Pregame Six Pack: Here comes the Green Monster

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Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster has transformed, the left field wall now an ode to the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame. Sound crazy? That’s the least of it.

Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game against Boston College will be different. (From TV viewers, here’s your most recent reminder—the broadcast is up the dial at NBCSN, not on NBC Sports.)

Playing in their hometown, the Eagles will be visitors. They’ll also be dressing at home—loading onto buses after prepping for the game across town in the comfort of their own facilities, a much easier logistical move than trying to jam a football team into the already cramped visitor’s locker room underneath the baseball stadium.

On paper, the Eagles are heavy underdogs, with Notre Dame a more than a two-touchdown favorite. But as we’ve seen in this series time and time again, weird things happen. So with the Frank Leahy Trophy on the line, the Irish get a chance to go for their 10th victory of the season.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Without Daniel Cage, how will the Irish defensive line look?

On the stat sheet, sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage’s impact has been minimal. In nine games, Cage has made 17 total tackles, chipping in three tackles for loss. But for the second straight game, Cage will be held out as he deals with a concussion. And as we saw last week, his departure triggers quite a change for the defensive line.

Starting defensive end Isaac Rochell slid inside to tackle, pairing him with Sheldon Day, who still bounced inside and out. That forced sophomore Andrew Trumbetti into the lineup opposite Romeo Okwara. While Trumbetti made one of the biggest plays of the game with his interception for a touchdown, he also was more than a little bit loose on some run fits.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense struggled at times against Wake Forest, a surprise considering the Demon Deacons relative youth along the offensive line. Against Boston College’s anemic offense, the Eagles will take anything they can get—especially on the ground, head coach Steve Addazio’s preferred method of transportation.

Getting Cage healthy is critical, especially with a game against Stanford looming. So is getting the light to go back on for Jerry Tillery, the freshman seemingly stuck in neutral after a strong start to the season.

Last week we saw rare appearances from Jon Bonner and Grant Blankenship. They’ll likely get another chance to compete. But the Irish are at their best with Rochell lined up across from Okwara on the outside and Tillery and Cage sharing time next to Day.

Cage’s progress for next week is worth monitoring. So is how the Irish play this weekend without their starting nose guard.

 

C.J. Prosise is back in the lineup. Now finding ways to make him productive is the next step. 

Notre Dame’s running game has one of their toughest matchups this season on Saturday night. With Boston College leading the nation in rush defense, it’s foolish to think the Irish want to go toe-to-toe with the Eagles’ front seven.

For as good as the Irish offensive line has played this season, they haven’t been great triggering a north and south rushing attack. The heat will be on guards Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin. They’ll be facing off against a disruptive duo in defensive tackles Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel.

The struggles on the ground aren’t just on the interior of the offensive line. They’re also a product of the learning curve both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams have faced, each seeing life as a college football running back for the first time.

While we’ll likely see DeShone Kizer throwing the football early and often, Notre Dame won’t abandon the ground game completely. But as the Irish try to manufacture a rush offense, expect to see Notre Dame attack the Eagles on the edges.

We’ve seen Prosise be productive running stretch plays or outside zones. He’s also been a weapon lined up in the slot, taking jet sweeps around the edge. The Irish have to feel good about their matchups at offensive tackle with Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. But if they can’t get good support from tight ends Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua blocking, it’ll be tough sledding outside as well as in the trenches.

 

The logistics of substitutions are going to be a challenge for both teams. 

We will see the “peculiarities” of Fenway Park from the onset of Saturday night’s game. Mainly, the fact that both Notre Dame and Boston College will be sharing a sideline.

In many ways it’ll look like the Hockey East showdowns between the Irish and the Eagles on Saturday night, with the long change playing a significant part in substitutions, especially down by the opposite goal line. Depending on the direction, there’s a chance each team will have to send substitutes on a significant run—hitting the field from the opposite side of the 50-yard line as they enter the game in goal line situations. That’s been an area of concern for Brian Kelly this week.

“We had to work a lot on the logistics of getting personnel in and out from the sidelines, which is a little more in-depth than you might think, trying to get your group down there,” Kelly said on Thursday.

The biggest difference is bringing personnel in around the goal lines. Both Kelly and Boston College coach Steve Addazio have already been on conference calls with the officiating crew this week, confirming the ground rules for the evening. And that’s set up a new set of circumstances that’ll sometimes have players sprinting off the field inside the 5-yard line, and then running around the opposing team’s bench, with each team controlling 40 yards between the 5-yard line and the 45.

“We can leave from the 4-yard line to the back of the end zone and then go behind their team bench,” Kelly explained. “We can never go and leave the field from the 5- to the 45. But we can leave from the 4- to the end line and then go back around.”

Confused? Let’s hope the Irish aren’t. Because after seeing Notre Dame struggle with personnel changes on the fly last season against no-huddle attacks, getting the right guys on the field in scoring situations is critical.

 

If the Irish get ahead, it could be another big day for Romeo Okwara. 

Romeo Okwara ranks eighth in the country in sacks with nine. No, that’s not a typo. Okwara’s late surge—five sacks in the past two weeks—has catapulted him into the national picture when it comes to rushing the passer, a sentence nobody expected to read this year (and I certainly didn’t think I’d type).

But Okwara’s great play is coming at the perfect time. And if Boston College’s horrific offense gets forced to play catch up, Okwara could be feasting on walk-on quarterback John Fadule early and often.

The Eagles offensive line has struggled (to be kind). Drilling down a bit farther, ProFootballFocus’s grading system has BC’s five starting offensive linemen as the offense’s five lowest-graded players. Among them are starting tackles Dave Bowen and Aaron Monteiro, who Okwara will spend the evening lining up against.

It’s not ridiculous to think that Okwara could put together another double-digit sack output, especially if the Irish offense scores some early points. That could allow the senior to make an unlikely run at the Notre Dame record books, with Stephon Tuitt (12) and Justin Tuck (13.5) within reach with three games to go.

 

Will Steve Addazio and Don Brown put Boston College’s secondary in one-on-one matchups with Will Fuller? (They shouldn’t.)

When trying to come up with a game plan to contain Notre Dame’s running game and wide receiver Will Fuller, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi essentially threw up his hands during his postgame press conference.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said after the game. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

What you can do is commit multiple defensive backs to containing Fuller, something Wake Forest did as they limited Notre Dame’s All-American candidate to just three catches. But in Boston College’s downhill, stacked-box scheme, the Eagles rely on their secondary to hold their ground, doing so in man coverage with not a lot of help.

That’s likely a recipe for disaster, especially with injuries wreaking havoc on the Boston College secondary.

The Eagles might be finding themselves in a quandary not dissimilar to the one Pitt had. While Boston College’s personnel in the front seven is far superior to Pitt’s, providing help to the back end could erode the rush defense’s superiority, a key piece of the puzzle for the Eagles.

Notre Dame’s big-play ability needs to emerge. The Irish have already scored 11 touchdowns of 50+ yards this season, believed to be a school record.

While the Eagles are the nation’s best statistical defense, big plays have still found a way to derail them. Early in their 24-8 loss to North Carolina State, the Wolfpack hit on a 83-yard touchdown pass. Clemson’s Artavis Scott scored on a 51-yarder on a day that the Tigers racked up 532 yards and 420 through the air.

Fuller already has 12 touchdown catches on the season, needing three more to match his shared school record. He could make some very good progress towards that Saturday night if the Eagles leave him on an island.

 

Saturday night is all about DeShone Kizer’s ability to manage the game and the offense. 

No player faces a bigger test that sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer. With the gameplan likely hoisted onto his shoulders, Kizer will have to be smart with the football, cognizant of the Eagles’ ability to wrack up tackles for loss, and efficient with his opportunities.

Kizer has passed just about every test he’s faced this year. The Eagles defense is another great one, especially a week before heading to Stanford. Schematically, both teams share similarities. Kizer’s success on Saturday will be predicated on his ability to stay aggressive when opportunities present themselves, while also understanding that sometimes the best play he can make is avoiding the negative one.

The downfield passing game should allow Kizer to take some shots. The screen game could also be a big part of the puzzle, especially as the Irish try to loosen up the Eagles front seven. But all of it demands smart play from the quarterback.

Kizer’s shown himself to be a quick study this season. With the nation’s top defense across from him, we’ll see how he stacks up.