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Notre Dame vs. Boston College: Keys to an Irish Win

By · October 22nd, 2009 · 0 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Boston College: Keys to an Irish Win

After suffering a tough loss—the eighth straight—to rival USC, the Irish host Boston College Saturday. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis will earn his pay this week, as navigating the psyche of his team and ensuring they are prepared to play will be a daunting task.

The Boston College losing streak isn’t as lengthy and one-sided as the one to USC, but it certainly isn’t favorable either. Notre Dame has lost six straight to Boston College, including the game in 2002 when the Eagles defeated the number four ranked Irish 14-7 and put an end to their undefeated season.

Perhaps more notable was 1993, when Boston College came to South Bend and defeated the number one ranked Irish team on a last second field goal from David Gordon.

If the six-game losing streak isn’t enough motivation, last year’s 17-0 thrashing in Chestnut Hill should be.

Boston College Version 2009

After a host of years working as an assistant coach, Frank Spaziani now leads the Eagles. Spaziani has a background on the defensive side of the ball and is a steady, deliberate coach.

The Eagles enter Saturday’s contest with the 42nd best AV Ranking and a 5-2 record against the 97th most difficult strength of schedule. The five wins have come against Northeastern, Kent State, Wake Forest (in overtime) and Florida State. The two losses have been routes at the hands of Clemson and Virginia Tech.

The Eagles are disciplined, and commit very few penalties. This is, in no small part, due to the wealth of upperclassmen that has become a staple at Boston College. Only seven underclassmen start for Spaziani, three of which are freshmen.


In a nutshell, the Eagle offense takes advantages of scoring opportunities and can run the football.

The offense is very efficient in the red zone, ranking in the top ten in red zone efficiency (3) and red zone touchdown efficiency (10). However, the Eagles struggle on third down converting on 32.3 percent (102).

This excellent red zone offense has led to over 30 points per game despite not moving the ball particularly well. While the Eagle offense only averages 326 yards per game, they have generated 27 touchdowns (compared to 453 yards per game and 23 touchdowns for the Irish) and typically score about a touchdown more than their defensive opposition allows.

It’s no secret that offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill wants to run the ball. Nearly 60 percent of called plays are runs, and the ground game is the strength of the offense despite fairly mediocre numbers

The Eagles average 155.3 yards per game on the ground (51), gaining 4.2 per carry (54), a value that climbs to 4.7 without sacks. Three backs share the load as Montel Harris, Josh Haden and Rolandan Finch all have over 25 carries. The workhorse, however, is Harris, with 134 carries for 807 yards (5.6 yards per rush) and 12 touchdowns.

The passing offense is not as impressive.

Four quarterbacks have seen significant action, but former minor league baseball player Dave Shinskie is the leader of the group in his first year starting. As the saying goes, if you don’t have one quarterback, you don’t have any.

The front five have done a decent job protecting the passer, allowing only 11 sacks on the year (16 pass attempts per sack) facing some decent pass rushing teams.

Despite this protection, the Eagle quarterbacks haven’t played with a high level of efficiency. The Boston College signal callers have completed 51.1 percent of their passes (113) for only 6.8 yards per attempt (77).

The bright spot is the vertical passing game. The Eagles enter Saturday’s contest averaging 13.3 yards per completion (25) largely due to the running game and the capability to execute play-action. When Tranquill decides to go deep it is usually to Colin Larmond (21.6 yards per reception) but no receiver has been overly productive as Rich Gunnell leads the group with only 22 receptions.

These numbers also come with an asterisk as Boston College hasn’t faced a murderer’s row of defensive teams.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Eagle offense.

Boston College Offensive Efficiency

[table id=107 /]

Boston College Total Offense

[table id=108 /]

Boston College Rushing Offense

[table id=109 /]

Boston College Passing Offense

[table id=110 /]


Gone is the core of the Boston College defensive line as B. J. Raji (eighth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft) and Ron Brace (40th overall) departed for greener pastures.

What remains is an above average defense that makes opposing offenses work for yards and doesn’t give up big plays. The natural corollary is good third down defense (29.6 percent conversion rate, 11th rank) and excellent efficiency on a short field (12th ranked red zone touchdown efficiency).

Moreover, the Eagle defense allows about a touchdown less per game than their offensive competition averages and has forced 14 turnovers in seven games.

The front seven for Boston College are very active, largely to make up for size deficiencies. The Eagle defensive line average less than 6-4 and 262 pounds while the starting linebackers average less than 6-2 and 230 pounds. Freshman linebacker Luke Keuchly leads this undersized front seven, and the team, with 69 tackles (almost 10 per game) and epitomizes the blue-collar work ethic of the defensive unit.

Despite the lack of size in the front seven, the Eagle defense is fairly stout against the run allowing only 117.1 yards per game (39) and 3.2 yards per carry (29), while largely outperforming their offensive competition.

The Eagles have had less success against the pass where they rank worse than 30th in every meaningful statistical category. However, as note above, they don’t surrender many long plays in the passing game allowing only 10.9 yards per completion (32).

Additionally, Boston College doesn’t have a very good pass rush. Only half of the 10 sacks (86) have come from the front four and the unit as a whole is only registering one quarterback sack per 22.3 attempts (91). In other words, they typically have to blitz to generate pressure.

To be fair, Boston College is routinely holding the opposing passing offenses to less than they are accustomed. But most of this is due to the bend-but-don’t-break style of play.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Eagle defense.

Boston College Defensive Efficiency

[table id=111 /]

Boston College Total Defense

[table id=112 /]

Boston College Rushing Defense

[table id=113 /]

Boston College Passing Defense

[table id=114 /]


The Eagle offense isn’t flashy, but they do take advantage of scoring opportunities and attack defenses on the ground. Boston College fields an offensive unit with very average rankings that has played against very mediocre competition, but in this game previous results usually mean little.

The Irish defense must be concerned with a team that can grind it out with the running game, and then play-action and stretch the field. If the game against USC proved anything, it’s that the secondary is extremely vulnerable when the front seven has to sell-out to stop the run.

On defense the Eagles look a lot like last year minus two excellent interior defensive linemen. Kuechly and company play solid, base defense, keep everything in front, and force opposing offenses to work for every yard. This goes hand in hand with strong third down and red zone defense, as well as their 4.8 yard per play average (31).

On paper the Irish are much more talented and should have the edge, even defensively, but it would be a mistake to underestimate this team.


  1. Don’t force it. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw four interceptions in Chestnut Hill last year. Then the defensive coordinator, Spaziani was content to sit back, play soft zone, and rely on the pass rush of his interior defensive line. Gone are Raji and Brace, but the defensive modus operandi hasn’t changed much. Clausen will need to be patient and use his check-downs to efficiently and methodically move the ball. Execution trumps explosive plays in this contest.
  2. Beware of Luke. Similar to Greg Jones of Michigan State, Kuechly is a tackling machine. The Eagle linebackers are small, but active. The agility of the Eagle linebacker corps will test the Irish front five who need to be effective engaging and finishing blocks down the field.
  3. Lean on them, and then pounce. The front five own a decided size advantage in this contest. Boston College may rotate Nick Rossi and Damik Scafe to mitigate this problem, but the starting front four average 262 pounds. This gives the Irish more than a 50 pound per man advantage along the offensive line. Weis must use this advantage to get the running game on track, then utilize the rarely used play-action passing game to go over the top.


  1. Watch it on the right. The front five for Boston College feature experience and size on the right side. Between center Matt Tennant, guard Thomas Claiborne, and tackle Rich Lapham, the right side of the Eagle offensive line averages 6-5 and almost 313 pounds. When a few short yards are needed, this is likely where Tranquill will go. Co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta must be aware of this and play to the tendency.
  2. Force them to be one-dimensional. By far, the strength of the Eagle offense is the ground game. But as Virginia Tech proved, take away the run, and there is little left. Tenuta must take away this strength, force Boston College to be one-dimensional, and apply pressure on Shinskie when obvious passing downs arrive. The Eagles don’t have the athleticism at quarterback or wide receiver of USC, and selling out on the run shouldn’t be as risky of a proposition.
  3. Get off the field. To put it simply, Boston College is not good on third down. But the same was true with USC, and they converted nearly half of their opportunities including two big gains on third and one. The third down defensive package must be better conceived to help this unit get off the field. Crisp tackling would be a good start.


The Eagles aren’t overly impressive. Five wins have come against weak foes and virtually every area on both sides of the ball is very average. If the Irish play within themselves, this game won’t be close. But if the Irish defense plays down to their competition, this game could again be decided in the final moments.

And that is really where this game will be won or lost. Clausen and the offense face an above average defense, but they should score plenty of points, even without Floyd and (potentially) Parris.

The run defense has improved considerably over the past few games and should be up for the challenge. But this is only helpful if the secondary doesn’t turn wide receivers loose à la last week’s game against USC.

Perhaps most importantly, the Irish cannot come out flat. Boston College has a 39 point first quarter scoring deficit, largely due to the one-sided opening quarter of their two losses.

The psyche of the Irish is important and it’s a rivalry game, Boston College will be juiced. Notre Dame needs to put last week to bed, not let it linger, and take care of business early and often. One losing streak may be intact, the other shouldn’t be allowed to continue.



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