, who punted an astonishing nine times on Saturday (a season-high), with six being downed inside the Irish 20.
The Irish started with the ball inside their own 20 six times. On all six series, they punted the football. Combine that with a severe wind that limited the Irish’s ability to throw the ball and you’ve found a decent recipe for keeping points off the borad.
“The field position obviously was difficult to manage,” Kelly said. “The weather elements out there were difficult. It was very blustery. So we had to manage. We knew what kind of game this was going to end up being, and it certainly turned out this way.”
After struggling for the first half of the year, Ben Turk seemed at home in a punting battle, out-dueling Quigley on length as he averaged 44.0 yards a punt on a season-high eight attempts. Of course, the next step in Turk’s evolution will be distance control, as the junior kicked three touchbacks, two on critical pooch punts when the Irish needed a chance to down the football.
Sure, it made for an ugly day to some fans. But Kelly showed he’s willing to win football games by any means necessary.
The Irish defense rose to the occasion.
There was more than a little grumbling when Kelly eschewed a 4th and 1 attempt for a Turk punt early in the fourth quarter. But with the Irish clinging to a six-point lead, Kelly leaned on his defense to help him win the football game.
“What played into it mostly was that our defense was playing really really well and had been playing on a couple of short fields,” Kelly said. “I felt like we owed them the opportunity to play with a better field position situation.”
The defense rewarded the head coach, holding the Eagles to a three-and-out, before Quigley punted the ball back to the Irish. Then the offense rewarded Kelly by putting together their only scoring drive of the second half, a nine-play, 55-yard series that was capped by a clutch David Ruffer field goal. (Lining up on the same hash-mark and just three yards farther away from the critical field goal he missed against USF, Ruffer drilled this one down the middle.)
Boston College’s offense has been anemic all year, but the Irish still held the Eagles to just 250 total yards, limiting the Eagles running game to just 3.2 yards a carry while harassing Chase Rettig all afternoon. On a day when the Irish leaned on the unit to hold strong, they did just that, minus the two touchdown drives they yielded.
“I think two drives, you know, we got into two third down situations that they converted on the first score and the last score. We got into some dime where they ran the ball and had a couple of plays. But if you look at it, we kicked the ball out of play, started on the 40, got a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and that put them in a good position.”
Putting Bob Diaco‘s defense in a bad position is certainly nothing new. And with what seems like half the Irish defense in sick bay heading into the game — Stephon Tuitt missed the game from illness, Robert Blanton sat out two days this week with the flu, and Harrison Smith spent last night in the infirmary on an IV — the Irish did what they had to do, hold a struggling Eagles offense when the offense couldn’t get on track.
The Irish offense misses Braxston Cave.
True, the Irish are undefeated since Mike Golic stepped in for his good friend Braxston Cave at center. But if you’re looking for proof that the Irish offense misses their stalwart center, take a look at the Irish’s efficiency at the line of scrimmage since Cave left the lineup.
With Cave anchoring the line, the offense went sackless in the passing game throughout October and limited the negative plays, keeping opposing defenses out of the backfield.
Here’s a quick tally of opponents’ tackles-for-loss (with the score in parenthesis) since October 1st:
Purdue (38-10 — W): 4 TFLs — 7.2 YPC
Air Force (59-33 — W): 5 TFLs — 5.7 YPC
USC (17-31 — L): 1 TFL — 4.6 YPC
Navy (56-14 — W): 2 TFL — 5.2 YPC
Wake Forest (24-17 — W): 2 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Maryland (45-21 — W): 10 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Boston College (16-14 — W): 4 TFLs — 4.1 YPC
In the games Golic has taken snaps at center, the Irish have had three of their least efficient running games of the year, while allowing 14 tackles in the backfield, including three sacks against Maryland.
More importantly, the Irish consistently lost first down against the Eagles, a crippling offensive dilemma when you add it to bad field position.
Notre Dame had 34 first downs on the afternoon, running the ball 20 times and throwing it 14. But the tale of the offense’s struggles can be told on their second down opportunities. Only three times did the Irish have a second and short. They had six second and mediums and more troubling, an astonishing 16 second and longs.
Losing first down certainly isn’t on Golic’s head, but the Irish are going to need to get back to the drawing board before the regular season finale against Stanford.
With heavy hearts and emotions everywhere, there’s nothing wrong with a win.
Selective memory doesn’t just plague Notre Dame fans, but it bears mentioning that Notre Dame was a statistically dominant team in their two opening losses this year, and look where that got them. So for all those that spent more time complaining about what the Irish didn’t do on Senior Day than what they actually did do, take a second and enjoy a hard fought victory against one of the school’s most hated rivals.
“Give credit to Boston College now, they played well today,” Kelly said after the game. “Coming in 3-7, this was their bowl game and they played hard.”
There will be plenty of time to bemoan the things that went wrong, but there’s a pleasant evolution to this football team, finding ways to win tight games after only finding ways to lose in the season’s opening two weeks.
On a blustery day, questions arose about Tommy Rees‘ accuracy and decision making, with the sophomore forcing a few throws into coverage and struggling to find open men against an Eagles defense content to drop into coverage. But Kelly would hear none of it, unwilling to critique his quarterback on a difficult day to throw the football.
“We won again,” Kelly responded. “I think he’s 12-2 as a starter. That’s pretty good. I don’t know if you guys know that, 12-2, that’s pretty good as a starter.”
True, Rees missed a wide open Michael Floyd a step long as the senior streaked wide open down the sideline for a sure touchdown. Yet the Irish were able to overcome the emotions of the day, even with players clearly shook up on the sidelines after Gray’s injury, proving a lot about this team’s fortitude.
“Winning is hard in college football. You watch across the landscape there’s only a couple teams undefeated one team, maybe two. It’s hard to win.”
After starting the season 0-2, history wasn’t in the Irish’s corner. Since 1900 the Irish have done it five times, with the 1978 team the only one to rally to a winning record. Now the Irish head into Palo Alto looking to win their ninth game of the regular season, progress by any measure of the word and impressive when you consider the hole the team put itself in.
On a dreary November day with his fan base grumbling after an ugly win, the head coach was rightfully content.
“In November, it’s hard to win unless you’ve got a great mental outlook, and our guys do,” Kelly said. “That’s satisfying as a football coach.”