Things To Learn: Recovery, not Jurkovec, the correct narrative for Notre Dame at Boston College

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2020 is not 1993. Phil Jurkovec is not David Gordon. And the former Notre Dame quarterback has nothing to prove against the No. 2 Irish, nor vice versa.

None of the players in question this weekend were even born when No. 16 Boston College crushed Notre Dame’s 1993 title hopes with a last-second field goal. No, not even sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford. In fact, Irish fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg professed complete ignorance of the moment this week, perhaps hard to fathom until realizing many of these players are not interested in Notre Dame until their junior years of high school, at which point their focus is on creating their own history.

There is one similarity between 1993 and 2020, though, aside from the Irish facing the Eagles the week immediately following an upset of the No. 1 team in the country: Boston College is, at the very least, decent.

“That BC team that Notre Dame played (in 1993), it was a nationally-ranked team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday when asked how much he has discussed 27 years ago this week. “It was a really good football team. This is a really good football team we’re playing, so it matters who you’re playing. … 

“We talk about much more in terms of how we’re preparing for a team that is a really good football team and certainly that you’re the No. 2 team in the country, you have a target on your back. That’s really much more relevant than the historical significance of the game, and if they understand that, then you’re going to get the preparation that you need.”

Defensibly, there may be an inclination for Notre Dame to relax a bit. It just beat Clemson, after all. How hard could Boston College possibly be? Maybe not advisable, it is a defensible thought process.

“The biggest hurdle would be for everybody, everyone on the team to be in the same boat and make sure everyone is focused on Boston College,” senior linebacker Drew White said Tuesday. “Judging by today’s practice I would say it’s pretty fair to say everyone’s in that boat. We came out and had a lot of good energy. People were flying around. The biggest hurdle would just to focus on this week and focus on Boston College.”

The challenge — err, the hurdle for Kelly’s staff is to mitigate the time needed to establish that focus. In one way, the exhaustion of a stressful, 47-40 double-overtime victory has helped their cause. The Irish eased up in practice to start the week, knowing last weekend was the most physical of the season.

“It was a different week, but it was focused, it was intentional,” Kelly said. “Our player load per minute was equal to last week’s player load per minute. I pulled back on the volume, which I believe was the right thing to do as we got ourselves back from a very physical game. [Thursday], we’ll have our fastest practice, because I think I was very prudent in the way that we went about our schedule on Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Notre Dame expected that physicality against the Tigers. There was a reason they were No. 1. So the Irish planned for it for weeks — “We didn’t expend a lot of energy the two weeks prior.” Kelly rattled off senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish’s snap counts to drive home the point: 18 at Pittsburgh, 29 at Georgia Tech. No wonder he was fresh enough to record three tackles and penetrate Clemson’s offensive line far more often than that, setting the tone on the first drive by blowing up the protection on third-and-one to gift junior linebacker Shayne Simon a pathway into the backfield for a drive-stopping tackle.

Hinish’s October was so light partly because of a defensive rotation discussed around here before, including 10 linemen playing against Clemson, and partly because Notre Dame’s offense held onto the ball, intentionally so. One second shy of 41 minutes of possession against the Panthers, nearly 37 minutes against the Wreck, more than 34 minutes per game. Thus, Pittsburgh ran only 53 plays, Georgia Tech just 59. For comparison: The Tigers ran 77 plays, with only six coming in overtimes.

Kyren Williams Clemson
Kyren Williams‘ success shows itself in highlights, particularly his game-opening 65-yard touchdown against then-No. 1 Clemson, but Williams also provides time to recover for Notre Dame’s defense, keeping its legs fresh in a long season. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

Look for the Irish to return to that ball-control offense Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC), as much to give its defense more time to recover from last week as to limit Boston College’s explosiveness.

Notre Dame should not have trouble moving the ball against the Eagles no matter how it chooses to, but Jeff Hafley’s first Chestnut Hill defense is most susceptible against the run. Remove its last two weeks, and Boston College gives up 165 rushing yards per game. That may seem selective, but Syracuse (52 yards) is simply that bad and Clemson (106 yards) is struggling to create holes no matter who it plays against.

With that advantage, the Irish can also limit Jurkovec’s deep shots to star receiver Zay Flowers. Kelly said much of Notre Dame’s defense will key on Flowers, the natural effect of a receiver averaging nearly 16 yards per catch with six touchdowns through eight games.

“He is separate. BC has other good players, he’s a great player,” Kelly said. “He separates himself from the pack that way and BC knows that. They’re trying to utilize him in a manner that he’s touching the ball as many times as he can.

“Having said that, it allows you to focus on him in crucial situations and create a game plan that really can focus on putting guys in position that can leverage him.”

If Kelly sounds more worried about Flowers than Jurkovec, that is not meant as an insult to the former Irish passer. It is simply the reality of Flowers’ impact.

Only those off the field see this game as about Jurkovec. To the teams, his transfer was not all that shocking. Of the top-11 quarterbacks in his recruiting class, at least five transferred before their junior seasons. Jurkovec facing Notre Dame this quickly makes for an easy narrative, but little more.

When he said this week that he considered changing positions before he decided to transfer, two thoughts come to mind. First, what position? Not fast enough to be a receiver, Jurkovec would need to add a good amount of bulk to his frame to be a tight end, but the athleticism inherent to his preps basketball career suggests the position could fit.

Second, he really wanted to play. With Ian Book around to set Irish records in 2020, Jurkovec simply was not going to in South Bend.

“Phil is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He wanted to play. …

“At the end of the day, whatever the narratives are, he’s a competitive kid that wanted to play, and he wasn’t going to play this year in front of Ian Book. That’s kind of the bottom line as it relates to where he was in our program. He was competitive. He was doing the things we asked him to do, but he wasn’t going to start in front of Ian Book.”

Jurkovec starts now, still wearing a gold helmet, and he is off to an impressive start, albeit only 5-3. On a 62.1 percent completion rate, he is throwing for 260.4 yards per game with 15 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. Notre Dame’s defenders universally spoke of Jurkovec’s size and ability to make plays. As his mechanics have quickly improved, his natural arm strength has revealed itself once again.

“He’s a gunslinger,” Simon said. “Phil loves the deep ball. He is trying to make plays, and he’s a big-bodied quarterback, so he’ll try to escape, get out of the pocket, be creative. Phil has the athletic ability, he played basketball, so he is obviously athletic. He’ll make plays. That’s what we see most out of him. He’s a baller.”

The key Saturday afternoon will not be Jurkovec’s ability, but if the Irish defense cannot find some juice in its legs just a week after its biggest game of the season, then Jurkovec’s success could end up as a cautionary tale that burned Notre Dame.

It is more likely Book and sophomore running back Kyren Williams simply keep that opportunity away.