Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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There were no style points rewarded, but in the end the Irish came out victorious. As Boston College freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie’s pass hit linebacker Brian Smith in the chest, Notre Dame won another football game that was too close for comfort, and left many Irish fans scratching their head, wondering what — if any — positives they can take out of the hard fought victory.

Still, the Irish are 5-2, and put to an end a streak of six losses to Boston College. While the Eagles’ defensive game plan and excellent special teams kept Notre Dame’s offense in tough situations, the Irish did what it had to do to win 20-16. That included forcing five turnovers — two from running back Montell Harris, who had yet to cough the ball up all season — and three interceptions by the besieged Irish passing defense. The Irish shut down the Eagles’ running attack, holding Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, and constantly won the battle on first down.

Last week, a common refrain was that there are no such things as moral victories. If that is the case, then there is no such thing as bad wins, either. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned from the 20-16 win over Boston College.

1) Notre Dame can win ugly.

With the score 3-2 at the end of the first quarter, it was apparent that this was going to be an ugly football game. Boston College’s ability to absolutely dominate the field position battle and refusal to play tight coverage on Notre Dame’s receivers meant that they were willing to give Notre Dame 6 yards a play, if only to prevent them from taking 60. For the most part, Clausen and the Irish offense obliged, constantly throwing quick hitches and comebacks, and settling for 1-on-1 plays on the perimeter. Clausen spread the ball to seven different teammates, including the first two catches of Roby Toma’s career. BC focused their defensive game plan on stopping Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate. They achieved half of their goal.

No one will call this one of Notre Dame’s better performances, but if anything it was admirable in its workman-like traits. The Irish never wavered from their game plan. They ran the ball effectively with Armando Allen going for just under 5 yards per carry, and took what the defense gave them. Even if they didn’t play well, they still won the football game. Good teams win when they don’t have their best. I’m not ready to say Notre Dame’s a good team, but this certainly was a win that good teams get.

2) Notre Dame avoided the biggest pothole of the season.

There’s was no bigger trap game this season than today’s tilt against the Eagles, and secretly I’m sure the coaching staff is absolutely relieved they walked away with a win. Just think about all the things stacked up against Notre Dame. Not only did the Irish lose a soul-crushing game to USC last week, but there was a bizarre amount of mutual respect and love being shared between two programs that absolutely hate each other. Notre Dame and Charlie Weis’ respect for Mark Herzlich was one of the under-reported stories of the year, but it was just plain weird seeing an All-American linebacker for Boston College being presented a Notre Dame game jersey right before kickoff. These are the guys that have trashed Notre Dame locker rooms, have torn up pieces of the field, have done every single thing you could imagine to poke and prod — and recently dominate — a team that should be their superior.  If you’re Notre Dame, you’ve got to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and if Notre Dame can get by a mediocre Washington State team in San Antonio next week, they’ll get Michael Floyd back and prepare to unleash some offensive firepower.

3) Notre Dame might have another Heisman contender

I’m all for promoting what Jimmy Clausen is doing out on the field this season, but it’s time to take a hard look at Golden Tate and ask why he’s not in the Heisman Trophy discussion. He’s got 847 receiving yards through 7 games, and is averaging nearly 7.5 catches per game and over 16 yards per catch. He’s also doing most of this damage since Michael Floyd went down, when defensive coordinators are trying everything they can to stopping #23. He was in the top 6 for yards on the season before his game today, and with no front-runner stepping forward to seize the award, why not mention Notre Dame’s most explosive weapon. His three consecutive 100 yard games are the first time a Notre Dame receiver has done that since Derrick Mayes in 1995, and while his numbers certainly warrant a place in the discussion, his chances might actually be hurt by having another teammate share the spotlight with him.

4) The defense still hasn’t figured it out.

While the Irish limited Boston College to just 349 yards and 14 offensive points, this is still a defense that is struggling mightily. How can a team continue to give up such gigantic chunks of yardage through the air? The Irish gave up 10 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which is just unacceptable any way you look at it. Rich Gunnell took his turn decimating the Irish secondary, making 10 catches for 179 yards. Not that he should feel special, because every week a different character lights up the ND secondary with big plays. Check out the guys that have either put up 90 yards receiving or gone for 20+ yards per catch:

Gunnell, BC: 179 yards — 17.9 per catch
Larmond, BC: 61 yards — 20.3 per catch
McCoy, USC: 153 yards — 30.6 per catch
Williams, USC: 108 yards — 27 per catch
Kearse, UW: 94 yards — 11.8 per catch
Goodwin, UW: 65 yards — 21.7 per catch
Johnson, UW: 59 yards — 29.5 per catch
Smith, Purdue: 136 yards — 12.4 per catch
Taylor, Purdue: 38 yards — 38.0 per catch
Valentin, Purdue: 36 yards — 36.0 per catch
Dell, MSU: 121 yards — 20.2 per catch

I’m running out of things to say about this Irish pass defense. Even with an incredible win rate on first down, they still managed to let freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie throw for 279 yards, and if it weren’t for 3 gift interceptions, he’d have had plenty more opportunities. Right now, the secondary is playing with zero confidence, and a promising talent like Harrison Smith looks absolutely clueless out there.

I’m not going to say that this defense didn’t improve, because it’s obvious that they did this week. Sergio Brown looked good playing free safety, and his forced fumble was just another big play he’s made in his limited time on the field. Plus, anytime you can force five turnovers and hold a team to 2.4 yards per carry you’re doing something right. But this defense makes it so very hard on itself when it gives up over 200 yards on explosive plays, and it needs to figure out a way to make an offense beat them, as opposed to beating themselves.

5) Time to reevaluate the specialists.

Ben Turk should feel relieved tonight. He was horrendous punting the ball, managing only a long of 38 yards and averaged a shade under 32 yards a punt. That’s a bad day for a high schooler, let alone a guy you burned a redshirt year on. I love the fact that Turk can bench press 400+ pounds, but if your best punts are low line drives that only end up going 35 yards, maybe it’s time to put the barbells down and start kicking more footballs. Likewise, the story of dorm football player turned Irish kickoff man David Ruffer is a nice one, but if Notre Dame is going to rely on a kicker that can only put it onto the opponents 10 yard-line off the tee, then they’re in trouble. Way too often today the field was flipped in Boston College’s favor, and it’s a big reason why BC nearly won a football game where they lost the turnover battle 5-0. It’s time to see if Eric Maust has anything left in his leg, and to see if placekicker Nick Tausch or Brandon Walker can do better on kickoffs.