Boston College - Notre Dame Preview
The Boston College Eagles will renew their budding rivalry with Notre Dame again this week in South Bend. The teams will enter Saturday's game on very divergent paths. The Irish will be coming off a gigantic win at Florida State, while the Eagles will limp into South Bend still stinging from an excruciating overtime loss at Pittsburgh. To say the least, this will be a huge game for both teams. If the Irish can defeat BC, they will almost certainly be 11-0 heading into their final regular season game at USC on November 30th (the Irish play Navy and Rutgers before facing the Trojans). For 4-3 Boston College, a win over Notre Dame would put them in excellent position to receive a fourth consecutive bowl invitation.
On paper, Notre Dame is not nearly as impressive as their record. In fact, they are probably the worst 6th ranked team in college football history at this point in the season. They rank 109th in the nation in total offense, averaging a paltry 313 yards per game. On defense, the Irish are ranked in the middle of the pack (51st) against the pass, surrendering 212 yards per game through the air. The Irish have been outpunted and outkicked by their opponents with kicker Nick Setta making only 10 of 20 field goals. Notre Dame has even fumbled more than their opponents, though the Irish have been fortunate to have lost only 7 of 13 fumbles while their opponents have lost 10 of 11. Notre Dame opponents have more first downs and more sacks. Notre Dame has been outgained (total net yards) by five of eight opponents including four games when the opponent had 90 or more total yards than the Irish. Most importantly for BC fans, Pittsburgh dominated Notre Dame, outgaining them by 217 total yards. The Eagles, by contrast, outgained Pitt by 15 yards.
Still, a team cannot be 8-0 without doing some things well. The Irish run defense has been outstanding, allowing opponents only 2.5 yards per carry for the season. Notre Dame has also turned opponent turnovers into points better than anyone. The Irish are +12 in turnovers for the season and have converted those turnovers into 95 points. The uncanny ability to convert opponent miscues into points, great coaching by Tyrone Willingham and a ton of lucky breaks has been the recipe for success for the Irish in 2002. Here is see how the game stacks up:
When BC passes
Brian St. Pierre will face one of the best cornerback tandems in the country this week as they go up against Senior Shane Walton and Junior Vontez Duff. Walton already has six interceptions this season along with seven passes broken up and 40 tackles. Duff has added an interception, two fumble recoveries, a blocked kick and a punt return for a touchdown. The Irish are solid at safety as well with Seniors Glenn Earl and Jerome Sapp. Sapp, who always seems to be around the ball, has contributed with 42 tackles, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. The Irish pass rush has produced 24 sacks this season, including an eight sack performance against Pittsburgh. Defensive end Ryan Roberts leads Notre Dame with six sacks and pass rush specialist Justin Tuck has added four. BC has allowed only seven sacks all season (1.0 per game).
As was the case last week, the Eagles will be facing a strong run defense and will therefore need to pass effectively to be successful. The secondary has been the number one key in Notre Dame's success this season because of their ability to force turnovers. Brian St. Pierre simply cannot make the same mistakes that he did against Virginia Tech. The Eagles will also need wideouts Jamal Burke and Keith Hemmings to take their game to the next level. The duo has caught only 47 passes for 661 yards and four touchdowns this season. St. Pierre will also have an option in Sophomore Grant Adams (20 catches, 247 yards, 3 TD's). BC will need to get more production from the tight ends, an option that would help minimize the impact of Walton and allow the offense some short gains if the running game is ineffective. Most importantly, St. Pierre must make good decisions in the red zone. The Eagles have averaged only 4.3 points per red zone trip this season as compared to 5.3 points per red zone trip for their opponents.
Advantage: Notre Dame
When BC Runs
Like Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, Notre Dame boasts a tough run defense that does not surrender many yards or give up big running plays. Notre Dame's top defensive player is Senior Courtney Watson, a Butkus Award Semi-finalist. Watson leads the Irish in tackles with 63 despite missing two games. Joining Watson at linebacker are a pair of first year starters, Juniors Mike Goolsby and Derek Curry. Goolsby has made 45 tackles and leads the team with nine tackles for lost yardage. The Notre Dame defensive line has also been solid. The Irish defensive front four, which averages 6'3" and 284 pounds, should provide a great test for BC's big offensive line. The top run stoppers among this group are senior end Ryan Roberts and 300 pound senior nose guard Cedric Hilliard, each with 26 tackles.
This could be the most interesting matchup of the game and the most pivotal because it matches BC's strength against Notre Dame's strength. Derrick Knight, though clearly not as explosive as William Green, has been much more consistent in gaining yardage on every play. The best case scenario for BC would be to control the ball with a traditional "four yards and a cloud of dust" ground game. That type of offense would allow BC's young and bruised defense to stay off the field. The defense played well last week against Pitt, but as it turned out, was forced to play one series too many. Notre Dame has been tough to run against, but Derrick Knight and BC's excellent offense line have performed well against some of the nation's best front sevens. Knight rushed for 6.3 yards per carry against a Virginia Tech defense that is allowing only 1.6 yards per rush and 5.0 yards per carry against a Pitt defense that was surrendering only 3.0 yards per run going into last week's game. However, Notre Dame has been able to hold most of its opponents well under their season rushing averages. If BC can maintain a consistent passing attack and not allow Notre Dame to sit on the run, Derrick Knight may have the breakout game that many of us have been waiting for.
Advantage: Boston College
When Notre Dame Passes
Many words come to mind to describe Notre Dame's pass offense ... putrid, punchless, pathetic. And that's just the P's. The Irish rank 102nd in the nation in passing yardage per game. Quarterback Carlyle Holiday currently ranks 87th in the nation in passing efficiency. The Junior has completed only 51% of his passes for 956 yards, 4 TD's and 2 INT's. However, to his credit, he has not made many mistakes. Notre Dame's biggest receiving threat is former quarterback turned wideout Arnaz Battle. Battle has caught 32 passes for 467 yards and has shown the ability to make a big play as exemplified by the 60-yard touchdown pass that he hauled in with a minute left to beat Michigan State on September 21st and the 65-yard touchdown reception from Holiday last week in Tallahassee. Holiday's other top target is Junior wide receiver Omar Jenkins (20 catches, 297 yards). The Irish also have a potential weapon in 6'6" 259 pound tight end Gary Godsey who has been very quiet so far this season (11 catches, 98 yards).
This is a matchup that the Eagles should feel very good about. The Eagles are ranked 7th nationally in pass defense, surrendering only 157 yards per game. However, much of that success came with the aid of the pass rush and run stopping capabilities of Antonio Garay and Doug Goodwin. Without their two best defensive linemen, the pressure on the BC secondary will be magnified. Good news comes in the fact that Irish are susceptible to the pass rush as opponents have sacked Notre Dame quarterbacks 26 times so far in 2002. It is critical that the Eagles stop the run and not allow Notre Dame too many 2nd and short and 3rd and short opportunities. Even the worst passing offense can be very effective if it faces 2nd down and 2 situations all day long.
Advantage: Boston College
When Notre Dame Runs
Though Notre Dame's running game is hardly on par with past Top Ten opponents Miami and Virginia Tech, it has been very effective in chewing up yardage and making plays at critical times. Sophomore Ryan Grant seems to be getting better every week and is now averaging 101 yards per game, good for 35th best in Division 1A. The Notre Dame offensive line is very experienced to say the least. All five offensive linemen are Seniors, led by 6'3" 298 pound center Jeff Faine and 6'6" 305 pound left tackle Jordan Black. Faine, a preseason first team All American, is a three year starter and Black is a four year starter.
If this game had been played a month ago with Antonio Garay and Doug Goodwin in the lineup, I would have given a huge edge to the Eagles. Unfortunately, the Eagle defense is simply not the same without these two players, especially Garay. Over the past two years, the BC defense has surrendered an average of 123 rushing yards per game (298 total yards) in games that Garay has started and finished. In games which Garay has missed or has been removed from because of injury, the Eagles defense has allowed an average of 233 rushing yards (386 total yards). Even more shocking is the opponent's yards per carry average -- 3.1 with Garay in the lineup, 4.5 without. On a positive note, Sophomore Tim Bulman has played very well, with 31 tackles, 6 of which have been for lost yardage. The linebackers have been solid as well with Josh Ott and Vinny Ciurciu combining for 114 tackles.
Advantage: Notre Dame
Notre Dame's special teams have been solid but are nothing, well, special. Kicker Nick Setta, who is on the Lou Groza Award Watch List, has hardly been worth watching. The Senior kicker has been unsuccessful on half of his 20 field goals this season and has missed 9 of his last 13 attempts. Senior Punter Joey Hildbold has had a solid career for the Irish and moved up to 4th on Notre Dame's all-time average per punt list last week. He is now one one-hundredth of a yard ahead of a 1930's punter named Bill Shakespeare (I kiddeth you not). Vontez Duff has averaged a decent 11.3 yards per punt return, but most of that yardage is due to one 76-yard touchdown return. Duff has been excellent on kickoff returns, averaging 25.3 yards, good enough for 19th best in the nation. Arnaz Battle has also returned kicks for the Irish, averaging 22.4 yards per return. The Irish have also been solid on kickoff and punt return coverage.
The Eagles have been very good on punt returns (Jamal Burke, 13 yards/return) and kickoff returns (Will Blackmon, 23.2 yards/return) as well as on kick coverage. On the other hand, punter Kevin McMyler has not lived up to his excellent 2001 season and kicker Sandro Sciortino missed two field goals last week against Pittsburgh. Hopefully, Sciortino will be able to forget last week's overtime miss against Pittsburgh as he may be called on to play the role of David Gordon late in the game. Special teams will be critical in this game and either team is capable of making big plays in this department.
Clearly, the number one key for Boston College will be to minimize turnovers. Notre Dame has been lethal when it comes to converting interceptions and fumbles into points and BC simply cannot allow that to continue. Nearly half of Notre Dame's points this season (95 of 192) have come after opponent turnovers. Long, sustained drives for Notre Dame have been few and far between this season. In fact, the Irish have only 11 touchdowns in eight games that have not come as a result of a turnover or a punt return for a touchdown. The M.O. for BC in important national television games has been to make huge mistakes early and dig themselves a hole by the end of the first quarter. If BC allows Notre Dame a short field, the Irish could blow them out. As such, it will be crucial to get ahead early. If BC gets behind by more than a touchdown, Notre Dame will be able to pound the young BC defensive line with Ryan Grant and their huge offensive line. Moreover, a big deficit would take BC's greatest weapon, Derrick Knight, out of the mix early. On the other hand, if BC can get out to a fast start and force Notre Dame to pass, good things are likely to happen for the Eagles who would love to put the game on Carlyle Holiday's shoulders. Because points on offense will be hard to come by, special teams will likely play a huge role. Both teams have had problems with their kicking game, but have the potential to be explosive on kick returns. The Eagles must contain the dangerous Vontez Duff and Arnaz Battle on kickoffs and punts.
Logic tells me that the Eagles will have a hard time recovering from last week's devastating loss to Pittsburgh, a game that was all but won with a minute left. Logic also tells me that there is no way that BC's inexperienced Sophomores and Freshman can fill the enormous voids left by BC's two best players, Antonio Garay and Doug Goodwin, especially in an environment as intimidating as Notre Dame Stadium. Still, my gut tells me that the Eagles will come up with some magic on the South Bend turf. I can't help but feel a little bit of déjà vu knowing that Notre Dame comes into the BC game undefeated and coming off an upset win over Florida State as was the case on that magical day back in November of 1993. I am also confident that Notre Dame cannot possibly continue to get the endless string of breaks as they have all year. Despite the hype, Notre Dame is essentially a 4-4 team trapped in an 8-0 team's body. I am going to put my 7-0 record (picking BC games) on the proverbial line and predict that the Eagles will take advantage of a big game by Derrick Knight to upset the Irish on Saturday. To all my Notre Dame visitors, let the insults begin.
Final Score: Boston College 17 Notre Dame 16