And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and former Notre Dame QB Phil Jurkovec

Phil Jurkovec BC
Getty Images
29 Comments

Of the two driving storylines around No. 2 Notre Dame’s visit to Boston College, both look backward, one 27 years and one less than 12 months, but neither David Gordon’s field goal in 1993 nor Phil Jurkovec’s time in South Bend will have an impact on the field Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC). What will? Let’s ask Julian Benbow of the Boston Globe

DF: If I was able to not phrase every question last year as, “AJ Dillon AJ DILLON AJ DILLON AJ DILLON,” then I am confident I can make at least some of this not Phil Jurkovec-centric. Boston College does bring other wrinkles to the conversation. Most intriguing to me, and perhaps an underplayed, first-year Eagles head coach Jeff Hafley — I don’t know if excitement is the right word, but this 5-3 start is certainly more than was expected entering 2020, highlighted by that near-miss against Clemson two weeks ago. I’m asking a vague question here intentionally, to set up my next one … Has there been a perspective shift around the program? Sure, that’s to be expected with any new coach, but how does this one feel legitimate?

JB: Right now, I’m chalking up the new energy to a new coach with a new staff and a different approach, and that’s absolutely part of making a change, right? Now, that also comes with making the right hire, for which you can credit former athletic director Martin Jarmond (now the UCLA athletic director). If there’s a difference, it’s Hafley’s NFL experience. It gives him credibility with players and also guides so much of what they do — from how they run practices to how they style the offense and defense. 

How much of those positive vibes would you say trace to simply being rid of Steve Addazio? Sure, that sounds harsh, but there was considerable rejoicing from former players when Addazio was fired.

By the end of Addazio’s run, the morale was pretty low. It’s funny because when Addazio got to the Heights, he had the fan base behind him. That goodwill could only survive so many middling seasons, a seven-year tenure never rising above 7-6, a record Boston College reached four times under Addazio in his 44-44 stretch. But as much as Addazio was disliked at the end, Hafley has done his part to win over players and fans — especially in a time where he really couldn’t be around alums because of COVID.

Now to the field, where Hafley’s defensive expertise has already paid off, and I note that expertise because it seems to have been the focus of that coaching search, with the former Ohio State defensive coordinator beating out Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea for the gig. The Eagles give up only 24.6 points and 373 yards per game, only 5.55 yards per play. What parts of Boston College’s defense can Notre Dame target? I don’t expect a high-scoring game, but I generally figure the Irish should get into the red zone 4-5 times. How will they get there most efficiently?

Kyren Williams and Ian Book on the ground could give the Eagles defense some trouble. They were having a hard time against the run up until the Clemson game, but they gained confidence after Clemson and Syracuse, giving up a total of 158 rushing yards in the last two weeks, after allowing an average of 165 per week in the first six games.

The defense is obviously better than it was a year ago — it would have been hard to be worse, when it gave up 479 total yards and 32.2 points per game. But it will be interesting to see if the past two weeks were true strides or not.

Offensively, well, it’s time to get to the obvious. JURKOVEC JURKOVEC JURKOVEC JURKOVEC. If/when he throws for a first-quarter touchdown Saturday afternoon, that’s what any and all Notre Dame message board forums will look like, even though Ian Book just beat Clemson. That irrationality aside, Jurkovec has played well this season, fulfilling the many physical gifts that led the Irish to hype him in the first place. What has surprised you about him this year?

That’s the thing, you didn’t really know what to expect. We didn’t get to see him before the season, so we didn’t have much to go on. I think the coolest thing to watch has been the amount of freedom he’s been given by Hafley and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and Jurkovec’s willingness to go for big plays. Everyone knows he has the arm strength, and you can almost see his eyes get big when he sees a shot downfield. He already has a strong relationship with Cignetti, and they’re willing to experiment and find out how to maximize him as a player, even if that includes mistakes on Saturdays.

Douglas chimes in with a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly on Monday that fits right here:
“Phil’s in a different type of offense than the one we were asking him to be part of last year. Remember in high school, he was in a spread offense, truly a spread offense, catch-and-throw. He was in an RPO offense last year. He is in a play-action, six-man, seven-man protection offense this year, so it’s really hard to compare where he is compared to where he was last year, because they are so dissimilar from an offensive perspective.

“What he’s doing this year on film is he’s making plays outside the realm of the offense, which he was very accustomed to doing in high school and when he was here, as well. Outside the pocket, he’s a great scrambler. He can throw on the run. He’s got a strong arm. Great size and he’s a tough kid.”

Zay Flowers BC
Eagles receiver Zay Flowers shouldn’t surprise any opposing defense, but he still routinely slices through them, catching 38 passes for 600 yards and six scores thus far this season, highlighted by six catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh in mid-October. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Jurkovec has a few playmakers at his disposal. Receiver Zay Flowers gashed the Tigers a few times for big plays, tight end Hunter Long is one of the best at his position in the country, and running back David Bailey is a worthy successor to Dillon. But that attack is undone a good bit by the Eagles’ offensive line. Coming into the season, there was much expected of it — four returning starters with post-season ACC honors and 70 career starts. Instead, Boston College averages only 106.6 rushing yards and has suffered 22 sacks through eight games. What has gone so wrong?

They had four returners but they played some musical chairs, so that was an adjustment. They also went from a team that runs the ball 32,910 times per game (a slight exaggeration to make the point) to the second-best passing team in the ACC. So focusing more on pass protection than run blocking was a shift. But again, they feel like they took some steps since the Virginia Tech game. It is absolutely odd looking at the Eagles offense and seeing the line as the weak link. 

That about covers my notes, unless you want to go into a discussion of Anthony Brown’s fit at Oregon. No? Maybe if Saturday becomes a blowout. But it’s expected to be within two touchdowns. Your prediction?

I’m actually allergic to predictions, but if I had to, I’d probably go with Notre Dame. The Eagles’ have a long run of futility against top-25 teams that gets worse against top-5 teams. But it’s a big stage and I think they’ll make it interesting.